The Cleveland Indians have 25 spots available on their roster. Management determined that one of those spots should be filled by Rajai Davis. Surely this moment had something to do with the decision. His offensive production in 2017 (0.3 wins above replacement in two stops, per Baseball-Reference) likely had less to do with it.
Davis will be 37 years on Opening Day. His major league debut came in 2006 and his career has lasted longer than 50 of the 53 players drafted by the Indians that year, with the exceptions of Steven Wright, Chris Archer, and Josh Tomlin. While he has played his role well through the years (see linked video above), he is projected to be worse than replacement in 2018.
At FanGraphs, Steamer and ZiPS have Davis pegged for -0.1 fWAR this season, producing negative value in terms of both offense (-3.4 and -12.1 runs, respectively) and defense (-1.4 and -1.3 runs, respectively). The only area where Davis is expected to be valuable is baserunning, where Steamer and ZiPS project 0.6 and 2.9 runs above average, respectively (though, it should be noted, baserunning is included in overall offensive numbers, so his speed is not projected to overcome his poor batting).
Projection systems are an attempt to use math to create a best estimate of the player’s true talent. They’re worthwhile, but imperfect. So, let’s look elsewhere to set expectations for Davis this year.
According to research from Beyond the Box Score, age-37 centerfielders average less than 1.5 WAR. But those numbers include age-37 seasons from the likes of Barry Bonds (268 OPS+, 11.8 bWAR), Babe Ruth (201 OPS+, 8.3 bWAR), and Hank Aaron (194 OPS+, 7.2 bWAR). I’d point out that Davis is not comparable to those players, but that would be an insult to anyone reading.
Of Davis’s top five comparable players by B-Ref’s similarity score, only number five, Milt Thompson, played at 37 years old. Between the Dodgers and Rockies in 1996, Thompson garnered 137 at bats in 62 games, collecting an OPS+ of -11 and -0.5 bWAR. To be honest, that seems a pretty fair assessment of what could be expected of Davis, or at least it matches what I expect — scant at bats and (far) less than replacement value offensively and defensively.
An individual comparison, however, is probably not most instructive in this instance. Rather, consider Cleveland’s starting outfield each year this decade.
Indians opening day outfield
|2017||Michael Brantley||Tyler Naquin||Abraham Almonte|
|2016||Marlon Byrd||Rajai Davis||Collin Cowgill|
|2015||Michael Brantley||Michael Bourn||Brandon Moss|
|2014||Michael Brantley||Nyjer Morgan||David Murphy|
|2013||Michael Brantley||Michael Bourn||Drew Stubbs|
|2012||Shelley Duncan||Michael Brantley||Shin-Soo Choo|
|2011||Austin Kearns||Michael Brantley||Shin-Soo Choo|
|2010||Michael Brantley||Grady Sizemore||Shin-Soo Choo|
Not the picture of stability. Shin-Soo Choo was the last outfielder to start at the same position for four consecutive opening days for the Tribe (2009-2012), and Grady Sizemore the last to start five consecutive seasons (2006-2010). The picture for this year is still a little murky, but it will certainly not be the same as last year with Michael Brantley to start the season on the 10-day disabled list and Abraham Almonte opening the year in Columbus.
Based on the table, we can expect that whatever Cleveland puts on the field in Seattle on Thursday will not be the same that is on the field in a potential postseason series. So it’s fair to assume Davis’s tenure with the team this time around may not be as lengthy as in 2016. But what can we expect from Davis? How about a line like Collin Cowgill in 2016: 9 games, 14 plate appearances, -17 OPS+, -0.2 bWAR.
Such a line begs the question of whether Cowgill deserved his time on the big league roster. How deserving Davis is of a roster spot is already in question, but if his impact is similar to Cowgill’s in ‘16, what’s the harm really? The Tribe did fairly well that year, after all.