Dam(o)n Yankees: Why Johnny Will Come Marching Home to the Bronx

Lewie PollisSenior Analyst IIIJanuary 22, 2010

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 06:  Johnny Damon #18 of the New York Yankees waves to the crowd during the New York Yankees World Series Victory Celebration at City Hall on November 6, 2009 in New York, New York.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It’s been a busy offseason in the Bronx.

After buying, I mean making the necessary moves to win, the World Series last year, the Yankees have not been content to rest on their laurels this winter.

In the first blockbuster trade of the offseason, the Bombers added Curtis Granderson in a salary dump deal with Detroit. Two weeks later, they swapped an excess outfield prospect for Javier Vazquez, who went from ace of the deepest rotation in the game to the best fourth starter in baseball.

On top of that, they re-signed Andy Pettitte and plugged on-base machine Nick Johnson into the DH hole.

At this point, perhaps the only part of the Yankees’ roster that doesn’t look like part of an All-Star team is left field.

The obvious weak link in a lineup full of Wheaties box models, Brett Gardner, the assumed heir to the left-field throne, hit just three home runs with a .724 OPS in 108 big-league games last season.

That’s not to say Gardner’s no good; with a fantastic glove (15.4 UZR/150 in 2009) and good speed (26 SBs), Gardner would be a serviceable outfielder for many teams, and a building block for the future for any number of rebuilding clubs. But that’s not enough to keep a job in New York.

Like them or not, there’s no denying that the Yankees have high standards and won’t hesitate to open their wallets in the name of pursuing excellence.

Owner George Steinbrenner made no attempt to hide his frustration (to put it kindly) with the championship drought his team had been plagued with since 2000. And even if he hadn’t talked, his cash flow would have articulated the message quite clearly; in the nine years between the Yankees’ 26th and 27th World Series wins, they burned through $1.6 billion in player salaries.

Gardner is the incumbent left fielder solely because the 2009 starter, Johnny Damon, priced himself out of even the Bombers’ budget with a ridiculous contract demand of two years and $26 million. The Yankees ended negotiations when Damon refused to consider a salary in the ballpark of $7MM a year (after the fact, Damon magnanimously announced that he would have signed for just $20MM).

Brian Cashman and Co. are hoping to find a better replacement before Opening Day, but finding a suitable alternative to Gardner will be easier said than done. The remaining free agents are all second-rate at best, and after finally constructing an adequate façade for a farm system that has been all but fruitless since the mid-90’s, another trade is unlikely.

Damon is in a bit of a pickle as well. Simply put, if Damon wants a job in 2010, he’ll have to significantly reduce his asking price. Scott Boras can do many things, but he cannot change the fundamental laws of supply and demand.

His exorbitant price tag scared off the rest of the league, and his potential suitors have all enacted their Plan Bs. Even if he were to hold a press conference today announcing a new attitude of open-mindedness for his negotiations, it’s unlikely he would be able to find a deal comparable to the one he rejected from New York. 

Of course, there is one team that would still be able to pony up for Damon’s services: the Yankees. Rumors that they can’t do any more big shopping this winter are absurd; people said the same thing last year before they swooped in and grabbed Mark Teixeira. And on top of that, the difference between the Yankees’ revenue and payroll is the highest in all of baseball.

Who else is left? The Giants have already moved on and signed Mark DeRosa instead. The Cardinals surprised absolutely no one by re-upping Matt Holliday; the Mets inked their top target, Jason Bay, and between Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida, the Red Sox don’t seem terribly worried about filling his shoes. The Braves seem committed to their up-and-coming prospects, and if the Tigers could afford an expensive outfielder they wouldn’t have traded Granderson.

Sure, the negotiations will be awkward. Damon will have to find the humility to come crawling back to the team he spurned before, while the Yankees will be forced to recognize that they need the most hated man in Boston as much as he needs them.

If he can’t swallow his pride and go back to the Bronx, he’ll face an even larger pay cut and probably have to settle for a non-contending team or a part-time job.

Or he could spend some time re-growing his beard while waiting for some foolish GM to have a change of heart and give him a massive contract (my bet is on Omar Minaya).

In the meantime, Steinbrenner is probably haunting his dreams, wearing a black helmet and preaching about the Dark Side.