By Jon Heyman
February 12, 2010

Johnny Damon, with the matinee-idol looks and obvious love of the big stage, is starring in his very own soap opera this winter.

At first, it was thought that he was going to cash in big-time following his home run of a regular season and his World Series heroics. Then it appeared to many he was going to be shut out, the winter's biggest loser. Now it looks like he's going to do just fine, maybe even better than fine.

But who knows? The winter's most intriguing game isn't quite over yet.

The Yankees supposedly adored him, and wanted him back badly. Yet, they didn't even mention a dollar amount to him until Dec. 18, when they were already "down the road'' with Nick Johnson.

The Yankees, a team that's historically without a budget or limits and is richer than ever after winning the World Series their first year in a palace of a ballpark, took back the injury-plagued Johnson, whose big plus over Damon is that he's supposed to represent youth, in order to save a few bucks. Yes, that Nick Johnson, the fellow who came up with them about a decade ago, occasionally battles the bulge and misses an average 58 games a year, in stark contrast to Damon, who hasn't missed 58 games due to injury in his career.

Damon was supposedly hankering for a multiyear deal. Yet, now that he is said to have offers for one and two years from the Tigers, he is thought to be considering taking a one-year offer from either them, the White Sox or Braves over the two-year offer. It can't possibly be because he doesn't love Detroit. He's been publicly cited as a lover of the Detroit Red Wings, Steve Yzerman and even octopi.

In a sometimes dead winter, Damon has been our saving grace. We can only hope that he can keep the mystery going for one more week, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Damon always loved the limelight -- his greatest years came in New York and Boston while his only bad one came in Oakland -- and he certainly has star power (not to mention great 2009 numbers). It appears that may finally be enough to overcome being a free agent in a year where players 35 or over are being routinely ignored (how does Jermaine Dye not have a job or even offers to consider at this point?), a year where outfielders are routinely getting the shaft.

In order, the perceived favorites to sign Damon were the Yankees, then the Braves or Giants, then the Yankees again, the Tigers, the A's, the Tigers again, the Braves again, the Tigers, the White Sox, and now finally, possibly the Tigers again.

"He's going to be a Tiger,'' predicted one AL executive.

Predictions are a dangerous proposition in the great Damon game. His winter probably won't be as successful as he hoped but it won't be the bomb some start to whisper it would be, either. Everyone in baseball is watching to see whether baseball's most famous agent, Scott Boras, will finally be stuck with a bad deal on a very good player. And a few undoubtedly are hoping.

A case could be made that $6 million or $7 million for one year is the right price in light of the fact that other mid-30s offensive performers like Miguel Tejada, Hideki Matsui and Vladimir Guerrero got between $5 million and $6.5 million. But all the early talk of multiyear megadeals and public suggestions that Damon shouldn't receive a pay cut from the $13 million he made each of the last four seasons unrealistically raised the bar at a time his demographic was falling in free agency.

The latest word is that he is believed to have two different offers from the Tigers, who are said to be giving him the option of a one- or two-year deal, both thought to be worth about $7 million annually.

The Tigers were said at one point to be out of money. They were supposed to be the wallflower of the winter. They traded the much younger outfielder Curtis Granderson, who was playing under a long-term contract, to free up money and create flexibility. It was suggested that they spent that money on closer Jose Valverde and that they are back at their limit. Yet here they are in the middle of the Damon game.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch frequently has found money for talent. But folks are shocked they'd consider a two-year deal now at a time when the Tigers are a year away from being unburdened by expiring contracts of many veteran stars, including the albatross-like contract that belongs to Dontrelle Willis.

But consider two things about the Tigers:

1. Their highly respected manager Jim Leyland is said to badly want Damon. Leyland believes the team needs a surefire lineup igniter after the losses of Granderson and Placido Polanco and as an older fellow himself has no thoughts of ageism (unlike much of baseball).

