Friday, January 29, 2010

Will Yankees regret dumping Damon?

Full disclosure: Here at River & Sunset, we're going to seriously miss us some Johnny Damon.

Losing his production hurts, that's a given. But we'll also miss the bad hair, the goofy fan interactions, the off-kilter Kim Jones interviews, the unintentionally hilarious throwing motion, and the way he never seemed to take anything too seriously—no small feat in a Yankees clubhouse that once made the Sistine Chapel seem like an ASU frathouse.

Damon represented the franchise quite well in the post-10/20 world. Throw in the fact that he's the author of one of the most famous plays in recent Yankees history, and you realize Damon earned every dime of that four-year contract. He was the Anti-Pavano of the aughts.

That's all over now, though, as Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees' braintrust decided they'd rather part ways with a 36-year-old with bum calves a year-too-early rather than a year-too-late.

There seems to be a prevailing opinion within Yankee Universe that this was an egregious error by management. That's certainly possible. Damon was one of New York's leading run producers in '09 (82 RBI, 107 runs), and he's had at least 600 plate appearances in 12 straight seasons.

He is, as they say, a grinder.

To compound the fan base's worries, the Yankees essentially replaced one of their most popular players with the tandem of Nick Johnson and Randy Winn. There hasn't been a tag team this underwhelming since the Bushwhackers.

The real shame is that it never felt like the player or team wanted things to end this way. Unfortunately, that's the danger of having Scott Boras as your agent. His insane posturing—especially early in the process—has the ability to poison negotiations.

The example in this case came just a week after the Yankees rolled down the Canyon of Heroes. Boras balked at the idea of Damon taking a pay cut (he made $13 million in '09, a figure the Yankees weren't willing to pay even half of going forward) and he went on to favorably compare his client to Derek Jeter. The Derek Jeter.

"That is a 1-2 combo that relied on one another," said Boras, clearly under the influence of a powerful psychotic drug.

Damon now seems destined for the role that Bobby Abreu grudgingly took on during last year's free agency period—the aging-but-still-productive outfielder who misreads the market, gets screwed, and is forced to settle for a one-year deal.

It all ended well for Abreu, who parlayed a strong season with the Angels into a $19 million guaranteed contract. Damon, who is a year older than Abreu, would do well to follow the template of his former teammate.

Cashman, just as he did with Abreu, comes off as a particularly cold-blooded mother here. He never backed off, refusing to give Boras even an inch as the days turned into months. Cashman steadfastly maintained the Yanks were on a strict budget, saying at one point that there simply wasn't enough money in their piggy bank for a player of Damon's stature.

This is patently ridiculous, of course, seeing as Hal Steinbrenner is (probably) swimming in a pool of gold coins as you read this. I guess sometimes you have no choice but to take billion dollar companies at their word.

As you surely remember, Cashman has played the "I'm Broke" card before. The GM said the Yankees were tapped last December, shortly before he slid $180 million into the coin slot of the Teixeira-3000. As legend has it, Cashman implored management to make a budgetary exception to land Teixeira. When the suits relented, the Yankees landed their next great first baseman.

It's likely Cash could've played this card again to bring back Damon. However, it's equally possible Cashman wanted to save that ploy for a bigger fish down the road. Maybe he looked ahead at Jeter's impending contract negotiations and a potentially loaded 2011 free-agent class and said, "Ummm, I think I'll keep this bullet in my chamber."

Don't put anything past SeƱor Cash. I wouldn't leave him alone with my girlfriend...or Joe Mauer's agent.

As for Damon, it came down to a business decision, and let's hope he realizes that when he's playing fly balls of the cat walk at Tropicana Field. When he finally does makes it back to the Bronx as a visitor, I can guarantee the fans will let him know he was appreciated. We always remember the good ones.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why Mattingly Still Matters

When the Yankees begin defense of their 27th championship on April 4, it will mark the 15th season since Don Mattingly last played professional baseball.

This statement is not meant to make you feel sad and old, though I suspect that outcome is possible. Take solace in the fact that Father Time manhandles us all ... unless you're Derek Jeter, in which case you destroy Father Time, then go to Chili's with Minka Kelly.

I bring up Mattingly because 15 years seems like an appropriate amount of time to re-examine his legacy, a legacy that seems to be shifting as we creep further from that Game 5 in the Kingdome.

It's probably unnecessary to explain on a Yankees blog what made Mattingly so great, because those that saw him know how special he was. In his truncated prime, Mattingly was the best hitter (and fielder) in baseball, once driving in 145 runs when that didn't automatically mean you were sharing a bathroom stall with Jose Canseco.

How he played, and how he carried himself as he did it, made Mattingly an idol to countless kids like me. Mattingly was unquestionably the most popular Yankee of his era, New York's answer to Larry Bird in Boston, only with a better mustache. The link of Yankee Mystique™ was as follows: Your grandfather had Joe D, your dad had The Mick, and you had Donnie Baseball.

