Just about one year ago today, I wrote this piece explaining why I thought the Rays should simply release Pat Burrell and sign Johnny Damon. This morning, after a restless night of sleep thanks to some horrendous thunderstorms in the Orlando area, I awake to news from Yahoo’s Tim Brown and Scott Boras’, err, SI’s Jon Heyman, that the Rays and Damon are close on signing a new deal.
The unknowns are dollars and position so it would not be fair to properly grade this move at this time. What we do know is that Damon is still an above-average offensive player in this league. His OPS has been above league six of the past seven seasons and he has been 52 of 61 on the basepaths with managers that lack Maddon’s lead foot on the running game. He has had double digit walk rates each of the past five seasons which fits in very well with the Rays’ style of hitting and he also makes excellent contact as his highest strikeout rate at any point in his career is just 16%.
Damon’s overall offensive numbers were hindered last season by a manager who did not send runners very often and by a park that is punitive to left-handed hitting. The Tigers were second in all of baseball last season in Stolen Base Opportunities (SBO) – which are defined by Baseball-Reference.com as plate appearances in which a runner was on first or second with the next base open. Last season, Detroit had 2446 such opportunities and stole just 69 bases as a team (3%). Meanwhile, the Rays were below the league average with just 2253 opportunities and yet stole 172 bases (8%). Damon has attempted just 24 steals over the past two seasons on teams built around power, but has only been caught once.
Comerica Park, according to the park factor splits at statcorner.com, was also punitive to lefties as only triples graded out as favorable. Compare that to Tropicana Field that is more favorable for doubles and triples, and the switch in parks should help Damon get that slugging percentage higher than the .401 he had last season.
A Damon signing also likely punches a ticket to AAA for Desmond Jennings as Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, and Damon would all have to fight for playing time at the three outfield spots, DH, second base, and possibly even first base. It makes much more sense from a development standpoint to have Jennings start the season in AAA rather than sit the bench fighting for at bats with that group. If Dan Johnson flops at first base or someone is traded in-season, an opportunity would arise for Jennings and adding the extra year of control by keeping Jennings in AAA until June is in line with past actions by the front office.
More on this if/when dollars, terms, and position are announced by the club.