Damon's future in question as Rays sign Scott
Could Johnny Damon's days in Tampa Bay be over?
That could be the case in light of the news Wednesday afternoon that the Rays had reached a one-year deal with left-handed power hitter Luke Scott.
Scott, 33, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in late July with the Baltimore Orioles. But in his three previous seasons with the O's, the DeLand, Fla., native hit 23, 25 and 27 home runs respectively.
He's the kind of long-ball threat the Rays have coveted and, in fact, they had their eyes on him in 2010 as a midseason acquisition. The seven-year veteran, who played for Houston from 2005-2007, has a career batting average of .264 with 112 homers, 341 RBI and a slugging percentage of .493.
The arrival of Scott — whose deal reportedly includes a 2013 option and incentives — seems to put Damon's brief tenure with the Rays in jeopardy.
The left-handed Damon served as an everyday player for the team as designated hitter in 2011, and had an impact both with his play on the field and veteran leadership in the clubhouse. Known for his hustle and upbeat style, he hit .261 with 152 hits, 29 doubles, seven triples and 16 homers, driving in 73 runs and finishing with a .418 slugging percentage.
Despite Damon's ample contributions and experience, the Rays have made no secret of their desire to upgrade the power potential at the DH spot. And they've left the 38-year-old free agent dangling without a deal in the meantime.
If Scott is penciled into the lineup as DH as expected, that would likely spell the end of the line for Damon with the Rays — along with his chance of reaching the 3,000-hit mark with the team in the 2013 season. The Orlando, Fla., resident, who ascended an array of all-time offensive categories last year, is 227 hits shy of the milestone.
Damon's remaining possibilities with the Rays are as a platoon player at DH or first, or as a spare outfielder. But he needs to be an everyday player to reach 3,000-hit goal in a reasonable amount of time and might balk at signing on for a diminished role, depending upon his options elsewhere.
There's also been speculation that the Rays want to bulk up their power numbers at first base. That's where Casey Kotchman distinguished himself last year, both as one of the finest defensive first basemen in the majors and at the plate with a team-high .306 batting average. The lefty from nearby Seminole didn't display significant muscle, however (10 home runs, 48 RBI), and the club hasn't rushed to re-sign the 28-year-old free agent in spite of his strong overall season.
Scott has seen action at first, outfield and DH in each of his past three seasons, so his versatility gives manager Joe Maddon some options.
There are so many moving parts with the Rays still that it's hard to know how things will shake out in the coming months. There's been heavy speculation that the club will deal one of their starting pitchers, with Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann considered the most likely trade bait. But workhorse ace James Shields has even been the subject of trade speculation, as has center fielder B.J. Upton. So the lineup is anything but set.
Meanwhile, Damon has stayed in shape, hoping for an offer from the Rays. Wednesday morning at Disney World's Wide World of Sports Complex, he showed up to lend his support to a Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team practice.
A national spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project for the past seven years, Damon mingled with the former servicemen — all of whom lost a limb while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan — played some ball, signed autographs and posed for snapshots.
He also spoke of his desire to return to the Rays in 2012 during the morning practice, only hours before news of the Scott deal broke.
"There's some talk with them, some talk with other teams," he said. "Obviously, I love playing there, but for some reason they're looking for a DH and a first baseman. And I thought Kotchman and I were probably the two more consistent guys in the lineup last year. I know they want to upgrade the offense, but the offense is going to be fine as long as there's some production from the catching spot and shortstop.
"Those positions were hitting under .200 and obviously I think that's going to improve, and because of that, it's going to make the rest of the team improve. But Kotch and I keep hearing in the offseason that they want to get better there (DH and first)."
Damon talked about his hope to chase baseball history and the magic 3,000 hits mark in a Rays uniform as well.
"That's what I want to do, I want to keep climbing that list," he said. "But I know the Rays have a chance to win. And I know the chance to win is better with me, with my experience and my leadership."
He also stressed that he's in as good shape as ever.
"I've got to have legs — I have four kids I now I have to chase around," he said. "I'm still running down to first base in 3.8 or 3.9 (seconds) last year — much better than a bunch of the young guys. I've stayed in great physical shape throughout my career and I'm still strong. So we'll just have to see what happens. But I feel like I have a lot to give and have some milestones to try to reach. Hopefully I can start reaching them come April 1."
With the arrival of Scott, the question now is where.