The debate continues within the Braves’ fan base. Should Atlanta sign free agent Johnny Damon?
Well, the answer is yes. And here’s the case for signing the veteran outfielder.
1. Simple question: Is the Atlanta lineup better with Damon or without him?
The answer is simple, too. A lineup with Damon at the top is much better than what is being penciled in right now with the current roster. Let’s project what the lineup would be with Damon, and then what it would be without him.
Melky Cabrera or Matt Diaz
Having Damon at the top of the order would allow McLouth to move down lower in the lineup, which would take away the pressure on McLouth to be a leadoff man. Damon has really been more of a typical leadoff man in his career than McLouth, so that could probably increase McLouth’s production, even if he were hitting seventh.
Damon led off in only four games last year for the Yankees. He mainly hit second in the order, behind Derek Jeter. But that was the first time since 1999 that most of his at bats did not come from the top spot in the batting order.
Before last season, Damon was a leadoff man. From 2000 through 2008, Damon hit .291 overall as a leadoff man and averaged 14 home runs, 69 RBI, and 27 stolen bases. Two years ago, before the Yankees moved him to the two spot, Damon hit .305 as their leadoff man.
So this is what this guy does – Damon leads off. His stolen bases went down last season, only because he was hitting second and not hitting first. Damon could probably still swipe around 20 bases a season if he were in the leadoff spot.
Having Damon at the top, followed by Prado, would set the table better for the middle part of the order. Hopefully, more people would be on base when Chipper, Glaus, and McCann came to the plate.
Remember how bad the sixth, seventh, and eighth spots in the order did at the start of last season? Well, if Damon were leading off, and McLouth were down lower, the trio of Escobar, McLouth, Heyward in those spots this season would be a drastic improvement.
But it all depends on Damon leading off.
2. Damon is a marketable player
OK, some may not give a flip about this at all, and that’s understandable. However, let’s be honest. The Atlanta Braves need a big name. They need someone to sell. They need someone to put on the front of the media guide, and on front of the season ticket packages, and on a billboard in downtown Atlanta.
The Braves have not been to the playoffs since 2005. The attendance has been shaky the last few years as the Braves have not been consistent winners, compared to the previous fourteen seasons when they had been in the playoffs every season. So how good would it be to have someone that the fans would get excited about?
Now, that’s not going to necessarily relate to more wins. To quote former Braves broadcaster Ernie Johnson, “the best promotion in the world is winning.” And big names do not always automatically produce more wins. But we’ve already explained how Damon could help on the field, and helping off the field would be good too.
Atlanta is now a melting pot. There are baseball fans from all over the country and the world now in north Georgia. And a lot of those baseball fans are Yankees and Red Sox fans, so they are very familiar with Damon.
Fans aren’t really going to come out to see Melky Cabrera (despite he too being a former Yankee), but they will come to see Damon. He is marketable. He is someone the fans know. He is a player that will get fans attention.
3. Damon is a winner
Some may boo-hoo on this too, but it’s important to me. Since Damon has been with the Red Sox and Yankees the last eight years, he’s been in a winning environment. He’s been on two World Series winning teams. Damon is a winner.
Atlanta’s clubhouse needs this. It’s not like they can look over in the corner anymore and see a John Smoltz or a Tom Glavine. Sure, Chipper is still around, but he hasn’t played in October in a while. So having someone that has been there, recently, would help a team with a lot of young players trying to get there for the first time.
4. He wants to be a Brave
The Boston Globe asked Damon a few weeks ago where he might want to play, and his answer was, “Atlanta.”
Damon lives in the Orlando area, which would put him at home during spring training. He could also sneak down home for a day if the Braves had a long break during the season.
When you have a veteran player like Damon saying he wants to come play for your team, you’ve got to give it some significant thought. And it matters when someone wants to play for you. That means he’s hungry to be on this team and help it get where he’s gone in the last few seasons – to the playoffs.
It beats the heck out of last February, when the Braves had to sign someone in Garret Anderson who really had no desire to play in Atlanta. It was simply his only option, so he took it. But this year the Braves have a guy saying he wants to come here, and the need for another good bat is there.
5. His price is coming down.
The Yankees have agreed to a contract with Randy Winn to help Brett Gardner in left field. That pretty much rules out Damon returning to New York. Sure, there’s always a chance the Yankees will surprise you and sign him anyway. But going on GM Brian Cashman’s words, Damon is probably not going back to New York.
