Wednesday August 25th, 2010

I'm not sure if you heard, but the Red Sox put a waiver claim on Johnny Damon this week. Damon, who has a no-trade clause that names the Red Sox among the teams to which the Tigers are prohibited from dealing him, declined to accept a trade back to Boston and will thus finish the year in Detroit. It was high drama for a while given Damon's history not only with the Red Sox but more recently with the rival Yankees, and because of Damon's recent remarks about how the Yankees organization and fans treat players better than their Red Sox counterparts. In the end, however, it was much ado about nothing.

Or was it? Sure Damon isn't going to be entering the American League playoff picture, but that sequence of events told us something about the Red Sox's strategy concerning waiver claims and the teams above them in the AL East. Consider this: how much did the Red Sox really want Johnny Damon? This is a team that puts so much stock in defensive metrics that this offseason it concluded (likely correctly) that 26-year-old speedster and human highlight reel Jacoby Ellsbury wasn't qualified to play center field and went out and signed 37-year-old Mike Cameron to push the kid into Fenway Park's tiny left field. Neither Ellsbury nor Damon has played much in the field this year, the former due to injury and the latter to ineffectiveness, meaning we need to look at their 2009 numbers to get a sense of their value with a glove. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Ellsbury was 9.7 runs below average in center last year and Damon was 4.4 runs below average in left field for the Yankees.

Yes, both Ellsbury and Cameron are out for the year, leaving the Sox scrambling to cover in the outfield, but I'm not convinced the Red Sox see Damon as an outfielder. They remember his weak throwing arm, and his advancing age and declining range (in 2005, his last year with Boston, Damon was 16.8 runs below average in center field according to UZR) -- all part of the reason the Sox didn't pursue him as a free agent both when his contract with them expired and when his deal with the Yankees ran out. Damon is five years older than when he last wore a Red Sox uniform and thus and five years further into his defensive decline. Do you really think the Red Sox, who prioritized defense in the offseason, saw him as a potential asset? It's not as though they had room for him at designated hitter, where the rejuvenated David Ortiz has hit .287/.392/.587 with 26 homers since May 1. Rather, it seems fairly clear that the Red Sox's claim on Damon was a block, that strategic move unique to August.

Throughout the month, teams will place players on waivers. Each team has two days to make a claim on that player. Claims are awarded to the team with the worst record, first in the same league as the team that put the player out there and, if no one claims him, then the opposite league. If every team passes, he has cleared waivers and is available to be traded to any of the other 29 teams. If a team puts in a claim, however, the player's current team can either work out a trade with that team, allow that team to have him without compensation (as the Blue Jays did with Alex Rios and his albatross of a contract when the White Sox put a claim in on him last year), or pull the player off waivers, after which he is no longer eligible to be traded anywhere. That system is in place so that teams trailing in the standings get first dibs on available talent, but it has the side-effect of allowing them to block the teams above them in the standings from acquiring a player they might need. Such, I believe, was the case with Damon.

This episode managed to reveal something very important about what we're likely to see in the seven remaining days leading up to the Aug. 31 deadline for teams to add players to their active roster so that they are eligible for postseason play. That is: teams will make moves not only with the goal of improving themselves but with the hopes of preventing their competitors from improving as well.

Before Monday's games, the Red Sox trailed the Rays by 5 1/2 games for the wild card and were running out of time to make up that ground. Following season-ending injuries to Kevin Youkilis, Cameron, Ellsbury, and possibly Dustin Pedroia, who just went back on the DL that day with pain in his previously broken left foot, the Red Sox looked to be dead in the water, but 5 1/2 games was a close enough gap in August for the team and its fans to maintain a glimmer of hope that if everything breaks (no pun intended) in their direction, they just might sneak into the wild card spot.

The Rays are in better shape to reach October but they still have holes to fill, notably at designated hitter. But they won't be able to upgrade at DH via the waiver wire because the Red Sox aren't going to let them. If the Red Sox were willing to take on not only Damon's contract and glove but all of the baggage that would have accompanied him back to Boston, they would surely have no qualms at all about claiming the next half-way decent bat that comes down the wire if they think he's a player who could help the Rays. Similarly, if someone comes along -- like a starting pitcher or catcher -- who might benefit the Yankees, who are now tied for first with the Rays and thus also an obstacle Boston must overcome, don't be surprised if the Red Sox put a claim in on him as well.

Since the Red Sox were awarded the Damon claim, we know they had the worst record of any team to claim him. The only AL teams with equal or better records than Boston at the time of the claim were the Twins, Rays and Yankees. The Twins already have a very productive left-handed designated hitter in Jim Thome (.269/.393/.583 with 17 homers in just 223 at-bats) and thus no need for Damon. Likewise, the Yankees acquired Lance Berkman to be their lefty DH prior to the non-waiver deadline, and though he is currently on the disabled list with a sprained ankle, he is expected to be activated on Monday. That leaves the Rays as the only club that might have had a need for Damon. Tampa Bay has been playing switch-hitting backup infielder Willy Aybar at designated hitter and receiving little in return. Aybar has hit just .234/.306/.354 as a DH this year and is hitting just .186 in August. Damon as a DH has a line of .254/.339/.384.

If the Rays are able to upgrade at DH, however, it could be the move that finishes Boston's playoff chances, particularly as the Yankees are expecting Berkman, Alex Rodriguez and Alfredo Aceves all to return from the DL in little over a week and Andy Pettitte to follow soon after. On the season, Aybar has been worth just 1.3 runs above replacement according to Baseball Prospectus' VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Projected over the remainder of the season, Aybar is worth less than a run, or less than a tenth of a win, to the Rays. Damon, meanwhile, has been worth 19.4 runs above replacement in his 112 games for the Tigers, which projected over the Rays' final 36 games is a bit over six runs, or more than half a win. That doesn't sound like a lot, but if that half-win gets rounded up it could be the win that eliminates the Red Sox.

So with little to lose beyond the less than $2 million left on Damon's contract, a price the wealthy, win-now Red Sox can easily absorb, and plenty of available roster room in the wake of the injuries to half of their lineup, the Red Sox risked being stuck with the defensively challenged Damon for the benefit of keeping him from the Rays. It worked, even if they still haven't solved their own problems. Such is the risk of waiver season.

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