TODAY'S PAPER
29° Good Morning
29° Good Morning
SportsColumnists

Johnson signing, Damon leaving shows who's in charge: Cashman

General Manager Brian Cashman of the New York

General Manager Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees looks on during batting practice before his team plays the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Game One of the ALCS . (October 16, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

If you held any remaining doubts that these were not your older sibling's Yankees, they should have been obliterated last night.

Nick Johnson is set to rejoin the Yankees, Johnny Damon will very likely look elsewhere for work and - poof! - just like that, two of the Yankees' most productive and popular players from this 2009 championship team are gone.

You can disagree with the decision to commit one year and $5.5 million to the injury-prone Johnson, when it cost the Angels only $1 million more to land Matsui. It's a call that inspires debate, at the least. Yet you can't deny that it's a bold move.

The Yankees' front office can't move swiftly in comparison to its competition, not when Brian Cashman and his lieutenants are weighed down by gargantuan commitments.

But Cashman reiterated yesterday that there's a new sheriff in town, even if the same family of moguls funds the artillery.

"We were very aggressive in last year's free-agent market," the Yankees general manager said yesterday at the Yankee Stadium news conference to introduce Curtis Granderson. "It turned out, for good reason, there were terrific players available. This market's a lot different. So, we played in a better market last year.

"We'll be less aggressive in this market. As we move forward, we've got to be careful. We've got a lot of commitments we're locked in on, and with quality players that we're excited about, but as we move forward, you have to be very careful what you do on a long-term basis with certain guys."

For Damon, 36, a "long-term basis" meant beyond two years. The Yankees liked Damon a great deal, and they tried to engage him on a two-year deal for about $19 million. Damon, however, wanted three or more years, and didn't want a pay cut from the $13-million salary he just earned from the Yankees.

For the 35-year-old Matsui, really, it ultimately meant even one year. From speaking with Cashman, you got the sense that he viewed it as a medical miracle that Matsui produced as much as he did in 2009.

Johnson isn't exactly, well, Johnny Damon when it comes to durability. Indeed, most people know him for a great eye at the plate, and for attaining enough freakish injuries to evoke Inspector Clouseau. But he's coming off a very productive 2009, and the homegrown Yankee wanted to return to the Bronx enough to toss aside his first baseman's glove.

And . . . you could very likely be looking at the Yankees' everyday lineup now. Johnson, if he stays healthy, can hit second, working the opposing pitcher into an early state of fatigue. Granderson, as he tries to improve against lefties, can hit lower in the lineup.

Johnson will need to rest some anyway, given his fragility, and that will allow Joe Girardi to use the DH spot as a half-day for Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

Matt Holliday? Sorry, Yankees fans, it's just not happening. Yes, I know many (including me) said the same thing last year about Teixeira. The difference is that the Yankees loved Teixeira. They don't love Holliday. And they do love the possibility of signing potential free agents like Joe Mauer, or Cliff Lee, a year from now.

"The budget number is hard and set. As we move forward, we have obviously Jeter. We have Rivera coming up next year," Cashman said, referring to two deals expiring after next season. "We've got huge financial commitments."

"There are conversations that have yet to be had with our own players on our roster, as well as the potential of next year's free-agent market, which is incredibly more impressive than this one."

The Yankees aren't going cheap, but they are cutting some corners this offseason. Consider welcoming Johnson, and bidding farewell to Damon and Matsui, a calculated risk. And a sign that things really have changed with the Yankees.

New York Sports