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How Should Indians Use Johnny Damon?


After several days of whisperings, the Cleveland Indians’ rumored deal with Johnny Damon is now official. Damon will earn a $1.25 million base salary in 2012 and can earn up to $1.4 million in performance incentives. Presumably he will get the bulk of his opportunities in left field while also seeing time at DH and off the bench, but it’s unclear just what his role will be with the Tribe—especially since the team will reportedly grant him his release if he doesn’t feel that he’s getting enough playing time.

In this edition of the Weekly Wroundtable, we asked our panelists: How should the Indians use Johnny Damon? Joining our staff this week are The Tribe Daily‘s Nino Colla and Indians Prospect Insider‘s Charlie Adams.

Nino Colla (The Tribe Daily): It’s hard to tell what his role should be right now, especially since we don’t know when he’ll officially be with the team. It’s hard to suggest Shelley Duncan deserves to lose his job the way he’s been hitting compared to say, Michael Brantley. I think it has to be a wait-and-see approach that depends on what the team is doing when he is ready.

He should play some first, he could see time at DH once and awhile, but he’ll most definitely have to play the majority of his time in the outfield. How the Indians operate, especially if Duncan is hitting well, that situation is going to be interesting. I think you definitely give Duncan his starts against left-handed pitching. For one thing, I would hope Damon is hitting leadoff, because if he is capable of what he has been in the past, he’d be a nice option hitting right in front of Asdrubal Cabrera.

Charlie Adams (The Tribe Daily): I think his role should be a relatively limited one. He should spell Shelley Duncan against some right-handed pitchers and serve as a late bat off the bench in match up situations. His limited ability to play defense, the already left-leaning nature of the lineup and the solid play of Duncan all limit his capability to have a meaningful impact.

If Hafner goes down, then he slots in nicely to the DH slot, but I only see around 250-300 plate appearances and a .250/.340/.400 type of performance. Ultimately this came from a front-office who ultimately wanted to make some type of move and they got a veteran along with some superficial depth. While Damon will get playing time (“we paid for him, damnit!”), it is yet to be seen how, other than taking Duncan out against tough righties, he provides much on-field value above what is already in place. Leadership and depth are the main roles that Johnny Damon will play for the Indians in my mind, and $1.25 million isn’t that much in order to get it.

Lewie Pollis: Damon’s a fine fit for the bench. He’d instantly become the best hitter on the Indians’ bench. They’ll be able to put him to good use spelling Duncan against right-handed pitchers, and they won’t be stuck with Jose Lopez at DH when Travis Hafner needs a day off. I’m not entirely sold on the idea that he’s significantly better than Russ Canzler—if we’re talking about a roster spot based primarily on hitting ability I’d be all for giving Canzler a chance—but I’m not opposed to the signing.

But barring a major injury or a complete collapse from Shelley Duncan, Damon shouldn’t come anywhere near a regular starting job. Duncan is a better player than Damon on both sides of the ball, and looking at their recent splits (Duncan can mash right-handed pitching, and southpaws don’t give Damon any trouble) they’d be an odd pair to platoon. So the Indians should keep him to a reserve role—at least, as long as he isn’t in a position to demand more playing time than that.

Steve Kinsella: I will continue to maintain that Johnny Damon is not here to replace Shelley Duncan in left field. Damon is in Cleveland as a hedge against Duncan struggling in an everyday role but again it remains my belief that he isn’t here to be the relegate Duncan to predominately part-time player. Damon is here as a very valuable insurance policy for multiple players. and will also allow the Indians to set a more conservative rehabilitation schedule for Grady Sizemore in his comeback from back surgery.

So how will he be used? I believe he will start an occasional game in left field to give Duncan who will need a day off once in awhile. He will also get a start in left with Duncan moving to right to allow Shin-Soo Choo a day off, and he will get the occasional start at designated hitter to give Travis Hafner a day off. In between starts we will see Damon on the bench as a late inning pinch hitter and pinch runner. We’ve all seen the tie game where Travis Hafner singles in the eighth inning and is pinch run for with whoever may be on the bench that night. The Indians don’t take a lead and later mount an extra inning rally only to have that utility infielder type bat sitting in the middle of the order.

Brian Heise: In my opinion, the Indians didn’t really need to sign Johnny Damon so in all honesty I don’t see a reason to play him all that much. At this point in his career I don’t feel like he’s anything more than a replacement level, “play every few days” kind of player.  In fact his performance the past few seasons more than backs that up. He’s a below average left fielder, has a noodle for a throwing arm, and his primary skill (speed) is one that tends not to age well.

The other concern for me is adding another left-handed hitter to a roster that is already overloaded with lefties. It’s no coincidence the Indians are 0-4 so far against lefties. For that reason I’d rather see the majority of at-bats go to Duncan in left field (he’s gotten off to a good start that has earned him the right to see how this plays out) with Aaron Cunningham, another right handed bat who has more upside at this point, serving as the primary fill in. Granted, that’s not the greatest combination ever, but I feel like it’s better than what Damon can offer right now.

Merritt Rohlfing: Last year when Damon was with the Rays, he was the DH mostly, but now he comes to a team with a mediocre left fielder (I love him, but Shelley is alright at best) where Damon’s abilities could be well-used. He can play off a big wall as shown from his time in Boston, and with less ground to cover he could be a defensive boon. It would also let the Indians sit Duncan against righties sometimes, or maybe Brantley against lefties. I guess Damon kind of acts as a Swiss Army knife for Manny Acta, like a poor (destitute really) man’s Ben Zobrist. Like Joe Maddon said the other day about Zobrist, though, Damon is a good on-base guy  and even if the Indians offense has exploded the last couple days, more guys on the base paths is a good thing.

He’s not going to DH, Choo is locked in right and Brantley is a fine center fielder, so outside of an off-the-bench, veteran influence guy, left is the only place for Johnny. Anyway, the Dolans wouldn’t spend money like that on a part-time player. He’s a professional player and a good hitter, so it’s nothing but positives, regardless of where Damon ends up.

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