Fielding ability is not the reason the Indians might sign Johnny Damon.
Last night, the ubiquitous Ken Rosenthal of Fox reported that the Cleveland Indians were on the verge of signing Johnny Damon. This news comes just a few weeks after the Tribe was reported to be pursuing a trade for the Angels’ Bobby Abreu. In both cases, the team is looking to upgrade an outfield unit that promises to be one of the majors’ weakest offensively.
Thus far, Shelley Duncan has started every game in left field, but he’s a career .221/.229/.433 hitter against right-handed pitching and his .264/.335/.457 against left-handers isn’t all that special either. At 32, Duncan is long past the point where it was safe to say he is what he is, and while he’s not without value, he’s best cast as a reserve. Duncan has been fine thus far, hitting .294/.400/.529 with a home run, but that’s not going to last.
Duncan is playing so often because Grady Sizemore’s back surgery has pushed Michael Brantley to center field. With some speed (but not a ton), only a hint of power, little production against left-handed pitchers and good defense, Brantley was born to be a second-division starter or a reserve on a good team.
Finally, Shin-Soo Choo, the right fielder. From 2008 to 2010, he hit .302/.397/.500. When healthy, he is a tremendous hitter. Last year was ruined by a mélange of injuries, though, and even though he’s just 29, we need to make sure he’s OK before pronouncing him overqualified for this unit.
Johnny Damon’s center field days are long in the past—he still has some speed, but his range, instincts and throwing have greatly diminished.
He won’t push Brantley, but if he can reproduce what he did over the last two seasons—.266/.340/.409—he should be an upgrade over Duncan. It helps that Duncan isn’t exactly a Gold Glover out there himself. Damon does very well against left-handed pitching, so he doesn’t need to be platooned, but it’s worth remembering that with Travis Hafner around, designated hitter is locked up, so the more Damon plays, the more his glove is going to expose him.
Overall, though, this is a very minor move, upgrading a position from inadequate to something like merely passable. In terms of affecting the battle with the Tigers for the AL Central, it almost certainly won’t, and wouldn’t even if Damon somehow found one more .300 season in his bones. The Indians have too many other shortcomings compared to their rivals.
The most interesting aspect of the move is that it would continues Damon’s dark horse question for 3,000 hits—277 to go—one that, even if it stalls out somewhere in the 2,800s, will make him a point of contention for years to come and a great subject for Hall of Fame argument even if he lacks Hall of Fame quality.