2. Ilitch has worked with Boras before, agreeing to sign Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers when some of his baseball people weren't nearly as enthused as he.

Beyond that, Damon does appear to be a good on-field fit for the Tigers, who have a terrific middle of the lineup with Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen but an obvious paucity of proven table setters. They also need an outfielder. They got talented rookie Austin Jackson from the Yankees in the Grandereson trade, but even though he has a great baseball name and the distinction of once being named the best 12-year-old ballplayer in the country by Baseball America, he still has no major-league at-bats.

The wise White Sox, a team that's known for surprise, are the shocking late comers to the derby. But while everyone assumed they'd solved their leadoff issue by importing Juan Pierre a couple months ago, GM Ken Williams has always liked Damon and apparently sees an opportunity to acquire an impact player at a decent price. The team of Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf once did their best to avoid Boras clients (the falling out may have occurred over ex-White Sox outfielder Ordonez), but they did do an under-the-radar icebreaker deal with Andruw Jones, another Williams favorite, at the start of the winter.

The Braves are the one eminently logical interested team. They need offense, have done nothing to enhance their lineup this winter and are a perfect geographical fit or Damon, who lives in Orlando, not far from where Atlanta's Disney training facility is located. Yet, at the moment, they appear to be running third in this derby. Early reports suggested the Braves were offering $4 million, with $2 million of it deferred. But sources have indicated they might have $6 million or so to spend.

And now, even that may not be enough to make them a serious player here. The Braves appear to be running behind the two AL Central rivalries right now. Although, nothing appears to be as it seems in baseball's most intriguing winter soap opera.

Chien-Ming Wang's agent, Alan Nero, said by text a decision on where Wang will pitch this season is still a week away. But competitors say they still expect Wang to sign an incentive-laden deal with the Nationals, one that may only guarantee $1-2 million. Wang was said to be throwing only 85 mph off flat ground in a workout Wednesday that was witnessed by the Dodgers, who dropped out because they don't wish to guarantee money to a pitcher whose return date is uncertain. "He's a great gamble for the Nationals,'' one competing executive said, pointing out that Wang would be under their control next year as well, as he'd still be at least a few days away from being free-agent eligible.

• The Indians are considering Dye, and if they did take him, he'd likely play some first base for them. One competing executive said Dye is "decent'' at first base. But the biggest question now is: How did he get into this position? Dye has two big things going against him in this market: 1) he's over 35, 2) he has bad defensive metrics in the outfield at a time when defense has been re-evaluated upward.

• Ex-Met Edgardo Alfonzo, who played with ex-Yomiuri Giant Hisanori Takahashi, likens Takahashi to Tom Glavine. Alfonzo said Takahashi throws 88 or 89 mph, tops out at 91 and possesses an effective screwball. He also called Takahashi "the stud of the (Yomiuri) staff.

• Speaking of Glavine, congratulations to the future Hall of Famer, who retired and joined the Braves front office. Glavine could succeed in anything he tries, whether it be as a baseball executive, broadcaster or union leader.

• It should be a big Hall class five years from now, with Frank Thomas joining Glavine in retiring on Thursday. Randy Johnson retired last month. JohnSmoltz and Pedro Martinez are likely to find a job sometime this year (though not necessarily soon) but they both carry the potential to retire, as well. Carlos Delgado and Gary Sheffield also have a chance to retire, though their Hall cases are probably borderline.

• Delgado was said to be a hitting up a storm in Puerto Rico but unable to move well enough to play first base. At one point, the Mets were the only ones scouting him when they, of course, have no need for a designated hitter. Eventually, they decided to add the slightly younger Fernando Tatis and much younger Mike Jacobs to their first-base mix instead. Jacobs is a worthwhile pickup for them, having hit 30 home runs for Florida in 2008. Having iconic Keith Hernandez around to tutor both Daniel Murphy and Jacobs should wind up with at least one of them becoming viable defensively. Jacobs is said to be looking forward to the tutelage. Murphy simply gushed about it.

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