Next stop: The starting lineup _ and maybe the 3,000-hit club.
The 38-year-old outfielder signed a minor league contract on Tuesday, the next step before he joins the major league club and possibly moves into a permanent spot in left field. The sides agreed on a $1.25 million deal last week, when the Indians were off to a sluggish start with a team batting average below .200.
However, general manager Chris Antonetti said he had been in talks with Damon and his agent Scott Boras long before the Indians opened 1-4. The Indians believe Damon, entering his 17th season and with an impressive resume of postseason experience, can keep them keep climbing in the standings.
“We still think he has some quality baseball in him,” Antonetti said.
Damon, who can earn another $1.4 million in performance bonuses based on plate appearances, is excited about joining the Indians _ his seventh AL team. He’ll be reunited with former teammates Shelley Duncan, Derek Lowe and Casey Kotchman.
“They’re a team that’s building for the future, but they also have a chance to win now,” Damon said. “That’s a good thing to have. They locked up a few players and I know they might be working on a few more, possibly. It’s that right mix. A team that’s as youthful as they are, and adding a guy like Derek Lowe during the offseason, and now adding a guy like me, hopefully we can give them a boost and some experience.”
Damon is at the team’s year-round training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., getting game ready after not being in a spring camp for the first time since he was picked in the first round by Kansas City in 1995. Damon, who needs 277 hits to reach 3,000 in his career, will likely spend some time with Triple-A Columbus before joining the Indians.
Damon thinks he can be ready soon.
“I feel like I can be ready in a week,” said Damon, who spent Tuesday running, shagging flies and lifting weights. “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 ready to go.”
When he’s brought up, Damon will likely take over in left field for Duncan, a part-time player in the past who has been starting this season. Duncan was needed in left because the Indians had to implement an outfield shift, moving Michael Brantley over to center with Grady Sizemore on the disabled list following back surgery.
Damon knows there are no guarantees he’ll play every day. He’ll have to earn playing time and continue to produce to stay in manager Manny Acta’s lineup.
“I understand the game and how guys can get hot and you can’t take them out of the lineup,” he said on a conference call. “I also understand that I can get hot and it can be tough to get me out of the lineup. I’m here for the team. It’s not a story about me. It’s a story about the Cleveland Indians adding another guy to help them throughout the season. Whatever role it’s going to be _ a platoon thing or an everyday thing or spell guys when they’re tired, play a little first _ I’m up for whatever.”
A career .286 hitter, Damon also brings the Indians leadership and playoff experience. As Antonetti said, Damon is “universally respected” and can serve as a mentor to some of Cleveland’s younger players. But the Indians believe his biggest impact will be between the lines despite approaching 40, when most major leaguers have retired.
Last season, Damon batted .261 with 29 doubles, seven triples, 16 homers, 73 RBIs and 19 steals in 150 games for the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the 16th consecutive season Damon has played at least 140 games, a feat he shares with only Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson and Pete Rose.
Damon has appeared in 59 postseason games for the Rays, Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
The 3,000-hit milestone is right in front of him, but Damon said it was never a personal goal.
He’ll retire one day, but he’s not planning to stop anytime soon.
“I’m playing to win,” he said. “I’m playing for the Tribe fans. I’m playing for the Indians organization. I’m not really playing for myself. Obviously, I always want to go out there and play well and treat the game with respect, but there’s a lot of fans out there that really wanted to see me keep pushing and keep fighting.
“I wasn’t ready to pack it up. So 3,000 could be on the horizon, but if it comes or not, when I leave this game I want to make sure there’s no regrets. As long as I keep doing what I did last year, and hopefully this is a successful year, I’m going to keep going.”