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The anatomy of the Johnny Damon deal

The anatomy of the Johnny Damon deal
April 12, 2012
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The Cleveland Indians have signed the 38-year-old Johnny Damon to a $1.25 million deal, with incentives that could make the contract worth up to $2.65 million. Damon was signed to play in left field and presumably to help shore up their struggling offense.  Here’s the thing, Johnny Damon isn't supposed to fix this offense.

Johnny Damon won’t fix this offense and he’s not supposed to.

Damon spent the 2011 season as the Tampa Bay Rays primary DH. He played 150 games last year, 135 of which were as their DH. He did start in 13 games as a leftfielder, but let’s get one thing straight, a fielder he was not. As a DH, Damon hit a solid .263, with 16 homers and 69 RBI. He hit 29 doubles and seven triples (8th in the league), while stealing 19 bases. His OBP of .326 was 30 points below his career average before the season started, but still fairly respectable for a 37-year old playing in his 16th full season in the bigs, and with his third team in three years.

In 2010, Damon was the primary DH for the Detroit Tigers, and put up similar numbers (.271/.355/.401) to last season’s with the Rays, with less power (eight homers, 51 RBI, but 36 doubles). He hasn’t been primarily used in the outfield since his days with the New York Yankees in 2009, when he played 133 games as the Bronx Bombers’ left fielder.

If you could stomach watching the Yankees when Damon was roaming the outfield, you likely recall that Damon’s arm was nowhere near being close to major league caliber. Sure, he could still field the ball fairly well, but aside from running the ball clear into the infield or having Jeter or Cano cut the ball of 40 yards into the outfield, he could barely get the ball in. Runners would routinely take extra bases on balls hit his direction, and this was two full seasons ago.

While Damon’s numbers were respectable in Tampa, the Rays decided not to re-sign him this past offseason. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a team in the majors that chose to offer him a deal, and Damon headed into the 2012 season without attending spring training. Instead, Damon passed his time working out, and apparently playing some soccer, where he was when he began texting the news that he was set to sign with the Indians.

The issues with Damon and most major league teams were quite simple. At this stage of his career, he’s a DH who can’t really play much in the field anymore, and at 38, has decidedly declining skills. Yeah, I know, just what most Indians fans wanted to hear.

The Indians move to sign Damon is at the end of a trail of failed signings and trades starting during last year’s trade deadline, as opposed to the reactive move to a struggling start of 2012 that many are making of it.

The Indians made overtures last year to trade for several outfielders, including Carlos Beltran, Josh Willingham, Coco Crisp and Ryan Ludwick. The Indians were rumored to even have a deal in place to land Beltran, only to have Beltran and agent Scot Boras veto the deal since the Indians didn’t fit the bill of a World Series contender. All four players could hit the ball from the right side of the plate, and answered a major offensive need for the Tribe.

The Indians went on to trade for Kosuke Fukudome, and ultimately Ubaldo Jimenez, using up all their usable assets for any major deal.

This past offseason represented another hunt for an outfielder, with Fukudome leaving via free agency, and Cleveland choosing not to pick up Grady Sizemore’s nine million dollar club option. So what did the Indians do now that they were free of the injury-prone Sizemore? Well, they got snookered into trying to make a deal with, you guessed it, Grady Sizemore. The Indians immediately gambled on their former centerfielder by giving him a five million dollar deal, with the potential for three million in incentives.

Thanks to Sizemore's agent Joe Urbon, there was a belief in the Indians system that there was a line of clubs who were set to pull the trigger on Sizemore, so the Tribe jumped in front of the line and offered him the deal he ultimately accepted. This one deal likely cost them down the road, as the Tribe would fall behind several other teams for a number of players they were in the hunt to sign.

Directly after the Sizemore signing, the Indians began negotiating with Josh Willingham, now a free agent who was  hunting for a three-year deal.  The Indians were willing to offer a two-year, $15 million dollar deal. Willingham ultimately signed for three-years and $21 million with the Minnesota Twins. Willingham is currently hitting .353, with three homers and six RBI.

A week after the Willingham miss, the Indians were hot and heavy in the mix to sign Carlos Beltran. You remember Beltran, he was the guy that spurned the Indians during the trade deadline. It’s believed that the Indians offered a two-year, $24 million dollar deal, but Beltran ultimately accepted a two-year, $26 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. You know the old saying, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Many believe the Indians were actually major players in this deal, but I’ve seen the Indians play this role too many times. They were used to up the ante on Beltran, and then refused to pay enough to get him. Beltran likely never would have donned a Tribe jersey, but Scott Boras used them well. Beltran is currently hitting .320, with three homers with the redbirds.

