Making Sense of the Johnny Damon Situation


News broke last week that the Cleveland Indians had come to terms on a deal with free agent outfielder/designated hitter Johnny Damon. The Indians have quite a bit of outfield depth, but as we already saw this offseason they seem to be eager to add another bat who can help out in the big green after Grady Sizemore‘s injury.

The thing is, the Indians already have a capable replacement for Sizemore in the starting lineup: Shelley Duncan. As we’ve already discussed, Duncan made some legitimate strides last year and is probably a league-average player at worst. It’s too early to take 2012 numbers seriously, but it’s worth noting that he’s been the Tribe’s best hitter to date: he’s hitting .320/.485/.600 (good for an insane 196 wRC+) with two homers and six RBI after eight games.

As the news about Damon has settled in, there have been two general theories about how he’ll fit into the Indians’ everyday lineup.

The first is that Damon was signed to be the everyday left fielder, and that Duncan will be relegated to pinch-hitting duties and the occasional start against left-handed pitches; the other is that Duncan will keep the starting job so long as he plays well and Damon is just insurance in case another vacancy pops up in the outfield or at DH.

At first I was firmly in the latter camp. Ever since we learned that Sizemore would miss at least two months of the season it’s been clear that the front office was uncomfortable with the idea of handing Duncan a starting job. Damon was clearly hoping to land an everyday job this winter (he’s not a star anymore, but he’s not completely washed up yet), and initial reports said that he would be allowed to opt out of the deal once Sizemore returned—presumably because he would no longer be starting.

But Damon seems to have made a conscious effort to put a different spin on his signing—as seen in a radio interview he gave last week:

"Right now Shelley Duncan is the starting left fielder. I know they are going to rotate me in and give him a breather but, you know, I also understand this game, too. If Shelley Duncan is on fire at the plate he’s going to play and if I am they are going to find a place for me."

Clearly Damon is hoping to win an everyday job and he expects to get the chance to do so, but he readily admits that left field isn’t just his for the taking. Duncan is absolutely “on fire” right now, and in a small sample size he’s looked pretty good in the field too. He won’t keep up his torrid pace all season, but it seems like the best role Damon could fill for the Tribe is to be the guy who can—in his words—”give [Duncan] a breather.”

But would Damon really be alright with that role? The Plain Dealer‘s Paul Hoynes reported that, while there is no formal opt-out clause, agent Scott Boras and GM Chris Antonetti have a mutual understanding that the team will release Damon “if he’s not a good fit or isn’t playing much” (emphasis mine). There don’t appear to be any specific guidelines for what “playing much” means, but reading between the lines it’s probably safe to say that Damon expects to be more than just Duncan’s understudy.

The problem is, Duncan is better than Damon. Assuming his improvement last year wasn’t a fluke (every day that looks less and less likely) he’s a better hitter than Damon. Given that Duncan is still trusted to play the field while his competitor has been relegated almost exclusively to DH duties for the last two years, it’s safe to say he’s a better fielder than Damon. And looking at their recent platoon splits (Duncan mashed righty pitchers last year) it doesn’t appear as though the Indians have much to gain from letting the left-handed Damon start against right-handed pitchers.

We don’t know exactly what the situation is because we don’t know exactly what Damon’s expectations are. If “playing much” means he gets to pinch-hit just about every game and get a start a series somewhere in the outfield or at DH, that would work out great. But I’m concerned that Damon will demand a starting job as long as he’s on the team—in which case signing him would marginalize Duncan and thus end up making the Indians worse.

Once Damon actually dons a uniform we’ll see how the situation plays out and we’ll be able to make a more informed evaluation of the deal. If he’s okay with just being a role player and promotional night inspiration, he’ll be a great addition to the team. But if the Indians have locked themselves into giving him playing time at the expense of Duncan then this signing doesn’t make any sense at all.

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