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Manny Ramirez’s Legacy, and the Fate of the Rays

Manny Ramirez, one of the greatest hitters to ever walk the face of the Earth, and one of the most polarizing athletes of his generation, abruptly announced his retirement this afternoon.

Major League Baseball had notified Ramirez about “an issue under Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention/Treatment Program.” Reading between the lines, it’s likely that Ramirez chose to retire rather than face a second (major) suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, a checkered Hall of Fame case, and a team that suddenly faces some gigantic decisions.

As jarring as his sudden retirement might be, and as seductive as it is to launch into a Manny Being Manny tirade, one has to start any discussion of Manny Ramirez by pointing out his spectacular career. After all, if he were just a garden-variety loon who hit .220 and disappeared after a couple of years, would we really care all that much?

Even in one of the friendliest hitters’ eras in baseball history, Manny’s numbers were off the charts. He hit .312/.411/.585 for his career (9th all-time in both slugging and OPS), and posted a sky-high .417 wOBA (17th all-time). Counting stats loved him too: 14th all-time in HR, 18th in RBI, 13th in extra-base hits, and about a dozen other eye-popping rankings. Hank Aaron, Rogers Hornsby, Willie Mays, and Jimmie Foxx were clearly superior hitters. After that, Manny’s right there with Frank Robinson, Albert Pujols, Honus Wagner and yes, Frank Thomas on the list of greatest right-handed hitters of all-time. He was also one of the worst fielders ever to play the game, racking up -113.7 fielding runs since 2002 — only Adam Dunn was worse during that period.

His outfield adventures aside, Manny’s offensive numbers would make him a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer…except for, you know. Jeff Bagwell also ranks among the top right-handed hitters to ever play, never tested positive for anything, was revered throughout most of his playing career for being an exemplary franchise player, and even he couldn’t get in on the first ballot. We should never say never in baseball. The makeup of Hall of Fame voters will change over the years, and opinions will soften over PED use as time goes on. Still, there’s practically no scenario that sees Manny get 75% of the vote on his first ballot. If he does get in at some point in the future, he might have to wait a long time for it to happen.

We know all this. What we don’t know is how Manny’s abrupt retirement could affect the team for whom he played for about 10 minutes. The Rays came into this season riding their amazing run of two AL East titles in three years, despite a payroll a fraction the size of their big rivals in New York and Boston. But a major off-season retooling job left even the biggest Rays optimists figuring Wild Card contention as a best-case scenario. With Evan Longoria nursing an oblique injury that was supposed to keep him out three weeks but might linger longer knowing what we know about initial injury estimates (and obliques), this was already a team hurting for offense. Even acknowledging the incredibly small sample size of six games, scoring more than one run just once in your first week of the season isn’t an encouraging sign.

Even if we assume that week one was an aberration, those six losses to start the season were already banked. Dave Cameron wrote about Boston’s identical start weakening the Red Sox’ chances at an AL East crown. Given that the Rays already looked the weaker team on Opening Day, and have now lost their best player for what might be all of April, and one of their two best projected hitters forever, Rays management has to be giving serious thought to a change in plans.

What could that change entail? With dynamic pitching prospects like Matt Moore, Chris Archer and others nearing major league readiness, we might see the timetable for James Shields and Jeff Niemann trades moved up. On the offensive side, Johnny Damon and Dan Johnson don’t hold much utility for a team that might struggle to top .500 even if everything else goes smoothly this year.

The debate over when to bring up top prospects given the conflicting goals of wanting to see what they’ve got vs. service time considerations becomes magnified. Do we see Desmond Jennings now? Though a Shields trade would save money and augment an already strong farm system, is keeping Moore and Archer in the minors until management feels they’re 100% ready the best course of action? Or would trading away veterans sooner be a wise move, given that a little shove or two could be enough to net the Rays a top-10 pick? There are defensible cases to be made on both sides of each of these discussions.

Here’s what we do know: The Rays remain in good shape long-term. Unlike the crippling multi-year deals and lost draft picks that turned the Hit Show into catastrophe for the old regime, Manny and Damon were short-term gambles that only had downside for one year. In Manny’s case, the team even recovers his modest $2 million salary due to his retirement. The Rays have just $16 million in salary obligations for 2012, plus seven arbitration-eligible players (five of those seven, including B.J. Upton, may well be gone by next year). They own 12 of the top 89 picks in this year’s draft, with an extra $2 million suddenly in their pockets to pay top dollar for elite prospects. Longoria still has the most team-friendly contract in all of baseball. An entirely homegrown starting pitching staff should be very productive, and very cheap, for years to come, with Wade Davis‘ recent contract extension only adding to that optimism. As long as the current management team and the army of excellent talent evaluators throughout the organization remain in place, the Rays can contend with their richer divisional foes.

But it sure as hell won’t be easy. While it’s great that MLB has progressed to the point that 1.8 million butts in the seats are perceived as a big problem, the Rays might come in well below that much-maligned figure this year if the team struggles to win games. Last year’s #5 local TV ratings could similarly take a hit, and sidetrack much of the momentum gained in 2010. The local economy remains in rough shape, and corporate support for the team in the form of season tickets and sponsorships remains a going concern.

Tampa Bay was always going to face an uphill climb to remain an elite ballclub, given the many factors working against them. Manny Ramirez‘s retirement by itself doesn’t materially change the team’s outlook. But combined with all the other challenges the Rays will face, it does set the team back considerably in the here and now.

The Rays will rise again. It just might take a while.