With outfielders out of play, the Indians refocused their energy on a potential first base upgrade, and another Boras client came into focus in Carlos Pena. Pena’s line last season was .225/.357/.462, with 28 homers with the Cubs. Pena ultimately signed a one-year deal worth $7 ½ million with his former team, the Rays. The Indians reportedly offered him a one-year deal worth $8 million. Pena stated he'd rather play with his former team, but you have to wonder if the Indians once again just upped the Rays ultimate offer. Pena is currently hitting .389, with two homers and seven RBI.

Throughout the offseason, the Indians also began signing or trading for players that they hoped might stick, and at a dizzying pace. These players included Felix Pie, Jose Lopez, Aaron Cunningham, Andy LaRoche, Fred Lewis, Ryan Spilborghs, Julio Lugo, Casey Kotchman, Russ Canzler and Christian Guzman. Interestingly enough, through all of these signings, Johnny Damon was mentioned, but according to Jim Bowden of ESPN.com, a front office executive for the Indians said that the Indians “have no interest in Johnny Damon because of defense.”

During spring training, the Indians competition didn’t provide a clear winner to the left field hole, as well as their questionable offense. Casey Kotchman was given the job at first when LaPorta was sent down to the minors. This would leave another offensive hole, because Kotchman has no power whatsoever, and was just a year removed from hitting .217. This sent the Indians scurrying in the last week prior to the regular season starting.

The Indians worked out Vladimir Guerrero in the Dominican, then discussed a potential deal for Angels outfielder Bobby Abreu. The Indians never stated they were serious about Guerrero, then had the Abreu deal fall through. Abreu is currently hitting .400, with three RBI in only two games with the Angels.

With the Indians’ hand forced, they gave the fourth outfielder job to Aaron Cunningham, and gave the starting left field job to Shelley Duncan. Michael Brantley would start in center, with Shin-Soo Choo in right. Oh, what an outfield we have…right? Choo, the best player of the bunch, is hitting .167, while Brantley is using his time in center to prove himself, by hitting a staunch .059. Cunningham is hitting .143 in his back-up roll, while Duncan is actually hitting a solid .294. Unfortunately for Duncan, he’s never really ever been considered anything more than a role player, which is exactly what he is.

Many are looking at the Damon signing as the Tribe’s response to an offense that isn’t only struggling to start the 2012 season, but has been downright putrid. In their opening five games, the Indians are hitting a major league worst .178 on the season, are 21st in the league in runs scored, and 22nd in the league with a .290 OBP.

Is it conceivable that Damon will revitalize this offense? Not likely. Instead, the Indians should be focused on getting their regulars back on normal footing. Carlos Santana, while providing a power bat, is only hitting .211 so far. Kotchman, their “big” first base signing, is hitting .095. Wunderkind Jason Kipnis is matching Kotchman’s .095. Last year’s offensive leader for much of the season, Asdrubal Cabrera, is hitting .217. It doesn’t matter who this team adds to the lineup, if the guys who should be hitting, can’t figure it out, this team will be finished before May.

With that said, I’m not unhappy about the Damon move at all. At the very least, a move like this shows that management will do just about anything to make this team better. In the offseason, it was clear they were turning over every rock, looking for the right players to fit the bill. You can blame them for the signing of Grady Sizemore and getting absolutely played, which likely shackled them going forward with all the other players they attempted to sign. But clearly they are doing everything they can do to give this team a chance to win, under the monetary guidelines they’ve been given.

In Columbus, there are a few players who could prove to be factors going forward. Trevor Crowe is looking like the 2005 first round draft pick, and not the kid who only managed to play five games last season. Crowe is currently hitting .389, with two homers, four RBI, six runs, a double and a stolen base. You can’t give Crowe the shot in left yet though. Six games in the minors doesn’t make up for a season lost. Give him a month, and if he’s still producing, then you think about bringing him up. He’s an option, but not yet.

Matt LaPorta is hitting .333 with Columbus, with four homers, six RBI, five runs and two doubles. The problem with LaPorta is that he’s done this before. In 2009, LaPorta hit .299, with 17 homers in Columbus. As a matter of fact, LaPorta has spent parts of four seasons in Columbus, and during that time, he’s hit .314, with 27 homers, 85 RBI and 77 runs. It’s never translated to the bigs, so sorry, he’s not the answer either.

The final minor league option may be Lonnie Chisenhall. The Indians top prospect is hitting .357, with three homers and five RBI, having scored five runs so far this year. The problems with Chisenhall remain the same, he doesn’t know how to take a pitch, and still has a hole in his swing. You add left field to the equation, and you could really hamper the development of a truly special future. Not yet for Chiz.

