It took a while, but Johnny Damon found his third new home in three years. Damon has reportedly accepted a deal with Cleveland that will give him a prorated $1.25 million base salary with another $1.4 million in incentives. The money is not that significant, relatively speaking, particularly given that Cleveland is trying to contend this season. The main issue is whether Damon can really anything to the team.
Two possible primary motivations for Cleveland signing Damon come to mind: Cleveland’s poor offensive showing over the first five games, and the gap left by Grady Sizemore‘s spring injury. Perhaps I am being too hasty, but I am going to rule out the former reason because I find it hard to believe that any front office in 2012 would sign a player (especially a non-impact player like the 38-year-old Damon) primarily because of just five April games of bad offense.
As for the Sizemore injury, obviously Damon is not a direct replacement for Sizemore, who was slated to play center field. However, Sizemore’s injury did cause some shuffling, with Michael Brantley going to center field and Shelley Duncan taking over in left. What sort of role does this leave for Damon, and what sort of impact could he have in that role? The initial suggestions have been that Damon will platoon with Duncan in left field. But before we examine that in particular, let’s look at what kind of player Damon seems to be currently.
Damon had an impressive offensive season as recently at 2009, when he won a World Series ring with the Yankees and provided a very memorable base running play along the way. Other than the diminished steals, 2009 was vintage Damon: .282/.365/.489 (124 wRC+), low strikeouts and above-average walks leading to a good on-base percentage, with the added bonus of the highest isolated power of his career (.207).
The Yankees let Damon walk (“Are they crazy? That Brett Gardner kid can’t start in left field! His bat does’t profile there!”) after the Series, and he signed on with Detroit at their primary DH. Pretty much everything stayed the same for Damon in Detroit, except for his isolated power, which dropped to .130, his lowest in years. He was still a productive hitter with a .340 wOBA, but given his advanced age and positional limitations, he was again on the market for a one-year deal.
Last year in Tampa Bay, he managed to duplicate 2010′s 109 wRC+, which is reasonable on the surface. The power slightly rebounded, but more disturbing was the big drop in his walk rate — all the way down to 7.9%. Whether Damon was being more aggressive in responding to the umpires’ calls or selfishly gunning for the 3,000-hit milestone is a matter for others to deliberate over. What it does do is take away from Damon’s projected offensive value. Both Steamer and ZiPS have his true talent offense for 2012 at about .325 wOBA, or about five runs above average over a full season.
Of course, if Damon were platooned with a right-handed hitter like Duncan, one would expect the platoon to produce a bit more than that. However, as I discussed in a different context, Damon is not necessarily a great choice for a platoon lefty because his regressed split is not all that big. Cleveland might get a few runs over a full season more depending how one projects Duncan (Steamer projects him to hit just about as well as Damon overall, ZiPS about five runs worse).
As with any platoon, fielding is an important consideration. Duncan is not known for his glove. However, while Damon may once have been a good defensive outfielder, without getting into controversial metrics one can deduce a fair amount about what teams think about his current abilities in the field from the fact that he spend the last two seasons primarily as a designated hitter. I would not be quick to give Damon the advantage in the field.
Depth helps, of course, but while after the last few years we should not expect a quick and smooth return for Sizemore, keep in mind that he is expected to return this summer. This matters because Damon probably needs some time to get into game shape after missing Spring Training. That also potentially cuts into Damon’s value to the team.
One possibility worth noting is that while incumbent Cleveland DH Travis Hafner is (probably) a better hitter than Damon, he has only played more than 100 games once in the last three seasons. Thus, with or without Sizemore, Damon (and Duncan) might be needed to fill in for Hafner if he misses a chunk of time again this season. That is worth considering for a team that probably does not want to have to rely on Matt LaPorta as their designated hitter while they still have hopes of the playoffs.
Johnny Damon does have his uses, even to an already heavily left-leaning lineup. While he may not be much of an upgrade, even as platoon partner, over Shelley Duncan, Cleveland is in a position where even Damon could provide a little offensive depth and insurance. That is not much to hope for, but Cleveland is not paying for much, either.