Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit caused a stir in Tampa. Not just from the Yankees headquarters or the countless relocated fans in the area, but also the Rays fans who want Johnny Damon’s day in the sun to come under the dome.
Andrew Friedman’s gambit of signing Manny Ramirez and Damon over the winter hasn’t worked out as planned. Ramirez retired after six joyless games and Damon is both 1) the highest-paid player on the team, and 2) the player with the smallest return on investment when comparing his salary to his Wins Above Replacement total. Damon is easy enough to like as a person. He seems genuinely nice and his idiosyncrasies have endeared him to the fan base. From his hair, to his smile, to the Rays promotional action figure giveaways—the toys made Damon’s muscled arms the focal point—right down to where he played high school ball (in Orlando), and that he has become known as a clutch hitter.
All of that has turned Damon into a fan favorite once again, but it’s not all baby rabbits and guitar solos. Damon has turned in an appalling .207/.286/.288 line since the All-Star break in 126 plate appearances. That line is unacceptable from all-glove shortstops—the Rays demoted Reid Brignac after 201 plate appearances and a .191/.232/.218 offering—and tends to be accompanied by rigor mortis when it’s a DH producing those numbers.
You don’t have to understand PECOTA or even know what PECOTA is in order to realize Damon’s chances of limping to 3,000 are dwindling. Say he conjures up enough magic to hit for his career average of .286 from now until he reaches 3,000. That would require 1,098 at-bats, but don’t forget: he needs even more plate appearances. Damon has the second-worst walk rate of his career right now (6.9 percent—only outdone by his first full season in the majors back in 1996), and that means 92 percent of his plate appearances are turning into at-bats. Assuming that holds true—and it won’t, but the assumptions are to prove a point—then Damon will need 1,193 plate appearances to reach 3,000.
Given the assumptions in place, the odds are that Damon will need more than 1,200 plate appearances to reach 3,000, and that means at least two more full seasons. That will prove to be a problem for Damon, just as it was for Wade Boggs back in 1997. The difference between Damon and Boggs is that the latter had the fortune of hitting free agency as two expansion teams popped up. Damon won’t have that benefit, nor will he have the bonus of playing a premium defensive position. That could force Damon into a part-time role next season, which would further diminish his chances of hitting 3,000.
Watch how the Rays handle Damon in September. With their playoff odds nearing the point of extinction, and with Russell Canzler tearing it up in the minors, the Rays could promote him to the majors, as he has to be on the 40-man roster before the winter or he will become a minor league free agent. Casey Kotchman is in the midst of one of the most bizarre batting title races in recent memory, so the logical insertion point for Canzler is Damon’s spot. Whether the Rays will respect Damon’s milestone chase or act in their own best interests is the question that should be answered within the next few weeks.