The Baltimore Orioles have had preliminary talks with Manny Ramirez. While Eric Seidman recently detailed some veterans who may be forced to retire due to lack of interest, Ramirez seems to be an outlier. He’ll be 40 in May — and he still has to serve a 50-game suspension — but teams are still interested.
What separates Ramirez from Johnny Damon, Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero is that his bat is still incredibly effective. Yes, Ramirez was abysmal during his brief tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays last year — he only saw 17 plate appearances — but the work was hardly enough for us to draw any meaningful conclusions. In 2010, though, Ramirez’s bat was still an asset. Due to three separate injuries (calf, hamstring and calf again), Ramirez only played 90 games. In those 90 games, though, he managed to post a solid .298/.409/.460 slash line. More importantly, his 138 wRC+ and .382 wOBA proved that he was still much better than an average hitter.
So, certainly, he was effective at the plate the last time he got significant playing time. But that was two years ago. Ramirez abruptly retired in 2011 after only playing five games, which means he’s basically coming back from a year without seeing major-league pitching. While he was a good hitter in 2010, Ramirez did see some decline at the plate. Ramirez’s effectiveness against sliders and curves dwindled, and he didn’t hit fastballs nearly as well as he had in the past — though he still posted a 9.7 pitch value against heaters. Unless his bat speed has somehow improved, that could be a major problem for Ramirez.
Both the Orioles and the Oakland Athletics have shown interest in Ramirez this off-season, but it’s unclear why either team wants to take that chance. Due to his recent ineffectiveness and past steroid use, it’s not like he’s going to do much to increase ticket sales. While he might be a useful trade chip at the deadline if things go right, Ramirez will still have to serve a 50-game suspension once he’s signed. Since most MLB teams play their 50th game near the end of May, Ramirez would need to prove himself in just two months in order to facilitate a trade. Considering, at that point, he’ll be a season-and-a-half removed from facing major-league pitchers, an immediate offensive rebound doesn’t seem likely. There’s also a decent chance that Ramirez doesn’t find it a whole lot of fun to play on a team that won’t win many games.
Let’s say Ramirez plays nice, that he hits well — but not well enough to be dealt at the deadline — and finishes the season as a useful DH. Even then, he might find it hard to extend his career. Using Kenny Lofton as an example, Eric Seidman pointed out that teams have little interest in depending on a 40-year-old in a prominent role — even if that player is coming off an effective season. Ramirez has already seen how tough it is for older hitters to get a contract—and those guys didn’t come with the baggage that Ramirez would bring. Last off-season, interest in Manny was minimal, leading him to sign a ridiculously inexpensive $2 million contract with the Rays.
The level of interest in Ramirez this off-season is perplexing. Even if he’s still capable of hitting effectively — not a given, considering his age and time away from the game — he’s unlikely to play a prominent role on a contender again. Given that he’s one positive drug test away from a permanent ban, he’s a risky proposition for a playoff-contending team.
For a team not expected to contend — like the Orioles or the A’s — signing Ramirez comes with little risk. There’s a chance that he re-establishes himself this season and extends his career, most likely as a reserve and a pinch hitter. Those are roles that — given his history — he might not enjoy. If Ramirez expects anything more out of this comeback, he might find himself disappointed.