Where Does Rajai Davis Fit Into Cleveland’s Plans for 2016?

A decade ago Rajai Davis was poised to make his Major League Debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Drafted by the Bucs in 2001, the 38th round pick out of the University of Connecticut-Avery Point, he had risen from a low-round pick on the strength of his legs and defense. He had led the High-A Carolina League in batting, hits, runs and stolen bases on his way to an All-Star season in 2004. He followed this in up 2005 with a strong season at AA Altoona setting the franchise record for stolen bases with 47. As the 2006 season dawned, he had a career minor league batting average of .308 and had stolen 179 bases. This included 40 or more stolen bases at every full season stop he had played in the Pirates organization. His only road block to the majors was Chris Duffy.

At the time, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook described his principle weakness as the need to tighten his strike zone and polish his routes on defense in center field. He would make his Major League Debut with a single at-bat on August 14, 2006, against the Milwaukee Brewers and totaled 13 more at-bats while appearing in 20 games that season.

In the past decade he has played for five different organizations, spending the past two years in Detroit. In 3,233 Major League at-bats he has achieved a triple slash line of .269/.316/.387. Over his career he has 322 stolen bases to 87 times caught stealing for a 79% success rate, just above the break-even mark of 75% that makes base stealing a value added feature, rather than a detriment.

As Cleveland’s spring camp gets underway in Arizona, Davis comes in as the team’s veteran outfielder. With Michael Brantley likely sidelined until May from offseason arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, the only outfield position on the team locked down is that held by recent outfield convert Lonnie Chisenhall in right field.

A wide variety of outfielders with minimal Major League experience are in camp with Cleveland, but none of them look to capture substantial early playing time from Davis. His more direct competition comes from two prospects, Tyler Naquin and James Ramsey. With a competent spring either player could break camp with the Indians leaving the other outfield cast members fighting for the fifth outfielder’s job. It is more likely that Naquin would share time in center field with Davis, while Ramsey may get more seasoning at AAA. Both Davis and Ramsey suffer from the inability to hit left-handers, and so it would be difficult to envision a left field platoon of Ramsey and Davis.

One probable scenario is that Chisenhall, Davis and Naquin form the opening day outfield for the Tribe, with the bench comprised of one or two outfielders drawn from Abraham Almonte, Collin Cowgill, Michael Choice and Zach Walters.

A strong early season performance by Davis would be perfect for Cleveland. This would bridge the gap until Brantley’s return. Then the management could decide to hang on to Davis if another outfielder is under-performing, while Brantley gets back to full playing form. If the glut of outfield prospects in the system develops faster and Davis is putting up solid numbers a trade could also be a good option.

The likelihood of this performance is predicated on Davis’ speed. His percentage of success in stolen bases has dropped each of the last three seasons, receding from a high of 88% in 2013 when he stole 45 bases as a member of the Blue Jays, to 77% in 2014 when he stole 36 bases his first years in a Tigers jersey, to 69% success and only 18 stolen bases in 2015, his last year in Detroit duds. The 2015 season was most telling because he had maintained an 88% success rate in the first half of the season, but this dropped to 44% in the latter half of the season. If he can rebound to his career norm and hit that 75% success mark, he should be valuable and earn his one year, $5.25 million dollar salary.

Signing Davis was a prudent move. The now 35-year-old has proven he can handle himself effectively and provides some veteran experience in camp and during the season while Brantley recovers. Success on the field could bring a trade that might land another player with talent for the system, which is never a bad option. Just don’t get too attached to him, as he will likely be playing for his seventh Major League organization by 2017, if not earlier.

Photo: Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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