The Cleveland Indians’ season is effectively over. The Tribe heads into a nine-game West Coast road trip a full nine games under .500 and an equal distance out of a playoff spot with just a month and a half left to play. This team might not be as bad as their 53-62 record would suggest, but the Indians aren’t good enough to climb out of the hole they dug themselves into after their 11-game losing streak and the several weeks of mediocre play that preceded it.
Johnny Damon is gone. Derek Lowe, Jeremy Accardo, and Jose Lopez have also been released. At this point, veteran players who provide marginal upgrades now but aren’t part of the Tribe’s future plans are wastes of roster spots. From here on out, playing time should be reserved for developing and seasoning players who might actually be able to contribute down the road. That’s why the Indians should use the last few weeks of the season to see what Shelley Duncan can do.
At first glance, Duncan seems like exactly the kind of player the Indians shouldn’t be bothering with at this point. The soon-to-be 33-year-old (his birthday is in September) never really had a prime, but if he’d had one he’d now be past it. He’s never played more than 85 games in a season and he’s generally regarded as a Quad-A player. And he doesn’t seem to be particularly well regarded in the Indians organization; the team frantically began searching for a replacement outfielder in the offseason after Grady Sizemore‘s injury, and under Manny Acta‘s stewardship Duncan has played only 32 games from start to finish in 2012.
But despite the flack Duncan gets from Cleveland fans and non-Northeast Ohio analysts alike, he’s actually pretty good. Duncan stepped to the plate 506 times for the Indians in 2010 and 2011 combined and posted a .771 OPS (109 wRC+). In less than a full season’s worth of irregular playing time, he racked up 22 homers and 83 RBI for a team largely bereft of power. At 1.7 fWAR and 2.0 WARP in that span Duncan’s solid bat and respectable defense made him approximately a league-average player—despite his status as a part-time role player and fan punching bag.
As every observant Indians fan knows, Duncan seems to play much better when he gets regular playing time than when he’s forced to scrounge for at-bats. He started in left field 13 games in a row at the beginning of the season (before Johnny Damon entered the picture) and in that time he OPSed .873 with more walks than strikeouts. Then, when he appeared in six straight games at the end of June and the beginning of July, he went 8-for-20 with three home runs. And when he played 26 games last September, he slugged .602 and hit seven home runs.
Those are cherry-picked stats from small sample sizes, but they’re emblematic of a trend that most Tribe faithful can attest to anecdotally. Let Duncan find his groove and he can look like a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter, and this team is in dire need of a bat in at least three places that Duncan could conceivably fill (left field, first base, DH). So why not let him get a real chance to show what he can do?
To their credit, the Indians already seem to be obliging, as Duncan has now been in the starting lineup eight games in a row (his longest streak in over three months). But will it last? We’ve seen that this team seems to think quite little of him, from the panic that led the front office to sign Johnny Damon even when Duncan was playing well to Manny Acta’s confusing preference for the clearly inferior Jose Lopez. We don’t know how the lineup cards will look for the rest of the year, but if the first four-and-a-half months are any indication Duncan probably shouldn’t get used to this kind of opportunity. And that’s not how it should be.
Despite what most people would have you believe, Shelley Duncan isn’t just a token right-handed bat or a placeholder until Cleveland finds another warm body to fill his spot on the bench. He’s a solid hitter who could make a real contribution to this team with an everyday job. Let this be an audition, a chance to show the Indians what he can do—it’s not like they have anything to lose.