Thursday, January 21, 2010

Should the Braves go after Johnny Damon?

Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is among those who believe the Braves should make a run at free agent outfielder Johnny Damon, late of the New York Yankees. The Yankees seem reluctant to re-sign Damon as his agent, Scott Boras, originally asked for a two-year contract worth $14 million.

While Damon could certainly help the Braves, especially since they only got Melky Cabrera for Javier Vazquez, part of Schultz's reasoning is that Nate McLouth "looked only average" last year. Certainly, McLouth wasn't a superstar in 2009, but his 3.6 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) ranked him fifth among National League center fielders. He is projected to be about the same as he was last year, which isn't great, but is definitelyabove average.

McLouth also is 28, and Damon is 36. Still, Damon would be a good pickup for at least one year unless he has a complete meltdown offensively, unlikely if he moved to the weaker National League. Damon had a 3.0 WAR in 2009, and that number was dragged down by his terrible left field defense. His wRC+ (weighted Runs Created, adjusted for ballpark) was 132, meaning he was 32-percent better on the offensive side of the ball than the average American Leaguer. Needless to say, that's pretty dang good, and even a small drop in production in 2010 would be light years ahead of the waste of uniform material that was Garrett Anderson (a negative 1.0 WAR) in '09.

So yes, Johnny Damon would help the Braves, but Schultz makes the mistake of saying the Braves need him so they will have (cue the big ballsy voice guy) a "legitimate leadoff hitter." Jeff trots out the tired old line used by many. "The Braves have not had a legitimate leadoff hitter since Rafael Furcal left town after the 2005 season. That’s also the last season they made the playoffs. Funny how that works out." Gee, I wonder how the Dodgers made the playoffs in '09 without a "legitimate leadoff hitter" (LLH) last season? They had Furcal, you say? If the main function of an LLH is to get on base, then in the immortal words of children's book author Dan Gutman (who also wrote the baseball classic "It Ain't Cheating If You Don't Get Caught), nah-nah-nah boo-boo on you. Furcal had a .335 OBP in '09, 17 points below McLouth and 30 points below Damon. The Cardinals also made the playoffs without an LLH, and the World Series runner-up Phillies alleged LLH, Jimmy Rollins, had a sterling OBP of .296.

You say that bolsters Schultz's argument that Damon is a LLH? Only problem with that is that Damon hit behind Derek Jeter almost all of last season because Damon's legs are not Derek Jeter's legs (Jeter had 30 steals to Johnny's 12). I'm not saying Damon would be a bad pickup for the Braves, because he could help the team. Even though it might be disastrous from a defensive standpoint, having McLouth and Damon hit 1-2 in the lineup for a full season would, if they stayed healthy, be potent and would take some of the pressure off an aging Chipper Jones. What I am saying is that Schultz and others are mistaken in their thinking that Atlanta needs a LLH to win. Not only that, McLouth is closer to being a LLH than is Johnny Damon.

I don't think Frank Wren will spend the money on Damon because Wren is either incompetent or is handicapped by the money changers above him. The Braves have already committed $3.1 million to Cabrera, and I doubt they did that with the idea of platooning Melky with Matt Diaz until Jason Heyward is ready. Still, if Wren finds enough pennies under the couch to sign Damon, I hope he will outlaw razor blades from his locker so we can once again see the grubby Damon from the Red Sox "idiots" days, as immortalized in an "Arthur" cartoon on PBS that was one of my daughter's favorites.

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