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Report: Johnny Damon, Rays Close to a Deal

From Tim Brown:

Y! source: Johnny Damon and Rays appear to be closing in on a deal. Still some work to be done.

Damon isn't the free agent hitter we were all hoping for, but he's still a valuable offensive piece. He had a down year last season, yet still batted .271 / .355 / .401 and posted an above-average .340 wOBA. While he wouldn't necessarily be adding much power to our lineup, he is a player with good contact skills and an above-average batting eye. Considering the Rays only had two people hit for a higher batting average than Damon did last year (Crawford and Longoria), he'd add a different dimension to our line-up.

Of course, this move still slightly baffles me. Damon offers more certainty and less risk than either Manny Ramirez or Vladimir Guerrero, but he also has a lower upside. The optimistic Bill James projections have Damon posting a split line nearly identical to his work last season (.339 wOBA), and that sounds about right to me. His defense is certainly better than either Manny or Vlad could produce, but he's lost range in recent years and now projects more as an average fielder at best. Overall, he's an average, declining player with some small upside, and he'd lose value by moving to DH for the Rays.

But then again, there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. Adding Damon as a DH would still be an upgrade over what the Rays got from the position last season, and offers less risk on a team that's already chock full of young, high variance players. He isn't likely to add much more than 2-3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to the team, but he's also less likely to turn out as a bust and produce much less than that. Our brains are very bad at factoring probability. This is the secret success for casinos, and why so many people buy lottery tickets: we stink at accurately calculating risk, and our minds are automatically drawn to high-upside situations. Stability has value, even if we normally ignore it.

In the end, this is a move that we need more information to properly evaluate. Maybe Manny and Vlad are asking for ridiculous sums of money; maybe the Rays made them both competitive offers, but they're leaning toward other teams; maybe the Rays are in the midst of working on a trade that will clear up some of the DH / OF logjam currently on our roster; maybe they're looking to add Damon and another bat. We don't have access to this information, so there's no way of getting a proper read on the entire context of this move. While I'm not super excited about it, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Maybe Damon will rebound some this year and post numbers closer to what he did in 2008 (17 HR, .303 BA), but he doesn't needs to do that to prove a useful addition. If he can simply be average - provide us with around two wins of value while playing DH and in the outfield - that's valuable for this team and puts us smack in contention for the AL East and Wild Card. It may not be the move we were all hoping for, but let's wait to see how the rest of this off-season pans out before decrying judgement.