Johnny Damon(notes), a leading man in championships in Boston and New York but, at 36, a free-agent afterthought, on Saturday agreed to a one-year contract with the Detroit Tigers for $8 million, according to a source close to the negotiations. None of the money is deferred and Damon has a no-trade clause. The signing – which is pending a physical – culminated a courtship that lasted several weeks after Damon's agent, Scott Boras, mentioned publicly that the Tigers would be an excellent fit for his client.
Damon is expected to bat leadoff and split time between left field and designated hitter. From an offensive standpoint, he essentially replaces Curtis Granderson(notes), who was traded to the New York Yankees two months ago in what was viewed as a payroll-trimming move. Damon, however, will be paid more in 2010 than the center fielder Granderson, a much better defensive player.
In spite of a productive season in which Damon grooved his swing for a right-field fence at Yankee Stadium that played short, hit 24 home runs and drove in 82 runs (nearly all of them while batting second), and then helped push a postseason run that ended in the Yankees' first World Series title in nine years, Damon wasn't an offseason priority.
The Yankees understood his asking price to be $26 million over two years. When their counter for $14 million over two years was rejected, they in mid-December signed Nick Johnson(notes) for one year at $5.75 million, having already made the trade for Granderson. Johnson would be the designated hitter, which left an outside chance Damon could have returned in left field, in spite of diminishing defensive skills. That possibility died when the club signed Randy Winn(notes) for $1.1 million. An upgrade in left but meek at the plate, Winn, a switch-hitter, batted .262 last season, including .158 in 125 plate appearances against lefties. Granderson, who is expected to get time in left and center fields, also didn't hit close to .200 against lefties last season.
Damon, whose preference was to return to New York, and Boras believe they were shut out of the process and the Yankees never intended to negotiate. The Yankees and general manager Brian Cashman believe they wouldn't have had time to wrestle through an extended negotiation with Boras and cover themselves at DH and in left field if Damon went elsewhere. Cashman also contended his budget stopped at $200 million and he couldn't fit Damon under it.
The Chicago White Sox, Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays showed interest, though the Rays backed off when they were told the Tigers had offered Damon $7 million for one season. The White Sox and Braves made lower one-year offers, and on Friday the White Sox went public to say their offer had been withdrawn. Damon's wife was said to prefer Chicago over Detroit as a place to live, but signing with the Tigers enables Damon to remain at his Orlando home through the spring because the club trains in nearby Lakeland.
Manager Jim Leyland is thrilled about penciling in Damon at the top of the batting order, but he might need to explain the plan to veteran Carlos Guillen(notes). Shortly after Guillen complained to MLB.com that he believed his manager didn't believe in him as a left fielder, Leyland told the website that Guillen would be the regular left fielder if healthy. Damon might be best suited as the DH.
The Tigers dumped Granderson and pitcher Edwin Jackson(notes) to trim payroll, and although they have spent the 2010 savings on Damon, they should have more payroll flexibility beginning in 2011. Granderson is in the third year of a back-loaded five-year, $30.25 million contract. He's a bargain for the Yankees at $5.5 million this season but his salary increases to $8.25 million in 2011 and $10 million in 2012, with a $2 million buyout on a $13 million option in 2013. Jackson avoided arbitration by signing a two-year, $13.35 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.