The Athletics were mentioned the other day, but they knocked that down after spending a bunch of money on Ben Sheets. The Tigers said a few weeks ago they are not interested. The Giants have already brought in Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff, so they probably don’t have room.
There was a report out Wednesday that Tampa Bay may engage in talks for Damon. That would make some sense, since Damon would be only an hour away from his home. But the Rays already have Carl Crawford for left field, with B.J. Upton in center. Damon really doesn’t play right field, so that just seems unlikely. Plus, Pat Burrell is their designated hitter, ruling Damon out for that role.
So he’s running out of options. There was some talk that Damon’s agent, Scott Boras, would try to get the Reds interested. But they have Drew Stubbs and Chris Dickerson penciled in for left, with Willy Tavares in center, and Jay Bruce in right.
The Braves are his best option. And with not a lot of teams involved, and with it being late January, Damon’s running out of time and out of options. That will mean his price tag will come down.
Damon made $13 million in each of the last four seasons with the Yankees. He won’t get half of that now, and it is eerily similar to what the Braves had with Anderson last year.
Anderson had made $12 million for the Angels in 2008. Like Damon, Anderson had a productive season right before he became a free agent. And like Damon, Anderson was 36 years old.
The Braves got Anderson for $2.5 million, almost $10 million less than what he had made the previous season.
Now, Damon will likely cost more than that, but maybe not much more than that. If the Braves were to offer Damon a two-year contract at $5 million a season, he’d be nuts to not accept the deal. Sure, that’s much less than he made in 2009. But Damon has made almost $100 million in his career, so he’ll still be able to pay his power bill next month.
How can you pass on a player like Damon at $5 million a season? I think Damon is probably valued as high as $7.5 million, so to get him for much less than that is just silly to pass up.
For what Damon could bring to this team, on and off the field, his salary would be paid for several times over. And if Damon were to sign, the Braves could trade either Cabrera or Diaz, would which be about half of what Damon’s $5 million contract would be.
So the Braves would have to come up with about half of what they would owe Damon IF, in fact, the payroll is near its limit. Now I still have doubts about their fuzzy math, but if they are that spent, the ownership situation with Liberty Media is not a positive situation.
Heck, Liberty Media ought to step in and see what Damon could bring to this club. If they want to put more butts in the seats, having Damon would help. And having Damon would also give the Braves a better chance to win, which would increase revenues. That’s a simple formula that should make signing Damon a pretty sound investment.
6. He’s better than last year’s left fielder
It was whispered on Wednesday night in a NBC Sports.com report that the Braves are not interested in Damon, with one of the reasons being his noodle arm.
OK, so Damon’s arm is not very good. But look who was in left field for the Atlanta team in 2009? Anderson was horribly defensively. He had no arm, no range, no speed, and pretty much nothing to contribute defensively. So bringing up Damon’s shortcomings in the field, considering who was there last year, is a very flimsy reason for not going after him.
7. Damon won’t block Jason Heyward
Damon would play left field. The Braves phenom, Jason Heyward, is going to play right field this season. So signing Damon would not block Heyward.
Some have wondered if signing Damon might block Jordan Schafer, if Schafer is able to bounce back from his wrist injury and show he’s ready to be a big leaguer again. Well, Schafer is a center fielder, and if he does show he’s ready, he’ll need to go back to center field.
Sure, that could mean McLouth could go to left, but not if Damon is there. However, if Schafer does show he’s ready to come back to Atlanta, there’s just as good a chance the Braves would shop McLouth around as move him to left field.
So it’s just unlikely signing Damon would block any young player who is considered a huge part of the future.
8. What's the alternative?
If Damon is not signed, we'll probably see a platoon in left field with Diaz and Cabrera. Left field has been a revolving door for years, and that needs to stop - if only for two years.
Look, I like Cabrera. I am not going to persecute Cabrera as most Atlanta fans have since the trade last month. He's a nice player, and a complimentary player.
But the Braves have a chance to get someone a little more special. Damon can be more than just a complimentary player. He could be the significant player a lot of fans thought the Braves would get to improve the lineup.
The combination of Diaz and Cabrera may be just as effective as Damon, but it seems unlikely. Diaz and Cabrera are more like fourth outfielders, while Damon is a guy who could become a Hall of Famer with a few more solid seasons.
The Braves need to sign Johnny Damon. It’ll be a shame if another team signs Damon for a cheap price, and then he goes on to have a solid season. Damon could be a huge difference in making this Atlanta team a legit contender to win the National League pennant in 2010.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.