The Cleveland Indians made a somewhat surprising roster move Wednesday afternoon when they called Jeanmar Gomez up from Triple-A Columbus to help shore up the team’s exhausted bullpen. In order to make room for Gomez on the 25-man roster, the Tribe designated Shelley Duncan for assignment.
In all likelihood, this move marks the end of Duncan’s three-year tenure with Cleveland. As a fairly (though wrongly) unpopular figure among Tribe fans who has primarily been a bench player and is heading to arbitration this winter it seemed likely that the Indians would let him go before the 2013 season, and the fact that they made this move now rather than waiting three days for rosters to expand to 40 players reflects how little he apparently meant to the team. The timing was surprising, but the team parting ways with Duncan wasn’t.
But just because a move was predictable doesn’t mean it was right.
Let’s take a look at some numbers. Last year, Duncan hit 11 home runs in less than half a season’s worth of playing time. He slugged .484 with an OPS north of .800 and a 125 OPS+. From 2010-11 he amassed 1.7 fWAR in just 504 plate appearances, right in line with what you’d expect from an average MLB player. His numbers are down this year, but that’s largely due to a .218 BABIP (compare that to his near-.300 marks the last two years and it seems he’s gotten unlucky) and inconsistent playing time (every Cleveland fan knows Duncan is better when he plays enough to find his groove).
What’s the point of all that? Basically, Duncan’s good plate discipline and impressive raw power make him at least a league-average hitter with the upside of a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat. Give him enough plate appearances to play through his slumps and find his groove and he’d be at least a respectable right-handed option in left field. Despite popular opinion, Duncan really could have been a valuable piece for this team going forward—which is why I argued two weeks ago that the Indians should devote the rest of the season to seeing what he could do with regular at-bats.
But alas, that’s not how it worked out. I don’t know what this team has had against Shelley Duncan for the past year, but it’s often seemed as though no one in the organization understands how good he actually is. The second Grady Sizemore got injured in the preseason the front office began frantically searching for someone else to play left field despite the fact that the Indians couldn’t afford anyone who would be significantly better than Duncan. That’s why names like Vladimir Guerrero and Bobby Abreu were connected to Cleveland, and how we ended up with the ill-fated Johnny Damon experiment.
Then the season started and Duncan got even less appreciation from Manny Acta. After starting the season on a tear he suddenly found himself scrounging for playing time while Damon (in the words of one of my professors) seemed to have “the job security of a Prussian bureaucrat.” To add insult to injury, Duncan wasn’t even Acta’s go-to right-handed bat off the bench; somehow Acta decided that Jose Lopez was the better hitter of the two even though none of the stats backed that up.
With this in mind, perhaps the Indians aren’t losing much by cutting Duncan. If we take it as a given he wasn’t going to get a real chance in Cleveland anyway, there’s no real difference—his not having a chance to contribute to this team in the future was a sunk cost. But that doesn’t mean that releasing him (as the Tribe will likely do) is preferable to actually giving him a shot. You’d think a powerful right-handed bat who can play left field would be the kind of player this team would love to have.
Here’s to a player who never got the recognition he deserved, an here’s hoping he gets the chance to prove himself with another team in the near future. I’ll miss Shelley Duncan, even if no one else will.