After cutting ties with outfield mainstay Carl Crawford, as well as veteran back-up Gabe Kapler, the Tampa Bay Rays are rumored to be in the market for Johnny Damon. Assuming the price tag is reasonable, this would be the kind of low-risk, potentially high reward deal available every year to teams who wait out the annual free agent feeding frenzy.
Damon is a great buy-low guy for 2011. Before last year’s somewhat diminished showing of 1.9 WAR, Damon had strung together eight consecutive seasons with 2+ WAR. As long as he provides what he provided in Detroit last season, he would be a valuable member of the Rays. And there’s a good case to be made that he could provide more value than that. Looking at Damon’s reduced power numbers, it would be easy to finger Comerica Park as the culprit, but that’s not the case. Damon actually slugged eight of his nine homers at home last season, and had a decent .144 ISO there as well. It was on the road where he had problems, as his HR/FB% of 1.2% on the road was ridiculously low, even for Damon. His batted ball numbers don’t provide a ton of help in this regard. His line drive percentages were essentially the same, home or road, and his ground ball and fly ball percentages were within five percent of each other as well.
For whatever reason, Damon just didn’t cotton to the other AL Central ballparks in 2010. His home triple slash numbers of .291/.359/.435 were perfectly reasonable, as was his line of .291/.391/.410 in 156 plate appearances at all ballparks outside of the AL Central. But at the four other AL Central parks he hit a measly .205/.308/.315 in 146 plate appearances. Struggling at Target Field didn’t put him in any sort of exclusive club, but until last season he had hit .301/.360/.452 in the other three ballparks within the division. Since that poor performance was out of line not just with the rest of his 2010 numbers but also his previously established track record, we can treat it as an outlier until he shows decline across multiple seasons.
Getting back to the Rays, Damon would be a terrific complement to Jennings in the outfield, since Jennings hits right-handed and Damon left-handed. In addition, since Jennings has dealt with injuries in all but one season of his pro career, and Damon is generally either healthy or playing effectively through pain, having Damon should be a security blanket. And while Damon has been derided for years for his poor throwing arm, the Tigers showed last season that if his outfield play is limited, Damon can be effective in the pasture. In 13 of the 31 games Damon started in left last season, he was removed in either the seventh, eighth or ninth inning for defense, with Don Kelly serving as his defensive caddy. As a result, Damon posted the second highest UZR/150 mark of his career (4.3). The Rays, whether by using Jennings, Justin Ruggiano or someone else, are more than able to replicate this strategy.
But most of Damon’s time will probably be spent as the designated hitter, and here he provides flexibility as well. Matt Joyce is ostensibly listed as the team’s DH, but Joyce was one of the Rays better defenders last season. Damon’s presence would free up manager Joe Maddon to use Joyce in the field more frequently. There were several times last season when Joyce played right field, with Ben Zobrist sliding in to second to give Sean Rodriguez the night off, and that was when Maddon’s DH options were people like Willy Aybar, Pat Burrell and Brad Hawpe.
And that brings us to the final point – Damon would stabilize the lineup. In the past two seasons, the Rays have used eight players at DH for five or more games: Aybar, Hank Blalock, Burrell, Joe Dillon, Hawpe, John Jaso, Dan Johnson and Joyce. Compare that to just two for the Red Sox – Mike Lowell and David Ortiz. This is partially due to the fact that Maddon likes to mix things up, but it is also partially due to the fact that the Rays just weren’t getting any production from their DH slot. Last season, they generated -0.7 WAR from the position, a number that tied them for next-to-last in the AL with Toronto. In 2009, they were dead last at -0.3 WAR. Damon may not DH every single game, but when he does, he should derive positive value, and the 2011 Rays would be better for it.
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