While the Yankees' primary focus remains pitching, they have been communicating with free agent Johnny Damon about a possible return to the Yankees for 2011, Newsday has learned.
Four sources said that Damon and the Yankees were talking about a role in which Damon, 37, would get occasional at-bats as a designated hitter and fill in at leftfield, allowing starting leftfielder Brett Gardner to either rest or shift to fill in for centerfielder Curtis Granderson or rightfielder Nick Swisher.
Damon would prefer a job with more guaranteed playing time, two of the sources said, so a deal is not close and far from guaranteed. But there have been multiple conversations between the two sides, and at the moment, neither Damon nor the Yankees appear thrilled with their other options.
Jorge Posada already has been notified by the Yankees that he'll be starting at DH for most games. Damon has been communicating with his friend and ex-teammate Alex Rodriguez about the possibility of rejoining the Yankees, discussing whether he'd be a fit.
The Yankees and Damon parted ways last winter, following a prosperous, four-year relationship from 2006 through 2009, in negotiations that turned acrimonious because of disagreements over both Damon's value and the exact timeline that precipitated the Yankees' signing of Nick Johnson to replace Damon in the team's lineup.
Damon proceeded to sign a one-year, $8-million contract with the Tigers, and he put up a .355 on-base percentage and .436 slugging percentage with Detroit, drops from his 2009 numbers of .365 and .489 with the Yankees.
The Yankees ideally would like a righthanded outfield bat, since Gardner and Granderson both hit lefty and Swisher is a switch-hitter. But they missed out on most righty targets (Matt Diaz and Bill Hall, for instance), and the lefty-hitting Damon put up a .365 on-base percentage and .375 slugging percentage against lefthanded pitchers in 2010.
With 2,571 career hits, Damon isn't yet ready to give away everyday plate appearances. One of the sources said that Damon views the Rays, Orioles and Braves as teams for whom he'd like to play next season.
At the moment, however, the Damon market hasn't surfaced. He had interest in and discussions with the Cardinals, as well, but those ended when St. Louis signed Lance Berkman as an outfielder instead.
The Yankees' interest in Damon reflects a desire to have an insurance policy in case Posada doesn't work out as the DH. Posada has a career .336 on-base percentage and .358 slugging percentage in 90 games as a DH compared to .380 and .487 in 1,517 games as a catcher.
Moreover, the Yankees always have viewed Damon as a value-add in the clubhouse. Damon established close relationships with A-Rod and mercurial starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, among others, and his willingness to speak with the media takes the load off some of his teammates.
Meanwhile, the Yankees continue to search the pitching market, yet they're not optimistic of finding high quality among either starting or relief pitchers. At this point, a signing of free-agent closer Rafael Soriano to set up for Mariano Rivera appears unlikely. They're not particularly interested in veteran free-agent starting pitchers like Kevin Millwood or Freddy Garcia, although that could change if the prices drop.