The last time Rajai Davis played a game that mattered for the Cleveland Indians, it was Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. He hit an eighth-inning, game-tying, two-run home run that sent Tribe fans into a frenzy and the shot is considered one of the greatest home runs in the more than 100-year history of the franchise (imagine if the Indians had actually won that game). Obviously, the team went on to lose the game and the Fall Classic, both considered among the greatest in baseball history, by an 8-7 margin in 10 frames.
Cleveland was not able to wrap up its unfinished business in 2017, despite a 102-win campaign that included a historic 22-game winning streak. Perhaps the club needed Davis in the fold to finish what it came so agonizingly close to doing two years ago.
Davis was gone, off to Oakland at the start of 2017, having left as a free agent following that epic Game 7. He was 36 last April and the Tribe did not think he was worth the $6 million that the Athletics were going to pay him. Davis’ best asset is his speed and, at some point, a player is bound to start slowing down.
The right-handed hitting Davis did, indeed, have a worse season in 2017 than with the Tribe in 2016. However, he also showed he was not slowing down too much. In his lone season in Cleveland, Davis swiped an American League best 43 bases in 134 games. He hit .249 while contributing 12 home runs and 48 RBI. Not known for his bat, the bombs were the most of his career, the RBI were four off his career high, and the batting average was not all that much lower than his .264 career total.
Davis makes his living with his legs and the 43 thefts were just seven off his career best. Last season, between Oakland and then Boston, Davis saw his stolen base total dip to 29. Still a good number, especially considering he played 17 fewer games and had 129 fewer plate appearances while baseball continued to move away from the theft. That is a lot less opportunities to get on base, to set the table of the run-producers, and to create havoc on the base paths. What might have been more alarming was the batting average dropping to .235. That was the lowest full-season output of his career, one that began in 2006.
Still, Davis proved that he could still make good things happen when he did get on base and that is the most important thing. The Indians were obviously lacking some of the qualities of their former player. Last season, the Indians were ninth in the A.L. with 88 steals. In 2016, taking the extra base was a bread-and-butter staple of the A.L. Champions as they led the Junior Circuit with 134 steals, 13 ahead of second place Kansas City. Davis was the obvious catalyst of that.
The Indians and manager Terry Francona would surely like to make running a big part of their game again. They have that opportunity with Davis in camp on a minor league contract. He has a strong shot to make the team as a utility outfielder, who can play all three positions.
It is a pretty safe bet that at least one minor league outfield invitee will end up on the big league roster. At the onset of the Cactus League season, it was thought Melvin Upton, Jr. could be that guy. He has had a good power bat in past years and was looking to rebound from a difficult 2017 in which injuries cost him a big chunk of the year. The previous year with the Toronto Blue Jays, he had hit 20 jacks in 2016. However, Upton has not had a good spring. Heading into the day Sunday, he was hitting just .171 in 17 games (38 plate appearances).
Davis, on the other hand, has had a decent spring training showing. Entering Friday, he was hitting .233 with two steals in 12 games (31 plate appearances).
The Tribe outfield is currently an unsettled mess. Two-time All-Star Michael Brantley is still working back from offseason ankle surgery and has yet to play in a spring game. The odds of being ready to go for Opening Day decrease by the day. Brandon Guyer has also not played in a spring game and is likely to not be read for the regular season. The only two really good bets for big league outfield on March 29 are and Lonnie Chisenhall.
That leaves a lot of openings. Even if Brantley is ready to go for the season opener, the Indians will still need one or two more outfielders on the roster and with the lack of playing time in the spring, one would assume that Francona would ease him back into action slowly. The rookie surprise of 2016, Tyler Naquin, and current rookie Greg Allen are both in camp and have a shot at the Opening Day roster as well. However, the Indians probably would like Allen to get a little more seasoning in the minors and Naquin is no lock after a disappointing 2017 campaign.
In short, there is a lot of room for a non-rostered outfielder to work his way onto the Opening Day roster. Davis has a strong shot to be the Tribe’s utility outfielder, just as he was two years ago. As long as the wheels do not fall off for him in the next week, he seems on pace to earn a spot with a decent showing in Arizona. It could be the first game of the regular season or within the first few games, but Davis could take another swing of the bat that counts for the Indians.
The last time Davis swung the bat when it mattered, he was driving home a 10th-inning World Series run. It drew the Indians to within 8-7, but the rally faded out. His last two at bats for the Indians produced a home run, a single, and three RBI in a memorable Fall Classic finale. The Indians are still looking for their first ring since 1948 and perhaps Davis and his speed are just what they need to finally finish the job.
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