Duncan prepared to be more than a role player

Duncan prepared to be more than a role player

Duncan prepared to be more than a role player
CLEVELAND -- Over the final month of this past season, Shelley Duncan's locker inside the Indians' clubhouse was situated only a few stalls down from where Jim Thome's sat. It was a great way for Duncan to pick the brain of the storied slugger.

Duncan took advantage of the opportunistic real estate, listening to Thome's tales of hitting heroics and seeking advice from the future Hall of Famer. Duncan's eagerness to learn was not lost on Thome. In fact, Duncan's attitude, combined with his late surge at the plate, has Thome convinced that the outfielder might be on the verge of a career breakthrough.

"He's a monster," Thome said last week. "This guy has a chance to be really, really special."

Such a claim might stir some scoffing. This is, after all, the same Duncan who turned 32 years old in September. It is the same Duncan who has never played more than 85 games in any of his five seasons in the Major Leagues. This is the Duncan who has carved out a niche for himself as a big league role player.

That is a label that Duncan is hoping to shake.

Once evaluators deem a player to be a great option off the bench, it can be difficult for that player to win a starting job. Duncan has been viewed throughout his career as a great weapon against left-handed pitching and a player with enough versatility to make him a part-time option in left field, at first base or as a designated hitter.

Asked at the end of the season if he was worried about being pigeonholed as a utility player, Duncan nodded.

"Yeah," he admitted. "Yes."

That said, Duncan is hoping that what he did offensively down the stretch will help him earn an opportunity to be an everyday player for the Indians.

"I hope so," he said. "But I also go along with the role they give me. I hope that if another team feels I'm better than that -- and this organization doesn't -- I hope another team pushes for me to become that player. If none of that happens, I know how to be a better role player."

Do not take Duncan's comments the wrong way. He is not hoping to be traded. He loves suiting up for Cleveland, and he feels the youthful team is on the cusp of something special. Duncan is just hoping for a shot to show that he can be more than what people have expected of him over the years.

This year, Duncan believes he provided a glimpse into his capabilities. He earned more and more time on the field as the Tribe's roster absorbed blow after blow.

The struggles of Austin Kearns and Travis Buck eventually led to their departure. Fellow outfielders Grady Sizemore, Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo wound up on the disabled list for extended periods of time. DH Travis Hafner also missed time with injury, and first baseman Matt LaPorta struggled to live up to expectations.

It all amounted to increased time in the lineup for Duncan, who responded by hitting .293 with a .942 OPS over his final 43 games. Over the course of 23 games from Sept. 4-27, Duncan belted seven home runs and collected 23 RBIs. Along the way, he started to open up some eyes within the organization.

"Shelley is a great example," general manager Chris Antonetti said, "of a guy that, when he got an opportunity, he took advantage of it, and he continued to earn more and more opportunities and made the most of them. I think that's really a testament to him and the way he approached things, because it certainly wasn't an easy year for him."

Antonetti referred to the fact that Duncan had five stints with the Indians, who optioned him to Triple-A Columbus on three occasions during the season. On top of that, Duncan also spent time on baseball's Family Medical Emergency list after his mom underwent a serious surgical procedure in August.

It made for a trying season for Duncan, who often leaned on his father, Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, for advice.

"I always try to step outside the box and understand why decisions are made," Duncan said. "As a player, your emotions get caught up in it. Sometimes, you can't be objective about it, because you're biased. He always does a good job of explaining it to me -- why they're making certain moves, why a manager is doing certain things or a front office is doing certain things.

"That allows me to just relax more and not let stuff bother me. When he gets a chance to watch me play, he does a good job of telling me where the holes are in my swing and where I'll be getting pitched and the adjustments I need to make."

Duncan paused and let out a slight laugh.

"That's kind of an unfair advantage, isn't it?" he added with a smile.

With the offseason under way, all Duncan can do right now is sit back and wait to see what moves the Indians make leading up to the 2012 season.

Cleveland is in the market for more offense, and the obvious areas to upgrade appear to be at the corner infield spots or in left field. The Indians will explore plenty of options via trades and free agency, but there is also the chance that the team will roll the dice and give Duncan a chance to show he can provide one answer.

The reality of the situation is that -- even with his strong finish -- Duncan hit just .260 with a .324 on-base percentage over 76 games for the Tribe in 2011. He is also out of Minor League options, meaning Cleveland would have to pass him through waivers in order to remove him from the big league roster.

Thome's opinion alone does not make Duncan a sure thing.

Not speaking about himself specifically, Duncan said he understands that giving a bench player a shot at an everyday role is hardly an easy decision for any team to make.

"I personally think," Duncan said, "that it takes someone in charge to put their neck on the line to put someone above what everyone has labeled them. If you put your neck on the line, you become accountable for the success or failure of that person. That takes a lot of guts.

"The easy thing to do is just do what everybody else has labeled a person. It takes a lot of courage for someone to really believe in a player and push for that person."

All Antonetti would say about Duncan's late-season push was that it showed the Indians that he might be an option.

"We're fortunate to have him as an alternative for us going into next year," said the GM. "It's a foundation from which we're looking to build. He's a guy that could potentially contribute. Now we can examine what alternatives are out there for us this offseason that can improve upon our team.

"Then we'll see how that may affect Shelley's at-bats or playing time."

Duncan believes his chance will come at some point.

"It always seems like every single season an opportunity will arise where you get a chance to play every day," Duncan said. "You never know when that will happen. It could happen in April. It could happen in September. You better be ready for it."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.