Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | February 21, 2010

Johnny Damon to Detroit

After what seems like an endless courtship and an extraordinarily drawn out process, the Detroit Tigers have finally come to an agreement with Outfielder Johnny Damon for a reported eight million dollars and one season. The deal is pending a physical and so similar to the Verlander extension, I’m writing this initial take without contract details, though it is likely that there won’t be any more to detail than what has been written. There’s an outside shot that there could be a clause wherein the Tigers cannot offer arbitration (Orlando Hudson got such a clause in his deal with the Twins) or some other form of incentives, but for now the only number we know is the 1 yr./$8m figure. If more comes out, there will be a post-script post on the matter.

Here is the quick file on Damon:

 

Year
 

 

PA
 

 

BA
 

 

OBP
 

 

SLG
 

 

HR
 

 

SB
 

 

wRC+
 

 

UZR/150*
 

 

Rtot/yr.*
 

 

2009 626 .282 .365 .489 24 12 132 -12.1 6.7
2008 623 .303 .375 .461 17 29 130 11.6 26.4
2007 605 .270 .351 .396 12 27 107 37.4 10.2
Car.
 

 

9433
 

 

.288
 

 

.355
 

 

.439
 

 

207
 

 

374
 

 

112
 

 

2.9**
 

 

11.5
 

 

 

* – Both defensive metrics are listed for his performance in Left Field, not in Center or overall in the Outfield.

** – UZR data only goes back to 2002, which cuts out more than half of Damon’s career games as a Left Fielder.

 

The move to add Damon ends weeks of speculation that really intensified last week. In general, Damon’s name is larger than his impact as a player at this stage and the news that has been surrounding his courtship and will likely surround his arrival will likely be bigger than his worth to the Tigers. That said, there really is very little to dislike about the signing. It is just about a total good. There were reports during the last few weeks that a two year deal was offered at one stage of the negotiations and such a move would have been poor on the Tigers behalf, but by limiting this to a one year deal Detroit gets a player who is a better than decent bet to be solid to add depth for this season.

While Damon is going to be a full-time starter for the Tigers, make no mistake in that the real advantage in signing him is for the depth that he provides to the roster. As a practical matter he no longer can play Center Field, which relegates him to Left Field (his arm isn‘t strong enough for Right). As a corner outfielder, a legitimate argument can be made that Damon is no better on balance then three corner outfielders the Tigers already have on the roster — Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, and Ryan Raburn. Even if one were to construct an argument that he is better than one or more of them, the improvement is only marginal at best. However, what the Damon signing likely will do is push the loser of the Austin Jackson/Clete Thomas battle for Center Field (where Jackson appears to be situated to begin the year as the starter) off of the roster. Unless a trade is made during the Spring, that would likely result in Ryan Raburn taking over the role of “bench outfielder” and having Raburn as your bench guy is a much stronger option than either Thomas or Jackson will likely be. In turn, when an inevitable injury happens to a Tiger outfielder (likely Guillen), they can now turn to the Thomas/Jackson loser first in Toledo before having to dig deeper into some less desirable options.

In essence, the Johnny Damon signing isn’t necessarily good for Damon himself, whose ability to perform in the future to the degree he has in even his recent past is subject to significant questions. The signing is good for the residual effect it has on the rest of the Tigers roster, all the way down to Toledo. It makes for a stronger, deeper team that can better withstand injuries.

Regarding Damon himself, it will be interesting to see what he is for the Detroit Tigers. There isn’t a very strong sample of his work in Left Field recently for defensive metrics to be highly telling (The most advanced current defensive metrics generally are most effective when taken in three year samples. In Damon’s case, not only do his numbers fluctuate wildly, but in 2007 and 2008 he split time between Left and Center Field, yielding awfully small and therefore volatile sample sizes) of what he’s capable of defensively, though the general “book” on him is that he still fields well and has pretty good instincts and range but a poor throwing arm.

Offensively, even at his age (35 last season) he’s coming off of the two best offensive seasons in his career, but there are some warning signs attached to his 2009 campaign. The effects of playing in Yankee Stadium III were well documented last season and it was particularly generous to left handed hitters. Damon’s home and road splits were quite dramatic last season. In roughly the same number of plate appearances between the two, Damon hit 17 home runs at home as opposed to 7 on the road. He also drew more walks at home (perhaps because pitchers recognized he was a bigger power threat there). ~300 plate appearances isn’t a terribly large sample, but given what we know about Yankee Stadium III and Damon’s age, it could very well be that Damon is closer to the player he was on the road last year (284/349/446) than the player he was at home.

In addition, last season saw Damon swing at more pitches out of the strike zone, made less contact, and hit considerably more balls into the air than at prior points in his career. It’s fully possible that Damon changed his batting approach in order to try to take advantage of Yankee Stadium, which may explain his dramatic rise in hitting fly balls. However, that doesn’t explain the decline in plate discipline and very modest decline in contact.

All told, it may be unwise to expect the same Damon in the olde English D that we were accustomed to seeing donning the pinstripes last year, but Damon still should be an excellent role player who can field capably and provide good production at the plate all while giving the Tigers some much needed depth on their bench. He also provides a left handed bat that the Tigers needed and he is not a terrible hitter against left-handed pitching either. While I characterized the upgrade as “marginal” in an earlier paragraph there is some context needed. This is a division where the top teams — One of which was the Tigers — Were tied after 162 games. In the 163rd game, they were tied after nine innings. The other teams in the division have not done much to help themselves in the off-season (though both Chicago and Kansas City should get better either through the development of specific young players or certain players making full injury recoveries) except for Minnesota, which was the other top team. Where the teams are so evenly matched, even a marginal upgrade can have a tremendous effect on the bottom line end result. Consequently, this move is an outstanding one for the Tigers and one that puts them a step closer in their quest to take the elusive Central Division crown.

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