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Balls In Play: Damon and Santana

Carlos crushing it: not a problem.
Carlos crushing it: not a problem.

Ocker: Johnny Damon addition doesn’t add up

How much more punch can Damon bring to the Indians’ offense? Will he even play enough to matter? If he does get the majority of the at-bats in left, Duncan will become a virtual nonentity? Is that what the Tribe’s deep thinkers want?

Few things have been more puzzling this season than the media's puzzlement over the Johnny Damon signing. I guess they're just over-thinking this. It is what it is. We have signed a veteran outfielder (who can't win a starting job anywhere) to a minor league deal for the usual and most obvious reason: depth.

Damon is going to make less than the league average, very possibly half the league average in fact. It is only his status as a celebrity, not his current status as a player, that confuses the issue. I won't bore you with the stats OR the scouting, because I think we all know what Damon is — a completely different player than his old teammate Trot Nixon was in 2007, yet somehow summing up to just about the same grand total, maybe a bit less. We could let the guy go tomorrow, having ventured less than we pay two obscure relievers every single year.

There are two very basic reasons why the Indians have signed Damon, and both are hard to argue:

1. Our left field situation could very quickly deteriorate at any moment to a Dellucci-Michaels situation.

I know that nobody likes to think about that, and perhaps that's why nobody is saying it. But if you're responsible for running the Cleveland Indians, are you really going to depend on that not happening?

2. Our other two starting outfielders are also far from sure things.

Brantley in particular has both a significant injury history and zero big-league seasons (so far) completed with performance above replacement level — again, not something people like to think about. Choo missed nearly three months last season with an injured wrist, which apparently some pitchers still like to throw at. I won't even mention Choo's slump last season, as even the sucky version of Choo is better than our other depth options, Damon included. I will mention that the Indians have another injury-prone lefty bat in Travis Hafner.

What's left unsaid here is that Sizemore's situation is the great unknown. I don't think any of us think the Indians can depend on him coming back for any significant amount of time. The larger point is that there are a great many scenarios, which are very easy to imagine, under which Damon would provide a useful depth option.

I mean, seriously, has Ocker forgotten how many outfield starts last season went to Kearns (44), Buck (40), Fukudome (57), and Carrera (51)? Has everyone? How about the number of outfield starts that went to Crowe (9) and Head (5)? Heck, we once started Luis Valbuena in the outfield last year! And just like this year, we had Sizemore, Choo, Brantley and Duncan — all under contract in 2011. Is someone going to try to tell me that just because we picked up Aaron Cunningham — and ditched Fukudome, Kearns and Buck — Johnny Damon can't possibly make sense?

After years of following baseball, it is really that hard to imagine that our outfield situation this exact week may not be our exact outfield situation for the entire season? Because that really seems to be the disconnect here. "Brantley's healthy, Duncan is mashing — what could possibly go wrong?"

The red herring is Damon's "out clause," which turns out to be nothing more than the same gentleman's commitment then-GM Mark Shapiro gave to Alex Cora in 2005, precipitating a mid-season trade to Boston for the notorious Ramon Vazquez once Johnny Peralta emerged and sucked up all the playing time. Or the handshake deal with Rusty Branyan, resulting in a trade to Seattle for Carrera. (Speaking of things we don't like to think about, did you know that Carrera came to Seattle from the Mets in the 11-player Gutierrez/Valbuena deal?)

Again, it's only Damon's celebrity, not his actual status as a player, that turned this into a big deal. Maybe what should have been a big deal is that Damon is one of those nefarious bastards who took the money and betrayed all things decent by signing with the Yankees. I mean, I'm glad he was nice to APV's kid and all, but don't we have to admit that Damon was one of the top five Jackasses of this century so far? I'm not saying he's Clemens or Sabathia, but how different is he?

Santana is very clearly one of the game’s best young players and most valuable assets, ranking 13th in our trade value series last summer and likely to place in the top ten this year. The Tribe isn’t getting much if any discount however, they’re paying Santana the market rate for elite offensive catchers and only secured one free agent year.

