Indians to Sign Johnny Damon…But Why?


News broke Wednesday night that the Cleveland Indians had agreed to sign free agent Johnny Damon. The initial reports seem to have been overstated—there’s no deal in place yet—but the sentiment is genuine. “No agreement yet between Indians and Damon,” Ken Rosenthal tweeted Thursday morning. “But again, was told by sources late last night that it will happen.”

The move shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The Indians checked in on Damon last month, and the front office has seemed uncomfortable with the idea of Shelley Duncan as the everyday left fielder ever since we learned that Grady Sizemore would miss the first part of the season. But will adding Damon really make Cleveland a better team?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. There’s a reason the Indians didn’t sign Damon a month ago. In that case, that’s not just an expression, there was a concrete, specific reason: His defense. He’s been primarily a designated hitter for the last two years, and the general consensus around the league is that that’s where he belongs at this stage in his career. It was a member of Cleveland’s front office who said the team wasn’t interested in Damon because of his glove.

Duncan isn’t a wizard in the field, but at the very least he’s a capable defender. He has a 5.2 UZR/150 in the outfielder in his career, although that’s not in a terribly big sample size. He’s also looked pretty good in the early going this year and has made a couple impressive plays. Duncan is almost certainly a better bet than Damon defensively; at the very least, it’s a wash.

So if Damon is to earn a spot in the Indians’ lineup, he’ll have to sing for his supper with his bat. But will he? Last year, Duncan outhit Damon pretty handily, .260/.324/.484 (118 wRC+) to .261/.326/.418 (109 wRC+). It was a career year for Duncan and an off year for Damon, but Duncan showed some real signs of improvement and Damon is now 38 years old. Not to mention teams are concerned that Damon is punting his patience at the plate in his quest to reach 3,000 hits.

So how would Damon stack up against the Indians’ in-house outfielders for 2012? Last month, I used the Simple WAR Calculator to estimate OPS+ projections for each of the playerse who seemed like plausible candidates to fill the Tribe’s left field vacancy provided good defense isn’t a prerequisite. Here’s how they came out:

Unless you weigh ZIPS more heavily than the other three projection systems combined, Duncan looks like the better hitter for 2012. It’s close enough that you can call it a wash, but Duncan also has more upside, which is more important for a fringe contender like Cleveland. However you categorize it, it’s clear that Damon isn’t an upgrade over Duncan on either side of the ball.

Presumably the Indians could platoon Duncan and Damon, but neither player seems like a good fit for that role. Duncan is a right-handed hitter who mashed same-handed pitchers last year (148 wRC+) but struggled against lefties (86 wRC+), while Damon is a left-handed hitter who fared well against other southpaws (127 wRC+) but was unremarkable against right-handers (99 wRC+).

Both Duncan (113 wRC+ vs. lefties, 98 vs. righties) and Damon’s (106 wRC+ vs. lefties, 114 vs. righties) platoon splits look more normal over the course of their careers, but even so it’s been three years since Damon outhit Duncan against right-handed pitching. If Duncan’s improvements hold up (we’re only five games in, but he’s hitting .294/.400/.529) and Damon’s decline continues, there might not be anything to gain from turning left field into a platoon. And even if Damon really would outhit him against right-handed pitchers, when you factor in his defense he probably wouldn’t be a better overall player than Duncan.

I could see Cleveland signing Damon if Duncan were struggling or if Travis Hafner‘s health was in question, and I’d have been all for bringing him in on a minor-league deal. But it’s not clear that he’d be an addition to the Tribe’s roster, and it seems highly unlikely that he’d be a better left fielder than Shelley Duncan. Weird move for the Indians—unless they’re just doing it for the promotional nights.

EDIT: Based on his interview with Jim Bowden and Casey Stern Thursday, it seems as though Damon doesn’t expect to take Duncan’s starting job. If that’s the case and the only player who stands to lose playing time here is Jose Lopez, this deal might work out. But I’ll wait to see how it plays out in practice—as Chris Antonetti always says, playing time is up to Manny Acta.

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