Chris Denorfia is an Odd Interest for the Tribe


Sep 17, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Seattle Mariners right fielder Chris Denorfia before the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Word came out last week that the Indians are seriously considering Chris Denorfia as a free agent.  My first thought was “Who the hell is Chris Denorfia?”  It turns out that he is 34 years old, and has gotten almost two thousand major league at bats.  He has posted a .781 OPS against lefties over the past three years, and has played significant amounts of games at all three outfield positions.  He is coming off a horrendous season, split between the Padres and the Mariners, which drives his price down into the Indians’ comfort zone.

I guess the question I would ask is why?  More specifically, why now?  Denorfia is the epitome of a replacement level player.  If baseball was dining, Denorfia would be something you get from the food truck.  If we get to May next season and it turns out the Ryan Raburn’s 2014 flameout was permanent, and none of the prospects currently in the pipeline turns out to be ready, there will be twenty Chris Denorfias out there, any of them available for a grade C prospect.  Why, at a point where players with real value are being scooped up every day by other teams, would you even spend time talking to a guy like this?  Even if he goes out and plays at the far right end of his bell curve of potential outcomes, he would still not move the needle on the Indians’ playoff hopes, and isn’t that what they should be looking for right now?

A guy like Denorfia will probably cost about two million on a one year deal.  Zach Walters, who has crushed left handed pitching throughout his minor league career and has a .985 OPS against lefties in 41 Major league at bats, would cost about a fourth of that.  If that difference seems like small potatoes to you, remember that every current member of the pitching staff made less than that in 2014.  There is so little give in the Indians’ payroll budget that spending two million on a guy like Denorfia will impact whether they play in the deep end or the kiddie pool when it comes to chasing another starter or bat.

More important than the money is the roster spot.  At most, the Indians will enter the season with a four man bench.  If they decide to go with an eight man bullpen, there will be room for three on the bench.  Even assuming four men on the bench, there is no room for dead weight; in other words, every member of the bench must fill a role and contribute when called upon.  When Raburn tanked last year, there was no choice but to keep running him out there because there was nobody else available.  There is little reason at this point to believe that Denorfia would be a huge improvement on Raburn, but he would be the first choice to platoon with David Murphy if Raburn struggles.   Not only that, but Denorfia is perceived to be good enough on defense that he would likely be the first backup if/when Michael Bourn misses time with a hamstring issue.  In other words, if the Indians sign this guy, he would be walking into a situation where he is guaranteed a few hundred at bats, no matter how bad he is.

Last year the Indians signed Elliot Johnson for such a role.  It took until the first week of May to figure out that Johnson wasn’t helping; in the meantime he actually batted second a few times, despite barely posting a half-Mendoza in April.  Johnson, though, was brought to spring training on a minor league contract, so that when the Indians cut him loose there was little cost involved and thus no hesitation.  That is how you supplement the roster with replacement level players who have a significant likelihood of failure, so that if things don’t work out you can cut your losses.  Denorfia is the same sort of player – if you can sign him for the minimum and bring him to spring training, fine.  If he gets hot and shows enough to earn a roster spot, it’s a bonus, but if not you stash him in Columbus and keep him there in case someone gets hurt.  Any more of a commitment from the Indians would be a mistake.