Johnny Damon has signed an interesting contract with the Cleveland Indians, as he has a full no-trade clause and can opt out on a specific day after Grady Sizemore returns. Sizemore is out for 8-12 weeks following back surgery, after receiving a new contract from the Indians this offseason. An earlier report stated that Damon would sign by May, and he has found his team for the time being. The Indians were interested in acquiring Bobby Abreu from the Los Angeles Angels, but they will have the 38-year-old lefty Johnny Damon instead.
The 1.1 WAR projected LF will start at the position for the Indians, but expect Shelley Duncan to also receive some playing time there. Last season, Damon was worth 1.5 WAR for the Tampa Bay Rays, as his BABIP slipped to .284. This led to a .261 batting average and a .326 OBP, but it should be noted that his walk rate collapsed to 7.9% after back-to-back seasons of 11.3%. Still, Damon did double his home run output to 16 dingers in 2011, and he finished with his second straight 109 wRC+ season. Although he has lost more than a step at 38, Damon is a decent baserunner (19 steals last year). However, he is also starting to decline on defense and his bat is mediocre for his position.
We are seeing the signs of decline come more rapidly for Johnny Damon, because he is swinging (and chasing) at more pitches. This has led to a drop in his ability to make contact with pitches, and he is receiving less first pitch strikes as a result. Damon whiffed on 8% of the pitches thrown at him for the first time in his career, so things have quickly deteriorated for the left fielder ever since he left the New York Yankees.
The projection systems see Johnny Damon as a 1.5 WAR player next season, and he is a solid addition for the Indians at this point and will help this club. He isn’t a good player anymore, but he is a quality replacement in left field and is a better player than Duncan. Damon is still a solid offensive player who can steal a few bases, and he’s a slightly better defensive player than Duncan.
The projection systems view Shelley Duncan as a 1 WAR player, and his only quality attributes are his power and ability to hit lefties. He does not get on base as well as Johnny Damon, and he will receive playing time behind the former Boston Red Sox OF.
Duncan has a career 113 wRC+ against lefties with a 98 wRC+ against righties, while Damon barely hits righties better than lefties. Duncan’s wide split means that he will platoon with Damon to a certain degree, because he has value to the Indians when hitting lefties. Damon is also a quality hitter against lefties, so he will also receive playing time against same-handed hitters; just not as much as Duncan. Damon will receive the starts and some appearances off the bench in place of Duncan when a righty reliever enters the game.
The signing of Johnny Damon provides good value to Cleveland until Sizmore returns, because this half-platoon will help boost this team’s offense. Duncan’s slight weaknesses against righties will not have to be exposed with Johnny Damon on the team, and the new LF will receive the majority of the PAs and will face lefty relievers in games he starts. He is slightly better against righties in his career, but the difference (8 wRC+) isn’t nearly as pronounced as the difference between righties and lefties for Shelley Duncan.