Like most others in Red Sox Nation, I love Johnny Damon and all he's done for the Sox both on and off the field. Damon is the team's catalyst and gets on base with an impressive regularity. As a leadoff hitter, Damon's 197 hits and 53 walks resulted in a .316 average and a .366 on base percentage last season. And after he reaches base, Damon has a tremendous knack for scoring, as he did on 117 occasions in the 2005 campaign.
Damon is also an enthusiastic clubhouse leader who is well-liked by his teammates. His fondness for the camera and the microphone, coupled with his unique quotability, not only make him a perfect spokesman for the team, but also relieve some of that burden from his more reticent teammates.
But Johnny wants a lot of money to return all those attributes to Boston next season -- seven years and $84 million to be exact.
The Red Sox, being of sound mind and sound resources, have determined that Damon is no more valuable than team captain Jason Varitek. After an original three-year, $29 million offer to Damon, the Red Sox reportedly came up to a four-year offer in the $40 million range. So far, Damon and his agent, Scott Boras, aren't biting. They're playing hardball, and appear willing to drag these negotiations out for as long as possible -- well into the first week of 2006, if need be.
So, as would reasonably be expected, the Red Sox have started making contingency plans in the event that Damon sees greener pastures elsewhere. They've started looking at the rather limited list of potential leadoff hitters who can play center field and make up for some of Damon's production, should he be lost to free agency.
Cleveland's Covelli "Coco" Crisp would be just that sort of player, and the Red Sox seem to be well aware of that.
Believe it or not, Crisp's numbers match up quite nicely with Damon's, with one glaring exception. He's a whole lot cheaper.
Crisp made about $365,000 last season, and won't be eligible for free agency for another four years. So even if his salary is doubled through arbitration, he'll only cost about six percent of Damon's asking price - $12 million annually. And though no one has stepped up to the plate to make that kind of offer to Damon yet, he could still get one. It's been a crazy free agent period, with lots of absurd signings. Average, or even unproven, players have gotten long term contracts worth tens of millions. Anything, it appears, is possible.
So is Damon worth the money? At four years, $40 million it seems so. He's got to be as valuable as Varitek, and more so than Renteria, who the Sox remorsefully granted the same deal. Anything beyond that is asking for trouble. Just look at the Bernie Williams contract that had the Yankees paying him $15 million this past season when he was well past his prime. Good for Bernie, bad for the Yankees. Not that any Red Sox fan is bemoaning bloated, undeserved contracts given to Yankee players. But let that just be a lesson to the Sox.
Yet, after comparing Damon's numbers with those of Coco Crisp, even the Sox initial offer seems a bit high. Let's compare the two players:
Damon - Crisp
Age: 32 26
AVG. .316 .300
OBP: .366 .345
HR: 10 16
RBI: 75 69
SB: 18 15
Hits: 197 178
BB: 53 44
2B: 35 43
Surprisingly, the numbers match up quite evenly. At 32, Damon is as good as he'll ever be. In other words, this is as good as it gets. However, at just 26, Crisp is still developing and likely has his best years still ahead of him. Damon also had the luxury of being a part of baseball's best offense the last three seasons. Plug Crisp into that lineup, and watch his numbers grow. And with a little more plate discipline, his average and on base percentage will surely go up. It's easy to imagine Crisp standing on second base quite frequently if he played 81 games a season at Fenway. Crisp also hit 48 points higher away from Jacobs Field, so he'd likely find hitting in the friendly confines of Fenway quite satisfactory and equally rewarding.
To be sure, the Red Sox are one of baseball's richest franchises, and as such one of the few who are truly capable of giving Damon the contract he desires. The question is whether the Sox think he deserves that contract, and whether they think they can find a suitable replacement if another team loses its collective mind and grants Damon the ridiculous deal he's demanding.
The point is, the Sox are rightfully exploring alternative options, and in the case of Crisp, there is at least one significantly cheaper possibility. Cleveland knows this, and will try to extract as much as possible in the deal if it's to happen. Both Matt Clement's and Bronson Arroyo's names have come up. But with Nomar Garciaparra having just shunned the Indians in favor of the Dodgers, Cleveland may not be able to part with their starting center fielder.
Until Damon looks around and sees how few suiters are courting him at his asking price, the Sox will surely continue weighing their options and considering life after Johnny. It's not only reasonable, but entirely plausible.
Copyright © 2005 Kennedy's Commentary. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.