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The Johnny Damon Dilemma

The Johnny Damon Dilemma
April 20, 2012
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With the Tribe’s signing on Tuesday of outfielder Johnny Damon, a potential issue of continuity presents itself to the Indians’  blistering offense.

GM Chris Antonetti confirmed that Damon’s at bats are going to come as a left fielder or designated hitter. Shelley Duncan’s emergence as an offensive force seemingly solidified his position as the starting left fielder, with a league-leading 10 walks and .463 OBP among left fielder (yes, even better than Josh Hamilton), yet the higher-ups still signed the ageless Damon. For as long as Travis Hafner is healthy, there is no apparent everyday role for the 38-year old Damon.

So, what to do with a player who possesses a career triple slash of .286/ .353/ .435; and, by the way, has played at least 141 games each of the last 16 seasons, which only three other players have ever done.

Well, for starters, if he can stay healthy and make this season the 17th straight season of playing in 87% of his team’s games—as it would be near impossible for him to play 141 games since he will not be on the active roster for the first three to four weeks of the season— and the perpetual injury train of Sizemore-Hafner-Choo continues to make its untimely stops, then Damon should have no shortage of at bats with the Tribe this season.

To make a point: Damon must see 300-400 at-bats with the Tribe, who has its share of offensive holes, if the team has any interest in getting its pitchers decent run support. If Duncan hadn’t gotten off to such a great start, the issue of playing time would be moot, as Damon would likely trot his way into a “timeshare” only to overtake the 32-year old, late-blooming Duncan for the starting role well before grade schoolers go dancing out the exits for the summer.

Yet, the unlikely has occurred: Duncan is playing his tail off and Hafner’s swing looks as healthy as it does strong.

What if the Damon signing backfires causing the offensive synchronicity to come unraveled? Not likely.

Damon is a clear-cut offensive addition to a team that annually, on-paper, looks primed to score at least its fair share of runs. However, freak injuries always seem to haunt the best cogs in this lineup.

Damon’s detractors would point to his falling batting avergae over the last three years: .282/ .271/ .261, respectively with the Yankees, Tigers and Rays; however, he spent last year with a Rays team that was 13th in the American League in batting average (.244) and still managed to accumulate 16 homers, 73 runs batted in, 79 runs and 19 stolen bases.

Even with 2011’s low batting average of .261, one must remember that the 2011 Rays were nothing near the offensive forces of the 2010 Tigers or 2009 Yankees. Even projecting a batting average for Damon in the .260s, it’s an improvement for a Tribe offense that possesses a team batting average of .240, 11th in the American League this season.

Sure, the Indians are 2nd in the AL in runs scored (62) and 3rd in homers (16), but it would take an eager grade schooler in the third week of April to think that they can remotely continue that pace.

Another reason Damon is likely to see at bats: his contract includes a verbal opt-out clause in the event that he isn’t receiving “enough” at-bats. For a hitter who has 2,723 career hits and a potential shot at 3,000, in addition to 500+ at bats the last three years, it is clear that Damon is going to get his at bats, whether it’s with the Tribe, or elsewhere.

Since Cleveland is paying Damon a relatively reasonable base salary of $1.25 million, with a potential $1.4 million in performance-based incentives, they would be wise to hold on to a two-time World Champion and potential future Hall of Famer, who still has a tick or two left in the tank before he hits empty.

Only time will reveal how instrumental Damon will or won’t be to this offense. Aside from being a cheap insurance policy to the Cleveland injury train, Damon’s presence offers the team a four man outfield rotation, one where a potentially slumping Duncan could sit against tough right-handed pitchers. Also, Cleveland can now rest Hafner during day games that follow long night games and plug Damon into the designated hitter spot, which would be the ideal fit, since his defense is a liability, at best.

When Damon signed with the Tribe on Tuesday, conventional thought dictated that it would be at least two weeks before he would be in game shape and ready to start. However, he later told reporters that he could be ready in a week as he’s been working out all spring.

That doesn’t sound like a player who is ready to hang ‘em up.  Hopefully the Tribe hears the need for Damon to get at bats and be a difference-maker on a team that needs, or at least will need, his bat.

User Comments

April 21, 2012 - 4:22 PM EDT
Jim, heh, yeah, Weglarz would solve all problems in LF right now if he were healthy and living up to what was expected of him 2-3 years ago.

Jack, I disagree somewhat. Damon is not taking Hafner out of the lineup when Damon DHs. We already know that Hafner has to sit twice a week, which usually means Santana DHs or someone else does. Damon would simply be DHing for that other person. There is no one on the bench that is a better option than Damon....and really, Damon is just going to DH once a week, if that. Maybe twice. And, as has been pointed out, with Hafner's injury history, Damon is a suitable DH replacement in waiting. If anyone is worried about Duncan losing playing time I don't get that at all. He is going to eventually prove why he has been a role player he entire career and is not a full time LF option. He is off to a good start, but even more silly than signing Damon (which I agree may be a bad fit) would be the assumption that Duncan will keep it up and they are fine in LF. Bottom line, last year they fell apart when Sizemore and Hafner both got hurt. Having someone like Damon around will help when those injuries eventually crop up with someone, and if they are healthy, well, it is a good problem to have.
April 21, 2012 - 3:46 PM EDT
I think using Damon's career stats vs the Indians 2012 stats and saying it's an upgrade isn't exactly correct. For one thing, it's probably a fairly reasonable assumption to believe that his numbers will drop just because he's a year older and his numbers are in decline.

