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Signed OF/DH-L Johnny Damon to a “one-year” worth $1.25 million with performance bonuses that could make the deal worth $1.4 million. [4/12]
Damon receives full no-trade protection and the ability to opt out once Grady Sizemore returns from the disabled list. This is no ordinary one-year deal. Damon holds all the cards; or so it appears. Think of this from the Indians’ perspective: they want Damon in the lineup for the next few weeks, but know that they can’t offer the consistent playing time he wants throughout the rest of the season. One way to get Damon now and avoid the mess later is to trade him, but it is unlikely that Damon holds much value, and he could not be traded until June without his consent. The other way is to give him a greener-grass clause, essentially telling him to pursue a better opportunity if one presents itself.
Perhaps that’s overly presumptuous. Less speculative is what Damon did for the Rays last season. He batted .261/.326/.418, good for a .284 True Average, as Tampa Bay’s primary designated hitter; among designated hitters with 200-plus plate appearances, Damon’s TAv ranks seventh of 14. That positioning sounds better than it is because four of the seven players who finished below Damon are no longer in the majors (Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero, Jack Cust, and Jorge Posada). In other words, Damon’s stay on the unemployment line shouldn’t have been surprising given his company.
It is fair to write that Damon is no longer the batter he was once. His walk rate (about 8 percent) marked his lowest since 2004. He doesn’t make contact as often as he did before, though he can still keep an at-bat alive by spoiling pitches. The decline isn’t limited to his offensive skills at the plate, either. Damon was unusually poor last season at taking the extra base during the run of play, and saw his recently efficient stolen-base rate decline. A move out of the American League East should help, but Damon is 38 now, and a dramatic improvement is unlikely.
So why is Cleveland inking Damon—who figures to spend some time in the minors to shake off the rust? Because, even with all that written, Damon might be a superior option to incumbent left fielder Shelley Duncan. PECOTA gives Duncan a six-point edge in TAv, but that is without projecting Damon’s play in Cleveland. Of course, defense matters, too. Damon’s weak arm hampers his defensive value; however, the Rays—often billed as defensive-minded monomaniacs—were willing to play Damon in left field prior to Manny Ramirez’s retirement. Hardly a grand endorsement, but since when is Duncan any great shakes defensively?
Clevelanders will soon learn that life with Damon extends beyond the playing field. Never confused as stolid, Damon is a quotables machine known for being hyperbolic and—at times—downright cloying. At one point last season, Damon called teammate Sam Fuld the best left fielder in baseball. He appears very in-tune with his Hall of Fame candidacy and some teams were reportedly turned off by his obsession with 3,000 hits. Damon, 277 hits away, won’t get there with Cleveland, but a strong, selfless showing could put him in position for another gig. Anything less, and Cleveland might be Damon’s last stop, opt-out or not.