January 22nd, 2012

Why a Johnny Damon reunion makes sense

Around this time two years ago, the Tigers were about midway through the six-week saga of signing Johnny Damon to be their left fielder and designated hitter. He had a good, not great season in Detroit, good for a .756 OPS and a .355 on-base percentage, then was told by the Tigers near season’s end they weren’t interested in re-signing him. Detroit was already plotting a pursuit of free-agent Victor Martinez.

So with Martinez likely out for the season, why would the Tigers have interest in going back to Damon?

Well, they have a few pretty good reasons. But the big picture is that this is a much different team, and a much better offense, than the one that split with Damon last offseason. Delmon Young is the veteran, run producing corner outfielder the Tigers lacked in 2010. Brennan Boesch isn’t a rookie anymore, and Alex Avila is an RBI guy.

The Tigers are searching for a bat to fill the opening left by Martinez, but if they can help it, they’d rather do it with an outfielder. They’d rather keep Miguel Cabrera at first base than have to move him in and out of the DH slot, and an outfielder would allow them some flexibility with Delmon Young in the DH role if they want. Granted, Damon has had just 46 starts in the outfield over the last two seasons, but he at least provides the capability.

Juan Pierre, another free agent linked to the Tigers, kind of falls in the same category, though he has been an everyday outfielder the last couple years in Chicago. Both have declining skills showing, especially in the field, but both can be productive near the top of the order.

Neither would likely be as expensive as a middle-of-the-order hitter, which is a factor. Though the Tigers did have an insurance policy on Victor Martinez, it isn’t believed to be for nearly as much as many have speculated (including myself).

Damon or Pierre would allow them to move either Young or  Boesch down while (in theory) improving the percentages of Cabrera coming up with runners on base. They also add a left-handed bat in the top third of the order, something both manager Jim Leyland and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski have referenced in recent days. Leyland, of course, has also referenced the appeal of adding a top-third order hitter and a better baserunner.

The idea, of course, hinges on somebody else batting behind Cabrera.  Young thrived last year batting in front of Cabrera in part because he saw a lot of strikes; nobody’s going to pitch around the guy batting in front of Cabrera. Boesch struggled mightily batting behind Cabrera down the stretch in 2010, but he’s a more mature hitter now. Leyland never wanted to bat Jhonny Peralta above sixth last year, and he didn’t want to put a whole lot of RBI pressure on Alex Avila either.

Interest in Damon appears to be in the early stages at this point. The Tigers haven’t had any direct contact with Damon, according to a source. But then, with the Yoenis Cespedes pursuit on hold pending his residency clearance in the Dominican Republic, the Tigers aren’t likely to add an outfielder until the Cespedes courtship gets resolved, or at least becomes clearer.

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