Indians complete signing of Damon
Outfielder to get at-bats in Minors before joining Cleveland
SEATTLE -- It had been known for several days that veteran outfielder Johnny Damon was being fitted for his Indians uniform, but there was still the matter of making things official.
Cleveland took that step on Tuesday, announcing that it had signed Damon to a one-year Minor League contract. That served as the first step in getting Damon prepared to join the Indians' lineup and outfield within the next few weeks.
"We think Johnny has a chance to help our Major League team," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said on Tuesday. "He's not only a guy that has demonstrated a track record of producing at the Major League level, but also is a guy that has a significant amount of postseason experience and is a guy that's universally respected."
While the Tribe continues to play out its April schedule with the current group in place, Damon will be taking part in a kind of abbreviated Spring Training to get himself in game shape for the ballclub. The possibility exists that Damon could join the Indians later this month, but an early-May arrival might be more realistic.
Damon, whose contract will be worth a reported $1.25 million with another $1.4 million possible in performance bonuses once he is on the Major League roster, will work out and garner at-bats at extended spring camp in Goodyear, Ariz., prior to being assigned to a Minor League affiliate. It is most likely that he will play for Triple-A Columbus before being deemed ready to join Cleveland.
Antonetti said it is too early to say when exactly Damon might be promoted to Cleveland.
"It's a little bit tough to say specifically," Antonetti said. "We're hopeful that in a couple of weeks he'd be ready to contribute at the Major League level. Johnny probably has an earlier timetable than that, but it's really just going to be dependent upon how well he progresses through baseball activities."
In a conference call from Cleveland's Arizona complex, Damon said he spent time hitting, fielding and working out on Tuesday. He was not prepared to make any predictions about when he might be ready to join the Tribe, though.
"I guess we really can't put a timetable on it," Damon said. "I kept myself in pretty good shape during the offseason. That's why I don't think it's going to be too long. But I also understand that when the Cleveland Indians do get me, I need to be in great shape and just be healthy and be ready to go."
In the meantime, the Indians will stick with Shelley Duncan in left field, which is the position most likely to be occupied or shared by the 38-year-old Damon. Over the past two years, Damon has spent the bulk of his time as a designated hitter in stints with the Tigers and Rays, but he said he wants to show people that he can still handle the outfield.
"I have to go out there and play well and let [manager] Manny Acta see that I can still do it," Damon said. "I also understand that Shelley Duncan is the starting left fielder right now. I'm coming in more of a platoon role. If Manny can't keep me out of the lineup, then I'll be in more. If Shelley Duncan keeps hitting home runs and putting runs on the board, then Shelley deserves to be out there."
Initial reports of Damon joining the Indians came early Thursday morning in the wake of a subpar season-opening homestand. Cleveland went 1-4 in series against the Blue Jays and White Sox and limped out of town with a .176 team batting average. Since then, however, the Tribe's offense has swung soundly in the opposite direction.
The Indians hit .333 in a convincing sweep of Kansas City over the weekend, piling up 32 runs at Kauffman Stadium. That marked the most runs amassed in a three-game set of any kind since the Tribe scored 37 runs in a sweep of Tampa Bay from April 7-9, 2000. It also represented the first time in club history that it scored at least eight runs in its first three road games of a season.
Damon, a veteran of 17 seasons in the big leagues, hit .261 with 16 home runs and 73 RBIs for the Rays in 2011. The year before, he batted .271 with eight homers in a one-season tour with Detroit. That followed up a four-year stint with the Yankees in which the lefty averaged slightly more than 19 long balls per season.
He has 2,723 career hits -- 277 shy of joining the exclusive 3,000-hits club.
"When you look at what he was able to do last year," Antonetti said, "he produced and produced on a championship-caliber team. We still think that he's got some quality baseball left in him and feel like he has a chance to improve our team."
Antonetti added that the Indians have been in talks with Damon since the offseason, so adding the veteran to the fold was not a direct response to the lineup's woes out of the gates.
"We had a lot of discussion, significant discussion, with Johnny even before we played a game," Antonetti said. "When we signed Johnny, it was irrespective of the start to the season offensively for us."
Damon started 230 of his 295 games at DH over the past two seasons, but will be given a chance to handle left field when he joins the Indians. Cleveland already has a full-time, left-handed DH in veteran slugger Travis Hafner. Duncan won the left field job in Spring Training, but has served as a right-handed option off the bench for the past two years.
The Indians are also hoping to eventually have center fielder Grady Sizemore back in the fold once he recovers from surgery on his lower back. Sizemore, who has undergone six surgeries in the past four years for various injuries, is on the 60-day disabled list and is not eligible to be activated until June 3.
A few of the early reports of Damon's signing indicated that his contract would include an out clause that could be exercised upon Sizemore's return, which would push Michael Brantley from center field back to left. It is now believed that there is no such clause in the deal, but the Indians have informed Damon that they will reassess the situation later in the season.
"I wouldn't look to assign Johnny to another team without his consent," Antonetti said. "If we got to a point where, for whatever reason, Johnny wasn't happy with his role here, we agreed to kind of revisit it at that point. But, that's really the extent of it. There's nothing formal in place in the contract."
Antonetti noted that Damon would not necessarily be named the starter in left field immediately upon joining the big league team.
"That's really going to be dependent upon how everything is coming together at that point," Antonetti said. "We're still a number of days, or potentially a couple of weeks, away from that and a lot can change between now and then. When Johnny is ready, we feel he has the ability to contribute to our Major League team.
"What role that will be will be dependent upon a lot of factors, including the productivity of other guys on the roster as well as Johnny's productivity."
Duncan plans on doing all he can to make the decisions even more complicated.
Entering Tuesday, Duncan led all Tribe regulars with a .320 average, .485 on-base percentage and .600 slugging percentage. He hit a towering three-run homer with two outs in the third inning on Sunday to help the Indians' push to a 13-7 win over the Royals. Duncan knows Damon from their days as teammates with the Yankees.
Damon also has former teammates in Indians pitcher Derek Lowe and first baseman Casey Kotchman. No matter how or where Damon fits in, Kotchman said the Tribe is getting a solid player.
"Johnny has a lot to offer any team," said Kotchman, who played with Damon last year with the Rays. "He's a winner, as history shows. He brings energy and is always upbeat. He never has a bad day. To have him on the team last year was critical.
"Over the course of six months, you're going to have ups and downs. It's nice to have somebody there who has been there and done that. Johnny always brings a positive attitude."