- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK -- The baseball world is already envisioning Johnny Damon's before-and-after portrait, now that George Steinbrenner's fashionistas are getting their shears on him. For a cool $52 million, Damon will morph into a clean-shaven, perfectly coiffed, full-blown Yankee -- a surrender he swore would never happen. Not him, not the happy rebel who loved Red Sox Nation (and vice versa).
But that all changed in 48 hours this week, when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman gave Damon and agent Scott Boras a timetable to accept the Yankees' final four-year offer. One person familiar with the negotiations said, "It was more like an ultimatum." Indeed, Cashman told Damon's camp they had until midnight on Tuesday to act.
The Red Sox may or may not have tried to match the Yankees' end-around. The negotiations with Boras had grown so stagnant they might've been entirely clueless that Damon was slipping away, as team president Larry Lucchino insisted. But all postmortems now lead to the same conclusion: the Bombers' lineup looks unstoppable.
Without Damon in 2005, the Bombers finished second to Boston in runs, batting average and on-base percentage. That gap will almost certainly be closed in 2006, unless the Sox can salvage a disastrous offseason.
They can start by acquiring Jeremy Reed as Damon's replacement, but no matter what the Sox's response will be, it's hard to imagine a stronger 1-2 combo than Damon and Derek Jeter. The Yankees are cloning the formula that made them so successful in 1998 and 1999, when Jeter batted behind Chuck Knoblauch.
When Boras was selling the Damon-in-pinstripes concept to Cashman, he was careful not to pit one leadoff hitter against the other. The agent recently said, "The reason this would work isn't because Johnny is better than Derek, but because Derek would be a great No. 2 hitter who would force pitchers to deal with the middle of that Yankee lineup. And that way, the Yankees don't get schooled the way they did by the Angels [in the Division Series] by pitching around A-Rod [who was walked six times in five games]."
The Yankees, ironically, were more focused on Damon as a center fielder, given the lack of market options. With Brian Giles returning to San Diego, Torii Hunter unavailable, no real interest from the Phillies in a Jason Michaels swap and the Rangers asking for Chien-Ming Wang in exchange for Gary Matthews Jr., Damon was the Yankees' last option before finally bestowing the everyday job to Bubba Crosby.
Cashman insisted he would've been fine with Crosby, but admitted that Damon was in his blueprint from the moment the Yankees went out in the first round of the playoffs. They now have a durable, fleet center fielder, albeit one with a below-average arm. But the most immediate dividend is the chaos the Yankees will unleash on American League pitchers.
Damon said as much Tuesday night, referring to the "great lineup" he's joining.
"We're going to be tough to beat," Damon told Channel 4 in Boston.
Interestingly, Damon was no better than Jeter as a leadoff hitter in 2005. Indeed, it was Jeter who had a higher on-base percentage, scored more runs and drew more walks. And Jeter's at-bats lasted longer, too, as he averaged 3.82 pitches per plate appearance to Damon's 3.72, slightly below the league average. But history has shown that Damon can be patient. In 2004, he averaged 4.12 pitches per plate appearance, fifth in the AL. In 2003, he was even better: a 4.13 average ranked Damon fourth in the league.
The Yankees are hoping Damon can be to the 2006 edition what Knoblauch was during the team's late-'90s golden era, forcing pitchers to work harder than usual to get through the first inning, giving the rest of the lineup a good, long look at his arsenal. If Damon is as pesky as Knoblauch, the Yankees figure to prosper. But he'll do more than that, according to one American League scout.
"Johnny's got enough power to be a home run factor in that ballpark," the scout said.
The Yankees don't have to be reminded, since it was Damon's second-inning grand slam off Javier Vazquez in Game 7 of the 2004 AL Championship Series that sent the Sox to the World Series. Two innings later, Damon hit another HR, an upper-deck shot off Vazquez, that was a reminder of what he's capable of in a lefty-friendly hitter's park -- even with a .255 career average at Yankee Stadium.
What really seduces the Yankees is the trickle-down effect to the heart of the batting order. Damon and Jeter will create plenty of scoring opportunities for Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez, and will act as a shield to the lineup's last weak link, Bernie Williams, who'll serve as DH in the No. 8 spot. Robinson Cano, who would've batted second had Damon not been signed, will drop to No. 9, which effectively gives manager Joe Torre three base stealers in succession.
It's a perfect storm, really: the Yankees now blend power and speed for less than it cost in 2005; the payroll is declining from $205 million to $175 million. The Yankees are also younger (Damon is 32, Williams is 37) and, as always, star-driven.
"We're in good shape," one high-ranking Yankees official said, putting the final touch on the grimmest possible Christmas at Fenway.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
With the addition of Johnny Damon, the Yankees will have a lineup in 2006 that will be a modern-day Murderers' Row .