So while some would make the case that any of these three would be a better choice than Damon, I couldn’t disagree more. Not yet anyways.

Enter Johnny Damon.

You can say what you want about Damon, but what he brings to the table may be exactly what this team needs while they are in the midst of a slump. He brings a productive bat, as well as a professional approach to a locker room that just might need that very thing.

The irony is that it appears as though Damon will be playing left field, taking over for the one outfielder in Shelley Duncan that is actually hitting. According to Damon, “…Shelley Duncan is the starting left fielder. I know they are going to rotate me in and give him a breather but, you know, I also understand this game too. If Shelly Duncan is on fire at the plate, he’s going to play, and if I am, they are going to find a place for me.” While Damon is outwardly stating he’s willing to split time with Duncan, I have to believe that Damon signed with the Tribe, knowing he was going to be the primary left fielder.

The deal is rumored to be an interesting one, and extremely complicated, which may explain why it wasn't done until the end of the first week of the season. While not confirmed yet, speculation is that the deal that Damon has in play has an opt out for when Grady returns from his injury in mid-June, as well as a no-trade clause. Talk about a catch-22. Should the Indians find themselves out of the playoff picture, they’ll lack the freedom to deal Damon. Even worse, it looks like Damon will be able to leave at some point in June or July. That’s right, Damon could be using the Indians as his spring training, on his way to another contending club once and if Grady Sizemore returns. You gotta love Scott Boras.

Still, the opt out, if true, might not be a bad thing at all. I don't think anyone is that enamored with Damon to think he's going to be productive enough to be a mainstay on this team, even for just one year. If a number of things take place in the next few months, it might be beneficial to have an out for Damon. For example, if the heavens part and Sizemore figures out a way to return to some semblence of his former self in June or July if he returns (and that's a big if), Damon won't be needed (except for insurance). Combine that with the potential of Crowe, LaPorta and/or Chisenhall continuing to play well in Columbus, and you could end up with a perfect storm of players right when Damon's contract enters the opt-out phase.

It's equally impossible to believe that the Indians would even get a worthwhile offer for Damon via trade, based on the lack of interest during spring training. Giving Damon a way to leave the contract may be a positive, not a negative. I'm sure the club will have some standards to keep this from happening to keep Damon from just disappearing, but according to Damon himself, he'd like to spend the year with the Indians.

"...hopefully, when Sizemore comes back, there's still a spot for me, still some playing time for me. They (Cleveland) wanted somebody with a winning mentality and someone who has been there and done that and obviously, I've been around for a long time."

Gee Johnny, I haven't heard that one before.

At the end of the day, take the Damon signing for what it is, an eventuality that began back in early July. No, he's nowhere near the player we wanted. No, he's not the right handed bat we needed. No, he's not the guy to carry the team on his shoulders. But what he is, is better than what we have currently, and it's not for a lack of trying. Damon won't fix things in a day, but he certainly is a serviceable offensive player.

Just don't blame me when Damon has to pull a sandlot. You remember the scene. Smalls gets the ball in the outfield and realizes he can't throw the ball...so he runs it all the way to the pitcher to hand it to him. Yeah, we more or less just signed Smalls in the outfield...

...but at least this Smalls can hit.

Check out IPI for more information on the Johnny Damon signing, and don't forget to follow me on twitter @Jim_IPI...

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Tony
April 13, 2012 - 11:49 PM EDT
Yeah, Crowe is still a ways from returning....but he is certainly in the conversation. I think at some point he will be looked at to fill the 4th outfield need. But right now 4th OF may be a luxury with a platoon of sorts with Duncan/Damon and then Brantley and Choo. Not going to be the most gifted defensive outfield I have ever seen...may be one of the worst. The only thing that group of outfielders has going for it is Choo's arm....as without it they are awful collectively as a defensive unit.
Jim
April 13, 2012 - 9:48 AM EDT
It's far too early to give up on Brantley for Crowe. But if the bat doesn't come back by May 1, and if Crowe continues to hit, I wouldn't be surprised to see Crowe up with the big club. Choo needs to start hitting as well...

What happens if Duncan continues to hit though?
Cle2Cbus
April 13, 2012 - 7:59 AM EDT
I'm not looking at Crowe to play left field, I'm looking at him to play center field.

Get Brantley out of this lineup!!!
Avory
April 13, 2012 - 1:55 AM EDT
Very interesting insight with balanced perspective. The only thing not touched upon is what this means for Brantley at the top of the order. I have to believe his days there are numbered. Meaning the day Damon shows up, Brantley's batting ninth.

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