A treasonous back robbed Mattingly of what was a certain Hall of Fame career, but a decline in production never changed how people felt about him. He retired as a Yankee legend, a player with no rings but a lifetime of goodwill.

Of course, the only thing worse than Mattingly's back was his timing. The year after the Hitman went home to Evansville, the Yankees won the World Series. Even Mattingly himself would later admit that this "kinda sucked." He wasn't wrong.

The Yankees' transformation in the Jeter Era brought with it a change in culture, as the Steinbrenner Doctrine -- anything short of a championship is considered failure -- took hold.

Retroactively, this mission statement casts Mattingly's career in an unflattering light.

Success can spoil any fanbase. Look at New England Patriots fans, who booed Tom Brady in the first quarter of a Wild Card game. Yankee Universe is hardly immune to this phenomenon; when the Bombers failed to qualify for the postseason in 2008, there was panic on River Avenue. Give fans a taste of success and we want another. Give us more, and we want it all.

With a Cooperstown call doubtful and no World Series glory to re-run endlessly on YES, time and perception threatens to box Mattingly in as little more than the best player in an era of average Yankee teams. But boiling down his iconography to that basic level would be unfair to both Mattingly and those who revered him.

He was an idol who understood what it meant to be one. In a time when clowns like Clemens, McGwire, and, yes, A-Rod make it seem like hero worship of an athlete is a lost cause, Mattingly remains a symbol of why that will never be true.

This post was featured as part of the LoHud Yankees Blog "Pinch Hitters Series" on Jan. 22. Dan Hanzus can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Po-tential problem in the Bronx

First off, I apologize for my cheesy New York Post-esque use of a headline pun. The Jets' somewhat miraculous run deep into the NFL playoffs has left me delirious.

My heart is racing like Steve Howe at Studio 54, and I have the constant urge to hit things as hard as possible. This is probably what it's like to be Shelley Duncan at all times. Beware residents of the greater Cleveland area.

My masterful pun is, of course, in reference to our man Jorge Posada, the New York Yankees' starting catcher for the 2010 season. This designation worries me, seeing as Mr. Posada is, well, no spring chicken.

Posada will turn 39 in August. The only catcher I can remember being productive at that age is Jake Taylor for the 1989 Indians. Naturally, this is problematic since the gutsy Taylor was a fictional character portrayed by action star Tom Berenger.

A better example is perhaps Carlton Fisk, who chugged along behind the plate into his mid-forties. Fisk provides a precedent, but it's worrisome that the Yankees plan on the exception being the rule here.

Posada remained a more-than-capable offensive player in 2009, hitting 22 homers and driving in 81 runs in just 383 at-bats. But his production couldn't overshadow the fact that his defense regressed noticeably.

Posada's caught-stealing percentage remained in line with his career numbers at 28 percent (commendable for a player coming off major shoulder surgery), but he appeared to lose considerable quickness behind the plate. The numbers bear this out: There were 41 wild pitches and eight passed balls in Posada's 100 games caught. This would've put him on pace for career-worst totals in both categories had he caught his customary 130-plus games.

If Posada continues this career trajectory, it's not crazy to think his defense will become a major talking point of the Yankees' season. There's a chance it may lead to Mike Francesa's head exploding live on the YES network.

The Yankees let Jose Molina, Posada's backup the past two seasons, walk in free agency. Francisco Cervelli is in line to be the new understudy. Cervelli was a feel-good story last spring when injuries to Posada and Molina pressed the then untested minor leaguer into everyday duty. Cervelli excelled defensively, and even hit a little bit. But he's just 23 and remains a largely untested commodity.

The Nick Johnson signing was strange on a multiple levels, partly because he walks with a limp, partly because he now resembles Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket, but mostly because he'll clog the DH spot.

This went against what was inferred as a major reason why Hideki Matsui was not retained; The Yankees were set on keeping the DH slot open for their veteran position players. It's what Joe Girardi refers to as a "half-day off," and it was geared specifically for the likes of A-Rod, Jeter, Damon, and yes, Posada.

A 15-year veteran playing the game's most demanding position, Posada has the most to gain from a rotating DH strategy. If Johnson stays healthy—which admittedly is like saying, "If Conan sends NBC a Christmas card this year"—but if Johnson stays in the lineup, that all goes out the window.

The Yankees seem prepared to ask Posada to catch the majority of their games in 2010. Posada is a notorious gym rat who will enter the season absolutely prepared for the rigors of his position. He also pulled a wife several country miles out of his league, so I suppose he's not the type of guy to sell short.

But the fact remains that he's an old man playing a young man's position. Posada went from a middling second base prospect to one of the top slugging catchers of his generation. We're about to find out if he has another surprise in him.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.