But more importantly, he's not taking at bats away from anybody that's struggling he would be taking at bats away from the 2 biggest producers in the lineup meaning of course that his being in the lineup actually weakens the lineup. At least theoretically.

Again, I just don't see how Damon is a good fit for this team. His bat is not good enough for a corner OF'er and his defense is nothing more than average and of course, he bats LH.

This isn't to say that there aren't teams out there that wouldn't be a decent fit for Damon, just that the Indians aren't one of them.
April 21, 2012 - 12:23 PM EDT
Boy Tony...if Nick Weglarz woulda panned out, this would ALL be a moot point, and Grady Sizemore wouldn't even be an issue...

Same with LaPorta, for that matter...
April 21, 2012 - 11:16 AM EDT
Jim B.....absolutely spot on.

Though, sadly, there is nothing in the pipeline from the minors ready to come and help when Damon leaves. Carrera is filler.
Jim B.
April 21, 2012 - 11:11 AM EDT
Why is Damon coming to Cleveland?

Remember last year. After the first two months of the season a healthy Tribe reached #1 in the power rankings!

As injuries mounted, especially in the outfield/DH positions their run producing machine broke. Their fall from grace was simply a depth problem.

Damon is a roster depth pick-up in a secondary free-agent market. He is an insurance policy purchased at a bargain basement price. Don't get used to him being here. He will likely be gone before the trade deadline.

Cleveland gets no respect from the Boston and New York media, where Damon played most of his career. Don't expect him to have any respect for this town or our team. He is here to showcase his talent on his way back to the "Big Leagues."

If he plays well, and the Tribe doesn't lock him in by meeting his playing-time demands, you may witness one more athlete opting to run away from the shores of Lake Erie. This time in the midst of a pennant race.

Duncan likes being here and he has exceeded expectations by improving in his declining years. Hopefully, Acta gives Duncan as much playing time as he deserves. He uses Damon as an option and a motivating force for Duncan. Hopefully, by the time Damon is ready to walk, we have another option coming from the minors (Carrera?).
April 21, 2012 - 11:05 AM EDT
Dead on Kevin...they don't have an option that's really above fourth outfielder consideration...

and even if Sizemore comes back, you could make a case that he's not even really an outfielder anymore. He can field...but he gets hurt breaking for a ball these days...
April 21, 2012 - 1:41 AM EDT
I certainly don't think anybody implied that Duncan is even an average left fielder. It's not like the Indians have any really great options out there, which is why we're even having a discussion about a 38 year old who was unsigned until 2 weeks after the season started as a possible everyday player. Nobody who profiles as an everyday major league left fielder is going to fall from the sky. A 4th outfielder is the best we can do out there right now, be it Damon or Duncan.
April 21, 2012 - 1:09 AM EDT
I, for one, believe that Johnny Damon will be an all-star left fielder for the Tribe, commit no errors, and has been dutifully attending Sidd Fynch's cannon-armed, throwing school...

and should be throwing out runners like Roberto Clemente by 2022...

I have patience...
April 21, 2012 - 12:33 AM EDT
Let's not enshrine Duncan into the Hall of Fame quite yet... LOL...

We're in game 12 here ....Duncan is what he is, he isn't going to have any amazing transformations in his pedigree heading into his mid-thirties. He's a borderline major league RH bat with suspect defense, and a good teammate.
April 21, 2012 - 12:24 AM EDT
Duncan is not doing me any favors tonight.
April 21, 2012 - 12:10 AM EDT
I mostly agree with that, and it's why I don't think it was a bad signing. I think it's very realistic that he gets that many at bats due to injuries; I was just saying it's not a given. The only thing I disagree with is that I don't think Damon in indisputably a better hitter than Duncan anymore, especially if last year's decline in walk rate was a sign of age rather than random variation. Nevertheless, your points are well taken and aside from slightly preferring Duncan, I agree with what you.
April 20, 2012 - 11:42 PM EDT

Getting that many AB's might be unrealistic, but the main point is that if I'm the Indians, and I'm going to err with a signing, this one may be it. Defensively, they're comparable. Offensively they're at best comparable and at worst a world a part with Damon being the much better hitter and base runner.

Like others have said though, the Tribe's OF is a train wreck. With Sizemore spending more time with the trainer than he does on the field, the seeming eventuality that Choo will wind up hurt from getting hit by another pitch, Hafner's balky back and the overall lack of depth makes it look like ~300 AB's isn't unreasonable. Not including today, the MLB leader in AB's has 60, take 2-3 weeks to get Damon game ready and run him out there five games a week (assuming a typical platoon split with Duncan plus off days for Hafner) and he could easily reach that number.

