by Ryan Isley
Leave it to the Cleveland Indians to make a move out of desperation and sign a player based more on name than on his actual playing ability at this point in his career.
The Indians have needed to get offense since early last season but continued to ignore the glaring hole in their lineup. At the trade deadline last year, the Indians sent their top two pitching prospects to Colorado for Ubaldo Jimenez and stood pat with what they had offensively.
Going into this season, they brought in first baseman Casey Kotchman, who hit .306 last season after hitting .218 and .217 in 2009 and 2010. While he had a better year offensively in 2011, Kotchman was brought in for his defense because Carlos Santana and Matt LaPota were such hacks at first base that they made Travis Hafner look like a gold glove first baseman.
They then relied on Grady Sizemore to stay healthy and hit at the top of the order. Insert your own joke here.
When Sizemore was injured yet again and put on the 60-day disabled list to start the season, the Indians entered the 2012 campaign with Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley, Shelley Duncan and Aaron Cunningham as their options in the outfield. As one could probably guess, the Indians offense sputtered out of the gate.
In their first five games, the Indians have hit a paltry .176 as a team – and were hitting just .153 before collecting 10 hits against the White Sox in their 10-6 loss Wednesday afternoon. It is safe to say that the Indians were still in need of offense.
Enter Johnny Damon. According to reports, the Indians have signed the 38-year-old free agent outfielder to a contract for this season.
Damon is no longer the Johnny Damon he was for the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2005, nor is he the same player he was for the New York Yankees in 2008.
Damon is one of those players that a team might be interested in talking to just to gauge what other teams are thinking about him. But when that team realizes that they are the only ones with interest, they back off because 29 other teams can’t all be wrong.
Damon has become like that woman you see at a bar and know that back in her better days she was a great catch but of late has become someone you flirt with at the bar to see the reaction you get from your buddies. Once they all shake their head, you walk away with no damage being done.
So basically – to keep the Indians theme going – if Johnny Damon was a woman, he would be Tawny Kitaen.
Damon hit .271 with eight homeruns and 51 runs batted in and added 11 stolen bases in 145 games for the Tigers in 2010 and then hit .261 with 16 homeruns and 73 runs batted in and 19 steals in 150 games for the Tampa Bay Rays last season. While those numbers aren’t terrible (they aren’t great either), he did so while spending the majority of the time at designated hitter – a luxury he will not have in Cleveland because the Indians continue to be hamstrung by having Hafner at DH, making it impossible to shift their lineup too much.
Putting Damon in the outfield might be an adventure worthy of breaking out the circus music. While Damon was once a very good defensive outfielder, he has aged and his range isn’t what it used to be. Add in his weak throwing arm and it might not take Indians fans long to sour on the thought of trotting him out there on a daily basis. Just how bad is Damon’s arm? Think Sizemore – only worse.
One other thing that is baffling about this move is that it probably means the Indians will designate Aaron Cunningham for assignment, as he is out of options. While Cunningham hasn’t given them a real reason to not make this move, adding Damon and releasing Cunningham makes the Indians lineup more left-hand dominant than it already was – and it was already a point of contention for some.
If that is the move made, the Indians will feature seven players who are left-handed hitters, while having just four right-handed hitters – all of whom will not be regular starters with Damon added (Lou Marson, Jose Lopez, Jason Donald and Duncan). Add in two switch hitters and the Indians have only six guys who can swing from the right side of the plate.
Assuming that Damon replaces Duncan in the starting lineup, the Indians will run out a team on a regular basis with seven left-handed bats and two right-handed hitters (both switch hitters) – with the possibility of having five straight lefties at the end of the lineup and then that would be followed by a lefty at the top – whether it is Brantley or Damon.
There are also reports out there that the Indians will include an opt-out clause for Damon once Sizemore is back and healthy (assuming this ever happens), which would throw out the window the angle of the Indians getting Damon because of his postseason experience. Should that opt-out clause be included, we will all know that Damon was just a rent-a-player stopgap for the Indians for a couple of months.
If that is the case, the Indians should have foreseen the inevitable Sizemore injury and that non-production of their offense and been proactive. But of course, the Indians waited until it was too late and tried to stand status quo with what they had.
The reason the Indians are having their hand forced to sign a player like Damon is because they have not been able to do a good job in breeding outfielders in the minor leagues. Instead of taking guys who are destined to be outfielders and working with them at one position, the Indians have had a habit over the years to take a guy and have him be a utility guy who can play LF/1B/DH. Unfortunately, none of these guys have really panned out and the Indians are now stuck when it comes to finding outfield success.
You never know – the Indians might get lucky and this signing will turn out to be what catapults them for a couple of months and keeps them in contention. Then again, it might just be another one of those Cleveland signings that turns out to be useless.
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