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Depth Or Damon

by Mike DePilla
Monday, February 1, 2010

Is the Sox roster set for spring training? Bruce Levine of ESPNChicago thinks the team has one more acquisition left in them, but it's not the logical one of a left-handed hitting DH.

Levine, whose rumors are notorious for being as accurate at this temperature, believes the Sox are looking to upgrade their bullpen, which by most other accounts seems set. The potential names Levine mentions as Sox targets are the Blue Jays' Scott Downs and the Padres' Heath Bell. To me, an improvement to the 6th or 7th guy in the 'pen seems more like a luxury than a necessity for this team. The rumor might have some legs however, despite Levine's shaky track record, as Kenny Williams traditionally loves him some last minute bullpen depth.

Downs, a lefty, would take over Randy Williams' LOOGY role while Bell, a closer with 41 saves in '09, would presumably share set up duties with an eye toward closing if Bobby Jenks somehow departs.

Though I can see Williams sniffing around these moves, I don't think the marginal benefit of adding a reliever like Downs or even Bell is enough to justify the cost.

Downs is a dependable if unremarkable reliever, one which lowly Toronto has little use for. He posted a 3.09 ERA to go with a 1.26 WHIP and a respectable K/BB rate of about 4/1 last season. (He did have a Scott Linebrink like slump after the All-Star break.) But, entering the last year of his contract, he will make $4 million in 2010. That, coupled with the "young pitching prospect" the Sox would have to give up to acquire him, seems like an awful lot to pay for a guy unless he is going to have a prominent role on this team. A LOOGY is not a prominent role.

Unless Jenks is moved, I don't see any reason why the Sox would pay an exorbitant price to bring in Bell, a sought-after closer that several other teams are likely bidding for. Acquiring Bell would also be a case of "buying high", a method which is inefficient for volatile relief pitchers.

The real question is: If you're willing to pay $4 million to Downs, why not add a couple million to that and make a run for free agent Johnny Damon? Damon would provide a far greater upgrade to the Sox lineup than Downs would to the bullpen.

Levine mentions that, though they've given up on power bats like Russell Branyan, Carlos Delgado and Hank Blalock, the Sox are hanging around in the shadows waiting to see what happens with Damon.

There's no doubt that Damon, with his versatility, high OBP and good baserunning skills, would improve the top of the order dramatically. And even with super-villain Scott Boras as his agent, Damon has seen his price tag shrink into the "reasonable" range as potential suitors fall by the wayside. Every day it seems like a new team drops out of the Damon sweepstakes: today it was Oakland that appeared to "get over" their pursuit of the 36-year-old outfielder/DH.

Could Damon be this year's Bobby Abreu, who signed a shockingly-cheap $5 million deal with the Angels last year after his market completely fell apart? Yes, he could be. But I just don't see the stars aligning for the Sox to sign him.

With less than a month to go until spring training, Damon is going to have to get over the fact that he is not a 8-figure salary guy, despite what his ego and his agent say. If he waits too long he'll go down one of two roads: the Roger Clemens "wait-to-be-a-midseason-savior" route, or the Kenny Lofton "keep-waiting-forever-dude-just-admit-you're-retired" route.

After all is said and done, Damon is probably going to get $6 million from someone. I doubt the budget-conscious Sox would be willing to spend that much, even if it is a fair-value contract. At this point, the Rays, Tigers, Braves and A's, despite all their posturing, are thought to have the greatest interest and I just find it very unlikely that nobody else would snatch Damon up before he fell into the Sox ultra-bargain basement price range, which is probably somewhere south of $5 million.

However, I'd have to question the thought process of an organization that is willing to spend $4 million for Scott Downs but not $6 million for Damon. Let's hope Kenny doesn't make that "choice" a reality.

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