So now we have it. The truth has been revealed. The Red Sox really were caught off guard by Johnny Damon's defection to the Yankees last night. Well, as much as a team can be caught off guard when its free agent center fielder has been known to have had contact with their very determined, very capable, enemy.
The Red Sox did not learn of Damon's decision until they were contacted by reporters last night. CEO Larry Lucchino, who has been a bulls eye for Red Sox Nation since Theo Epstein's sudden departure on Oct. 31, is sure to be the focus of even more intense hatred and scorn now that the "face of the franchise" has been lost to their arch rival. Lucchino, who declared himself in charge of the Damon negotiations, said last night he had not been told of the deal by either Damon or his agent, Scott Boras.
''We have received no such notification. We have not been notified of any such deal." Lucchino said in an e-mail.
The Yankees' 4-year, $52 million offer eclipsed the four-year, $40 million proposal Lucchino made to Boras during the winter meetings in Dallas two weeks ago. There were no further negotiations, no counter proposals, and no subsequent counter offers. The Yanks made their stealth offer, hidden from the media, and Johnny quickly said, "Thanks, I'll take it!"
The Yankees set a deadline of Tuesday's midnight arbitration deadline, and Damon accepted without giving the Sox an opportunity to counter offer.
Damon blames the Red Sox for not pursuing him "aggressively enough", but the truth is that after each side made its initial proposal, only the Red Sox made a counter proposal -- the offer which remained on the table until last night. Damon and Boras never formally responded to that offer as is customarily done. That's not negotiating in good faith.
The startling revelation of Damon's abrupt exit begs the question, why?
In an interview with New York Newsday, Damon expressed his concerns about the instability in the Sox front office and the departure of some of his favorite teammates, like free agents Bill Mueller, who signed with the Dodgers, and the unsigned Kevin Millar. No one should be surprised if Millar ends up in New York platooning at first with Jason Giambi.
Meanwhile, the Yankees lineup looks ever stable, and with Damon's addition, increasingly menacing to opponents -- like the Red Sox.
The Sox management turmoil has never appeared more evident than at this moment. With Christmas just days away, the Red Sox have no center fielder, no shortstop, and no bona fide first baseman. The Sox can call Kevin Youkilis their first base candidate or designate, but that's hardly assuring considering that he's never been a first baseman in the Majors, and has never played a full season at any position. Simply put, a third of the 2006 lineup is in question with just eight weeks remaining until the opening of Spring Training in Fort Meyers.
With Damon's departure, the only regular position players still remaining from the 2004 championship team are outfielders Trot Nixon and Manny Ramírez, catcher Jason Varitek, and DH David Ortiz. And as we all know, Manny has made his wishes quite clear.
Where a team in such disarray goes from here is unclear, but what is clear is just how much work the organization has to do. Replacing a star like Damon, with all of the offensive and defensive attributes that he brought to the table, is not an easy task at this late stage in an already thin free agent market. And any trade partner will know that the Sox are bargaining from a position of desperation, and therefore weakness. Yes Damon had a famously weak arm, but he was a run scoring machine who was constantly on base, rarely hit into inning killing double plays, and perhaps most importantly could bat leadoff. His will big some mighty big shoes to fill.
Boston likes stars, and most of the candidates that have been mentioned as replacements are anything but. Almost all of them will come cheaper than Damon, but none can match his production or his intangible assets as a clubhouse leader.
Minnesota's Torri Hunter is an interesting possibility. Hunter is entering the final season of his contract with the Twins, and is known to be unhappy there. He becomes a free agent at the end of next season and will not resign with the Twins. Knowing this, the Twins are expected to try to move him by the July trade deadline to get some compensation in return. They might be persuaded to move him even sooner if the right offer is presented.
Hunter is a natural center fielder who had 100 hits in 98 games last season. His year was cut short when he broke his ankle while tracking a fly ball in center at Fenway, of all places. Playing in just 60% of the games on the 2005 schedule, Hunter still swatted 14 homers and 56 RBI while scoring 63 runs. The 30-year-old had 23 stolen bases, and his speed makes him one of the outstanding defensive outfielders in the game today. For four consecutive years leading up to last season, Hunter was awarded with the Gold Glove. The seven-year veteran made $8 million last season, and would likely accept a trade only with the guarantee of an extension in the range of $10 million annually.
Known as a enthusiastic player, Hunter would help soften the loss of Damon more than most of the other candidates, but as the Sox are likely to find out next season, Johnny Damon will be very difficult, if not impossible, to replace in the short term.
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