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Mane man: Damon is front and center

SEATTLE -- Raise your hand if you want to see anyone but Johnny Damon play center field for the Red Sox next season. The can't-miss kid, Hanley Ramirez? The younger free agent-to-be, Juan Pierre? The aging future Hall of Famer who could be a short-term solution, Ken Griffey?

Damon's fabulous start -- a league-leading .383 average fueled by his current 17-game hitting streak in which he is hitting an outrageous .468 (36 for 77), has caused potential alternatives to appear ludicrous. In just six weeks, entering tonight's opener of a three-game set against the Mariners, the long-haired one has made what seems an irrefutable case that he is as indispensable to the Sox' future as catcher Jason Varitek. And that doesn't factor his off-the-charts appeal as a clubhouse character.

The Sox gambled with Varitek last year, letting him go to free agency before signing him to a four-year, $40 million deal that satisfied Varitek's financial objectives while keeping him in a town he insisted he never wanted to leave. It remains to be seen whether the Sox will be as fortunate this summer with Damon, who also says he wants to stay with the Sox, but is committed, in the absence of any compelling initiative from the Sox, to test the open market as a free agent this winter. Like Pedro Martinez last year, Damon has coyly played the Yankee card, knowing that Bernie Williams is not long for pinstripes.

There is no question general manager Theo Epstein's master plan calls for more turnover on the roster next season. It's conceivable Edgar Renteria will be the only returning member of the infield in 2006, with third baseman Bill Mueller and first baseman Kevin Millar both free agents, and second baseman Mark Bellhorn whiffing his way toward the exits. The Sox also have demonstrated in each of the last two winters they'd be willing to unload Manny Ramirez's contract (between that and Martinez's departure, Ramirez may have his excuse for his current funk, which has him back to being his old noncommunicative self while his batting average dives to .241, career-low territory).

Would they let Damon walk? If there's another team willing to satisfy Damon's desire for a five-year deal (he said this spring he'd like six years), the answer is yes, barring a sea change in the club's philosophy of not going beyond what they calculate a player's worth to be. They held the line on Martinez, granting him a guaranteed third year only in the final stages of what proved to be failed negotiations, didn't blink with Derek Lowe, and found middle ground with Varitek, whose agent, Scott Boras, had asked for five years while the Sox were offering three.

No one on the current roster, including Ramirez, will have more than three years remaining on their contracts after this season. Roster flexibility is a principal tenet of the Epstein way. Will he make an exception for Damon? And can anyone come up with a reason he shouldn't?

There is perhaps one, the same one that had a minority of folks arguing the Sox would be mistaken to make a long-term commitment to Varitek: Age. Damon turns 32 in November. He has been in the big leagues since 1995, and has played in at least 145 games every season since his rookie debut with the Kansas City Royals. Assuming he remains healthy this season, he will have played in nearly 1,600 games. Yes, he has remained in outstanding shape, and with the exception of the frightening concussion he incurred in the 2003 playoffs, has avoided debilitating injury.

But for a player who still relies on speed as a major component of his game, wear and tear is a given. If Damon signs a five-year deal, that will take him through his 36th birthday. Last season, Damon's slugging percentage and on-base percentage were both 42 percentage points above the league average, and he is among the league leaders this spring in a host of categories.

Can he expect to maintain that kind of production over the next five seasons? You can be certain Bill James and the other Sox statheads have spent long nights calculating their projections. It may come as a surprise to learn that Damon's career numbers are rather modest compared to other center fielders who were still active through the 2004 season. Entering this season, Damon ranked 14th in OPS (on-base average plus slugging percentage) among center fielders with a minimum of 2,000 plate appearances, ninth in on-base average, ninth in batting average, and 14th in home runs. (All stats courtesy of Lee Sinins's marvel, the Sabermetric Encyclopedia).

Damon entered this season with an OPS of .782. Since 1980, only four center fielders (minimum 2,000 plate appearances) generated a higher OPS between the ages of 32 and 36 --Brady Anderson (.875), Bernie Williams (.854), Steve Finley (.804), and Kenny Lofton (.783).

Damon's on-base average coming into the season was .351. Only seven center fielders --Brett Butler (.390), Anderson (.386), Williams (.386), Lofton (.359), Otis Nixon (.354), Al Bumbry (.352), and Robin Yount (.351) had an OBA equal to or better than Damon's, in their years between 32 and 36.

Only four center fielders had a slugging percentage equal to or greater than Damon's .431 --Anderson (.489), Finley (.474), Williams (.468), and Devon White (.431). Only two had a higher batting average than Damon's .287 -- Butler (.299) and Williams (.294). And only four averaged 140 games or more: Butler, Yount, Finley, and Anderson.

Numbers can predict only so much. Damon could be the next Finley, who last year at age 39, hit 36 home runs for the Diamondbacks and Dodgers while appearing in all 162 games. Finley came into this season with an .831 OPS (including an OBA of .350) since 36. Damon may prove to be equally durable.

But when there are tens of millions at stake, the Sox' reluctance to satisfy Damon's desire for five years, at this stage of his career, may be understandable.

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