I was asked by hotstove.com to participate in a Braves mailbag question asking whether Atlanta should still try to sign Johnny Damon.
These reports come not long after Braves officials publicly stated they were satisfied with their club as constructed. While they didn’t shut any doors, it seemed a potential Damon acquisition wouldn’t happen unless the current group of outfielders projected to make the Opening Day roster struggled in Spring Training.
The Braves, who have Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera, and Matt Diaz in the mix, also seem excited and intrigued about the possibility of the top prospect in baseball, Jason Heyward, winning the right field job.
If the 20-year-old Heyward does make the team, he would do so with only 50 games and 173 at-bats above Class A.
But, he’s that special.
Heyward has been ranked the No. 1 prospect by MLB.com, ESPN’s Keith Law, and Baseball America, who also named him minor league Player of the Year last season.
Some have criticized the Braves for being cheap this offseason, but the fact of the matter remains that they have a bonafide star-in-the-making in Heyward and would be crazy to sign anyone—especially an aging veteran—to a lucrative, long-term contract, effectively blocking their rookie phenom for the foreseeable future.
The Braves would be satisfied to break camp with Heyward if the youngster proves ready, but the uncertainty at the top of their order leaves lingering concerns.
Re-enter Johnny Damon.
If the Braves do decide to pursue Damon again before Spring Training, it will have more to do with the team’s lack of a traditional leadoff hitter than their outfield situation.
Adding a proven winner like Damon to the mix and penciling him atop the Braves order instantly strengthens their line-up from top to bottom.
Atlanta hasn’t had a prototypical leadoff hitter since Rafael Furcal departed for the Dodgers in 2006 and coincidentally hasn’t made the playoffs since.
Also, if the Braves are to get back in the running for Damon it will be because they won’t have to commit more than one year to the 36-year-old free agent, which assures the team flexibility in regards to their future plans built around Heyward.
The Braves say they are about at their payroll limit, although reports indicating the team has at least $5 million remaining in the budget seemingly contradict that statement.
Damon’s stock has fallen so far that the belief around the league is that he could be had cheaply and perhaps for even that one-year deal, which the Braves have preferred all along.
Damon’s agent Scott Boras is still trying to scratch a two-year deal out of Detroit and if he gets them to bite, then the debate ends there.
But if not, the Braves may be smart to abandon their original plan and not wait until they get to Spring Training before jumping back into the Damon sweepstakes.
The team’s goal is winning championships and putting the best product on the field even if that means going slightly over their desired payroll.
If Heyward still impresses in camp, make room for him.
The Braves have pieces they could move if need be.
Nothing should prevent this signing from happening if Damon can be had at the rumored discount rate.
Team officials owe it to the fans, the players, and especially Bobby Cox, who is entering his last season as manager, to do whatever it takes to win now.
The question is: Will GM Frank Wren take the bait?
He seems content to wait, and if Damon falls into his lap, so be it.
In the meantime, the dance continues.