I don't think that anyone believes that Damon will magically solve all of the offensive woes on the team by simply inserting his bat into the lineup, but given his leadership and the wisdom that comes with 16 years of experience, he may help this offense evolve much like what O-Cab did for A-Cab last season.
April 20, 2012 - 10:33 PM EDT

I don't really have any major issues with anything you said. I should mention that my comments about his defense were based on him having the average (presumably declining) range that you referenced and a really, really terrible arm.

I don't disagree with the signing, my point was 1) that Damon doesn't transform this team's run production in any significant way even if he gets 350 at bats and 2) I don't think we should pencil him in for 350 at bats. I just thought the comment in the article about Damon's ~350 ABs changing offensive production in any significant way was a little optimistic.
April 20, 2012 - 10:04 PM EDT
I have no problem with adding Damon. If the Indians are banking on Duncan to be the solution in left field, they would be extremely foolish. By the same token, they would be just as foolish with throwing Damon out there. They now have two with limited sample size of playing time and is off to a good start but a history of inconsistency....and the other on the downside of his career but a proven winner, durable, and still productive. How the Indians get them at bats will be interesting, but injuries and performance always tend to figure all this stuff out. If Damon doesn't fit, they eat $1.25M and move on. Besides, he is really no worse a defender as far as range and defense in the outfield than Duncan and really not much worse than Brantley and Choo. The Indians outfield defense is TERRIBLE. So adding Damon doesn't change things as his arm is no worse than Duncan or Brantley's.
April 20, 2012 - 8:18 PM EDT
Marcus, while I believe the Indians are committed to Kotchman for the foreseeable future, I certainly could see Acta getting creative and putting Damon there, should Kotchman continue to hit like a guy without any arms. The only issue there is that Kotchman does give the Tribe superior defense at first, which clearly Acta is enamored with (hell, I am too). Optimumly, I would love to see Kotchman hitting .300...and keeping the left side of that job, while rotating with Santana...

But I think Damon could provide adequate support as a defensive first baseman...and be the far superior offensive player...

I do think it's possible...and who knows where the Indians are at come early May...

I do concur with those that think make Damon the worst defensive outfielder of all time (if he were to play out there). As Acta said, there aren't many players with an arm accurate enough to get a ball to a bag or home these days anyways...

While I'm sure that's downplaying it a bit...not by much...
April 20, 2012 - 5:46 PM EDT
Looking at league leader stats in April is pointless. I'm sure Duncan's OBP will have leveled off in a couple of weeks. He is what he is - a 4th outfielder.
There won't be a dilema by the time Damon arrives. This is an offensively challenged team.
April 20, 2012 - 5:06 PM EDT
Taking a quick look at Fangraphs paints a slightly different picture than the defensive black hole that you've made Damon out to be Kevin.

Since 2007, Damon has acquired over 3,050 innings in the outfield, while there, his UZR ranked 2.8, 0.1, -4.4, 1.4, -0.9. Tossing out his 2010 and 2011 campaigns due to small sample sizes, his UZR/150 sat at 5.7, -0.1, -5.9.

DRS had him at -1, 1, 1, 3, -3 over that same span. Sure, his arm is useless, but his range hasn't been bad at all. Looking at Duncan though (SSS alert), he's not that good in the OF either. In LF, his range has been ranked negatively his entire career, and only once has his arm ranked as a true positive there (2010).

When you factor in Damon's ability to run, the pop that he does provide (granted it's no where near what Duncan *could* do), strike out rates and the fact that Damon has a track record of doing all of this over a full season (Duncan has never played 90 games in an MLB season) then I'll call swapping the two out at least a draw, but more likely it will swing in Damon's favor as far as productivity goes.

I'm not here to hate on Duncan, but he's at best a defensively limited 4th OF/back up 1B and a bench bat. I'd pay Damon $1.25+ million to see if he could do better, and even if it is a draw or such a small upgrade offensively that it doesn't really matter, just getting that veteran presence in the club house is significant and could help out our other players.
Marcus Walsh
April 20, 2012 - 4:59 PM EDT
April 20, 2012-4:53 PM EDT
Hey Adam, any chance when Damon gets up to the Tribe he would play a bit of first base, or at least be an option to insure Kotchman and Santana stay strong all year?
I could see this being a possibility myself!
April 20, 2012 - 4:06 PM EDT
"To make a point: Damon must see 300-400 at-bats with the Tribe, who has its share of offensive holes, if the team has any interest in getting its pitchers decent run support."

Not sure I understand the thinking here. 300-400 ABs would mean he's playing roughly between 60-80% of the time starting may 1. Does he really warrant that? Duncan's 2010 and 2011 (161 gp combined) are very similar to Damon's 2011, and Damon is a 38 year old poor outfielder with no arm. I'm fine with Damon spelling Hafner for a day game every weekend, but I don't see any upside in him playing left more than once a week.

Essentially, this says that having Damon in left or at DH for ~350 ABs improves the offense by so much that run production goes from "not decent" to "decent". Even if one grants that Damon should revert to a wOBA around his 2010 level (which I think is a silly assumption given his age), it's still not conclusive that he's much of an improvement. If he is an improvement, he's highly unlikely to be enough of an improvement to improve the team's offensive output from "not decent" to "decent" in only 300-400 ABs.

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