CLEVELAND — Johnny Damon has left the on-deck circle. He's officially with the Cleveland Indians.
Next stop: The starting lineup.
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 $1.2 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 can earn another $1.4 million in performance bonuses based on plate appearances.
He's expected to spend the next few weeks at the team's complex in Goodyear, Ariz., getting game ready after not being in a training camp for the first time since debuting for Kansas City in 1995. Damon, who needs 277 hits to join the exclusive 3,000-hit club, will likely spend some time with Triple-A Columbus before joining the Indians.
Antonetti said it's "a little tough" to pinpoint an exact date for Damon's arrival, and much will depend on how quickly he gets in playing shape and how Cleveland's current players do over the next few weeks.
When he's ready, Damon will likely take over in left field for Shelley 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.
Duncan has delivered. He leads the Indians with a .320 average entering Tuesday night's game in Seattle.
Sizemore underwent back surgery in March and is on the 60-day disabled list. He's eligible to be active on June 3.
Once Sizemore returns, Antonetti said it's possible the Indians could carry five outfielders — Damon, Brantley, Duncan, Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo — the rest of this season.
Antonetti said Damon could also be used at DH and told the Indians he'd "do anything I can to help the team win."
A career .286 hitter, Damon also brings the Indians 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 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.
"He produced and produced for a championship-caliber team," Antonetti said. "He still runs well. He's a great athlete and stays in great shape. We think Johnny can not only contribute in the clubhouse but on the field."
Damon has appeared in 59 postseason games for the Rays, Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
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