Many years ago, when Jacobs Field was shiny and new, I was friendly with this girl from Cleveland. Everyone in her family was a big Indians fan, and Manny Ramirez was just coming into his own as one of the greatest right-handed hitters the game would ever see.
Whenever the Indians were on TV, the whole family would gather around to watch. When Manny would do something particularly amazing, everyone would go nuts. “Manny Ramirez! Manny Ramirez!”, they’d all yell. The family’s King Charles spaniel was your typical cute little lap dog, rarely making noise or bothering anyone. But every time anyone exclaimed “Manny Ramirez!”, the dog had the same reaction: YIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIP
The Tampa Bay Rays will sign Ramirez to a one-year, $2 million deal. His ex-Red Sox teammate Johnny Damon gets a one-year, $5.25 million contract, with a $750,000 attendance-based incentive clause. Whether these deals work or not, the cacophony of reactions–strongly negative or strongly positive, but virtually none in between–can roughly be summed up this way: YIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIP
Let’s start with the negative.
Both Ramirez and Damon are, by baseball standards, old. One’s 38, the other’s 37. The snark about going after Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon and Curtis Leskanic to complete the 2004 Red Sox reunion doesn’t come from nowhere. Both Ramirez and Damon are well past their prime. Manny can’t field at all (one could debate whether he ever could) and has injury concerns. Damon doesn’t run like he used to, and his once-excellent range as a center fielder has been reduced to average range for a left fielder. Neither player will ever again match their offensive peak, even in the best-case scenario.
Damon hit .271/.355/.401 last year, good for a .340 wOBA in the offense-sapping environment of Comerica Park. Playing every day, that was enough to make him a 2-win player. Ramirez put up the second-worst season of his career, hitting .298/.409/.460 in just 320 plate appearances. Plagued by what would later be diagnosed as a hernia injury, Ramirez’s power totally vanished in Chicago: He hit just .261/.420/.319 for the White Sox in 88 PA. Manny’s seasonal line was good for about a win and a half.
With all the progressive skill erosion you’d expect from Damon, and the least productive, most injury-plagued, nearly-worst-case scenario season of Ramirez’s career since the ’94 strike, the two players combined to yield three and a half wins for their clubs.
In 2011, they will be paid the market-rate equivalent of a win and a half. Forget the hyperbole for a moment, good or bad. If the two players perform as poorly as they did last year, the Rays got very good value. If they get worse, it’s still a net gain.
But the gains could prove much larger, especially if Manny can be Manny for a full season. Rays’ DHs combined to hit .238/.322/.391 in 2010. The protagonists included Pat Burrell doing a spot-on imitation of Rey Ordonez, Hank Blalock nearly prompting R.J. Anderson to go on a six-state killing spree, and a courageous but infirm Rocco Baldelli coming out of retirement to not help.
In their stead, the Rays get…well, look.
Top MLB hitters by OPS+, 2008-2010
(h/t Baseball Think Factory member DCW3)
Or how about this: Manny Ramirez owns a .422 wOBA vs. right-handed pitching in the past three years, also second-best in all of baseball. If Manny matches or comes close to his three-year average, he’ll be the best hitter on the Rays, better even than Evan Longoria.
Are you a skeptic who thinks Ramirez isn’t the same since his 50-game PED suspension in 2009? You’re absolutely right. In 167 games (631 PA) since then, he’s hit well below career norms, with a line of .284/.399/.476. That’s still better than anyone the Rays had before last night.
Now go back to the cost. Ramirez and Damon came as a package deal from Scott Boras, which helps explain why Ramirez was so cheap (as does Manny’s deferred payments from the Dodgers–$15 million in three installments: $3,333,333 on June 30, 2011 and June 30, 2012, plus $8,333,333 on June 30, 2013). Still, the two ex-Sox will make less combined than Derrek Lee got from the Orioles in his 2011 deal. Manny will make half what Pedro Feliciano got from the Yankees, without the two-year commitment.
With Ramirez and Damon on board, the bullpen at least partially rebuilt, and Jeremy Hellickson slated to take over for Matt Garza, a 90-win season is within reach. And if you’ve got enough talent to win 90 games, a few breaks could mean something better.
With a payroll now slightly below $40 million, the Rays will try to deploy the same depth they used to win 96 games last year (useful contributors like Dan Johnson, Reid Brignac, and Sean Rodriguez, as well as Ramirez, Damon, and possibly the emerging Matt Joyce figure to be rotated, and play less than every day), hoping that contingency plans can find a way to beat a pair of rivals who have more superstar-caliber players.
Desmond Jennings starts the year in Triple-A as the Rays continue their tradition of not calling up players until they’re ready to be more than the usual fringe rookie contributors. Twelve picks await in the first two rounds of this year’s amateur draft. And for slightly more than Matt Garza‘s 2011 salary, the Rays got Ramirez, Damon, a useful utility outfielder, and four intriguing prospects.
The Rays now have the money to go after bullpen reinforcements via trade, from less ambitious but easier-to-acquire targets like Mike Wuertz to, if they’re willing to cash in some of their exceptional minor league depth, Joakim Soria. Or sign David Price to a big contract extension, if both sides are willing. Or sign all 12 of their early-round picks. Or add another undervalued bat like Russell Branyan. Or, best-case scenario, all of the above. If Ramirez and Damon aren’t enough to push the team past their well-heeled rivals, both players’ salaries will be marketable at the deadline. Even a Comp B draft pick or two is possible next season, assuming the compensation pick structure hasn’t been radically altered, or scrapped, next off-season.
For now, Tampa Bay is still not at Boston’s level, not with the Red Sox adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and building one of baseball’s best bullpens outside Oakland. The Yankees still look a little better too. Even with a thin starting rotation, there’s no getting around how devastating that lineup will be once again. And the Yankees, like Boston, have also built a very strong, very deep pen–something the Rays still lack. Of course, even if the Rays fall short in 2011, they did nothing to shackle their payroll beyond this season, they’re still letting most of the kids play and develop, and they’re building a foundation for 2012 and beyond.
Best of all, they should be interesting again this season. They’ll win more games than they would have before these two moves. And even in perhaps the most fickle market in all of Major League Baseball, they may well draw more fans with Sideshow Manny in town, even after stripping out the effects of a higher win total.
The Rays might still be a third-place team in 2011. But they’ll have plenty to YIPYIPYIP about.