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Johnny Damon to the Indians?


The Plain Dealer‘s Paul Hoynes checked in this weekend with an interesting bit of free agent gossip: the Cleveland Indians reportedly “kicked the tires” on one of the biggest names left on the free agent market: Johnny Damon.

The Indians aren’t interested in Damon, a front office executive told ESPN’s Jim Bowden—his declining defense is a turn-off for the Tribe. But is that the right attitude? Given the vacancy in left field and the fact that Damon is in no position to demand a significant salary, the question is at least worth exploring.

Damon isn’t the hitter he once was (and even in his prime he was somewhat overrated), but he can still swing a decent stick. The 38-year-old hit .261/.326/.418 (109 wRC+) with 16 home runs, 73 RBI, 79 runs and 19 stolen bases as the Tampa Bay Rays’ primary designated hitter last year, and all the major projection systems see him continuing to hit at an above-average clip in 2012.

Narrowing our focus for the moment just to the offensive side of the game, how would that compare to the other possible candidates for the Tribe’s starting left field spot? I used the Simple WAR Calculator to estimate OPS+ projections for each of the plausible choices provided good defense isn’t a prerequisite:

Damon is definitely one of the better hitters in this group, but he isn’t the best. Margins as small as those between Damon and Shelley Duncan and Russ Canzler don’t much matter (though to be fair Canzler doesn’t have a projection from Bill James, whose forecasts are generally the most optimistic), but Damon probably wouldn’t be an upgrade over either of them. Not to mention that Duncan is a better fielder than Damon and both he and Canzler have much higher upsides. For a fringe contender with a lot of depth (i.e., the 2012 Indians), it’s worth the greater risk for the higher potential reward.

There isn’t a whole lot of spread amongst the other players on this list, but not everyone is in the same situation. Jason Donald and Ezequiel Carrera are the particular standouts. Both are young and neither has ever played a full season in the big leagues. They’re not huge impact players, but they’re not busts or reclamation projects. Carrera is also a very good fielder, and if he were in the lineup then Michael Brantley could stay in left, where he is more comfortable.

If the Indians had no better options than them to start, bringing Damon in would be a good move. But assuming Duncan or Canzler takes the starting job, the marginal offensive upgrade Damon would bring to the bench probably wouldn’t be worth losing Carrera’s speed and glove or Donald’s versatility.

That leaves us with the final tier of candidates: Fred Lewis, Ryan Spilborghs, Aaron Cunningham, and Felix Pie. All except Cunningham were brought in on minor-league deals, and each of the four is either a former starting player who suffered a premature decline or a bust former prospect. You know what you’re going to get from this group—below-average production good enough for an emergency fill-in, but insufficient talent to be part of the core of a contending team. I might change my mind once I actually saw him in left field, but I’d take Damon over any of these guys.

What does this all mean? Barring yet another injury, the only situation in which the Indians would actually use Damon would be if neither Duncan nor Canzler is up to the task of a starting job—possible, but unlikely. Say Damon could be had for a $2 million salary; in a vacuum that’d probably be a bargain, but it wouldn’t be worth the Indians’ while to give him a guaranteed MLB contract when the roster looks better without him.

If, however, Damon is willing to sign a non-guaranteed minor-league deal, Cleveland should immediately leap at the chance. There’d be nothing to lose—worst-case scenario, Damon spends the season at Triple-A—and the Indians have a solid-hitting insurance policy waiting in the wings in case Duncan and Canzler don’t work out or Brantley or Shin-Soo Choo has to miss significant time. Not to mention he’d be an admirable fill-in at DH if when Travis Hafner gets injured.

Should Cleveland give him a guaranteed deal? No. At this point the Tribe’s optimal roster almost certainly wouldn’t have him on it. But if he’s willing to sign a minor-league deal—and he might have to if he wants to play in 2012—the Indians should be all over that.

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