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Manny Ramirez Is On His Way Back, But Should You Care?

Manny Ramirez is scheduled to begin a rehab stint for Triple-A Sacramento this weekend in anticipation of joining the Athletics on May 30 and… you know what? Let’s just get this right out of the way up front: Manny’s a cheat, a jerk, an abuser, and probably a number of other things too. Whatever you want to call him, it’s most likely true, and you’ll get little argument from me. That said, he’s also a bat with a Hall of Fame resume (if not, for various reasons, a likely enshrinee) and he’s available in just about every league with roughly three-quarters of the season remaining, so he’s worth checking into.

For the surprising A’s, hanging around in the race at 19-19, it’s not hard to see why they might be willing to take a chance here. Roundly expected to struggle greatly to score runs, they’ve done just that, as they’re currently tied with San Diego & Seattle for the second-worst wOBA in baseball, ahead of only the dreadful Pirates. Among full-time players – defined here as having 100 or more plate appearances – only the breakout season of Josh Reddick is anything more than league-average, as far as wOBA goes. The current DH tandem of Jonny Gomes & Kila Ka’aihue has been decent yet hardly irreplaceable, and with underwhelming performances from Seth Smith & Coco Crisp in left and Daric Barton at first base, there’s room to find playing time for those two elsewhere. Manny may or may not have anything left, but it certainly makes sense for the A’s to try at this point, and he’s expected to hit third or fourth in the lineup and become the primary designated hitter.

So Manny should get an opportunity. Great. Is there really any hope that he can produce? The A’s certainly won’t give him too long to find out, and May 30 is an important date; not only is it the day he’s scheduled to return, it’s also his 40th birthday, and that’s not exactly the age at which a hitter is considered “in his prime”.

Since the advent of divisional play in 1961, there have been 104 players in their age-40 or older season who have received 200 or more plate appearances. I was actually a little surprised when I looked at the list, because I expected to see an overwhelming amount of sad codas on otherwise exceptional careers, but roughly half of the old-timers managed to contribute a league-average wOBA or better. (I suppose the conclusion can easily be drawn that if you’re getting that kind of playing time at such an advanced age, you’ve had such a bright peak that being even a fraction of that is still useful, and indeed the list is topped by names like Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, & Hank Aaron.)

There’s little question that based on numbers alone, Manny belongs in that exalted company, but nothing is ever as simple as it seems with him. There’s always going to be the question of whether he can produce without some unnatural assistance, and while I tend to take such discussions lightly – he crushed pitching basically from the day he entered the bigs at age 21, and the exact impact of taking enhancers is still disputed – it’s naive to think that the question won’t be asked.

Of course, there’s yet another wrench in the works, and that’s that thanks to the suspension and how early his 2011 stint with Tampa ended, Manny is coming off of essentially 20 months away from the game. That’s a huge gap for any player, but it’s almost unheard of for someone his age. Working in his favor is the fact that in his last full season, 2010 with the Dodgers & White Sox, he was still effective, if not quite vintage Manny, contributing a line of .298/.409/.460 (.382 wOBA). Playing half of his games in Oakland’s cavernous home field certainly isn’t going to help his home run totals, and the days of .500 slugging percentages are almost all but certainly behind him.

It’s clear that the odds are stacked against Manny Ramirez being a productive hitter again. He’s turning 40, he’s nearly two years away from the game, he’s in a tough park, and he’s – in theory, at least – playing clean. Yet I can’t help but be intrigued, because that fantastic eye didn’t come from PED’s, and he’s rarely been unproductive when healthy. I always say you can find saves whenever you need them, but offense seems to get harder & harder all the time, and when you look at the other options on the waiver wire – depending on how deep your league is of course, but it can be dire – you can at least dream on a historic hitter in an AL-only league.

Or maybe he’ll just fool us all, as he’s done before. Verdict: you hardly need to rush to the wire to claim him, but don’t write it off completely.