... proving once again that just because you can do basic math, doesn't mean you understand value or risk management. Fangraphs is Kingmanesque.

The idea is that Carlos Santana's lockup deal doesn't project to work out all that much better for the Indians than lockup deals for other star catchers have worked out for their teams. The most obvious point this misses is that just because other clubs have gotten good deals doesn't mean that the Indians aren't getting one now. The author also forgets to factor in seven years of salary inflation, and other nits I could pick, but really, let's not bore ourselves with the details.

Instead, let's look at a few case studies for star players who didn't get locked up to deals like this.

DEREK JETER (1999, 2000, 2001): Awarded $5 million in first-year arbitration hearing (vs. $3.2 million). Negotiated $10 million salary in lieu of second-year arbitration ($10.5 million vs. $9.5 million). Negotiated ten-year contract in lieu of third-year arbitration ($18.5 million vs. $14.25 million). Given the massive contract and the Yankees poor track record in arbitration, I'm calling this a three-year haul of $22 million.

RYAN HOWARD (2008, 2009, 2010): Awarded $10 million in first-year arbitration hearing (vs. $7 million). Negotiated three-year contract in lieu of second-year arbitration ($18 million vs. $14 million). Howard got $15 million and $19 million respectively for his second and third arbitration seasons — and note that it took an additional $20 million to buy out his first year of free agency, even though it was only two years into the future rather than five. Even disregarding that free agent year, this is a three-year haul of $44 million.

PRINCE FIELDER (2009, 2010, 2011): Negotiated $18 million, two-year contract in lieu of first-year arbitration ($8 million vs. $6 million). Negotiated $15.5 million contract in lieu of third-year arbitration (no numbers exchanged). The Brewers never got a meaningful opportunity to buy out one year of free agency, let alone to sign Fielder long-term. This is a three-year haul of $33.5 million.

I'm sure that at this point you're saying to yourself, "Jay, you're comparing Santana to three MVP contenders, isn't that a little nutty?" And my answer is, no, it's not nutty at all. These are not logical comps for Santana, clearly. And yet, one scenario that the Indians do have to consider in their planning is the one where Santana becomes a straight-up superstar. All he has to do is hit 35 bombs — and he doesn't even have to do it this year. He can do it in 2012, or in 2013, or in 2014. Santana's age in those three seasons: 26, 27 and 28.

Not so nutty now, is it. And in any of those scenarios, without a lockup deal in hand, the Indians' payroll is kind of screwed. Of course, Prince Fielder breaking out into an unaffordable superstar broadly fell into the category of "nice problem to have" for Brewers fans. On the other hand, exactly how nice was that problem, really? If that happened with Santana sans lockup deal, it actually would be kind of tragic. We'd have this amazing player but also a diminished ability to bring in a handful of role players, which frankly we badly need to have. That first free-agent season would be less than a pipe dream if he remained healthy.

Let's be honest, we'd be talking about trading Santana rather than letting him walk. Granted, we may end up talking about that anyway, but he'll be a much more valuable trade piece with this particular contract attached. The worst thing a small-market team can let happen is not to be able to afford its own stars through arbitration. It's an unforgivable squandering of an opportunity, and one that the Indians have never let happen since the current Peters-to-Antonetti lineage began over 20 years ago. We may think about trading Santana in his (now delayed) walk year, perhaps even before, but it won't be because we can't afford to keep him while surrounding him with complementary players to contend.

I won't bore you with salary inflation calcs, but do bear in mind that Santana's arbitration years are 2014, 2015, 2016. So as you look at the capsule histories above, remember to add in five years of salary inflation for Fielder's scenario, six years for Howard's, and 15 years for Jeter's.

Anyway, weird as it sounds, superstardom has risks and downsides, too, and the Indians are now well protected against them. Or, if you prefer, they are now extremely well positioned to capitalize on this player's upside.