Rays Agree to Sign Damon, Ramirez
This past Friday evening (January 21st) we learned courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman that the Tampa Bay Rays have reached an agreement with super-agent Scott Boras to sign a pair of his clients – Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. The duo will be reunited after having played together from 2002 through 2005 with the Boston Red Sox. The deals, which are pending physicals that will likely be completed sometime this week, will pay Damon $5.25 Million and Ramirez $2 Million for the 2011 season. Prior to the agreement both players had expressed varying levels of interest in playing for the Rays. But, with a free agent market failing to materialize with offers for either player, Boras took an alternative approach to landing his clients contracts for the upcoming season. He, reportedly, was the one who first approached the Rays about essentially a “package deal”.
Heading into the offseason it was widely expected that Tampa Bay would have to get creative to fill some of the holes in their lineup due to the team’s limited financial budget and the mass exodus of free agents leaving South Florida. In addition to the bullpen pieces moving on to new teams, the Rays also were nearly guaranteed to lose left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena as free agency began. Crawford ended up signing a massive seven year, $142 Million deal to join AL East rival Boston while Pena settled for a one year, $10 Million deal with the Chicago Cubs. To date, it remained to be seen just how Tampa Bay would compensate for their losses.
Young rookie Desmond Jennings has been widely expected to take on a larger role in the team’s outfield but with his limited experience (he received just 24 plate appearances as a late-September call up in 2010, batting .190/.292/.333) he would not be able to replace the production lost by Crawford’s move to Boston. However, at AAA Durham he did post a .278/.362/.393 line in 450 plate appearances. He has shown little power through his minor league career (just 3 HRs and 25 2Bs in 2010) but has been described by scouts as solid defensively and has some of the speed (37 stolen bases in 41 attempts in 2010) the organization will miss from Crawford. Jennings still figures prominently in Tampa Bay’s 2011 outfield – he likely will be the team’s Opening Day starter in right field, in my opinion (presuming that Ben Zobrist is installed as the starting second baseman rather than manning the outfield daily) – but with the addition of Damon to the mix there will be less pressure for the 24-year-old to outright replace the organization’s original franchise star.
Damon, meanwhile, will likely receive the bulk of his playing time in left field but reportedly could also be a fit at DH against right-handed pitchers. There has also been some speculation that he could potentially factor into the first base mix, despite having only played 11.1 total innings at the position in his career (and zero since 2008), but that seems as though it will be a rare thing unless the team develops a true need for him there. The former center fielder no longer has the range or athleticism to handle the position and has long been criticized for his poor arm but should be able to provide the team with serviceable defensive innings in left field. With Detroit in 2010, Damon posted a .271/.355/.401 line in just over 600 plate appearances. He added 8 HRs and 11 stolen bases. All were dropoffs from his previous two seasons. Damon did just turn 37 this past November, so it seems likely we’re seeing the beginning of his decline rather than 2010 merely being an “off year”.
Ramirez’s situation has been more well-publicized over the past few seasons. After wearing out his welcome in Boston he was traded midway through the 2008 season to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2009 he served a 50 game suspension for violating the league’s policy against performance enhancing drugs. Then, he was traded at the 2010 trade deadline in an effort by the Dodgers to simply get out from under his remaining salary. In 320 plate appearances combined between the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, Ramirez posted a .298/.409/.460 line with 9 HRs (8 of which came prior to the trade). While an .870 OPS would be desirable out of the DH spot for just about any team, it marked the lowest total for Ramirez since his rookie season in 1993. He will turn 39 in May, can no longer handle the outfield, his bat speed is reportedly in decline, and his work ethic (and desire) have been called into question repeatedly for the past few seasons so it will be interesting to see if he can replicate such production in Tampa Bay in 2011. If he can repeat an .870 OPS at the minimal salary he’ll be earning, the deal will seem like a bargain for the Rays.
The ironic, and surprising, part of this “package deal” is the total amount of money involved. For a pair of aging hitters who could potentially benefit from playing in Tampa Bay’s domed stadium 82 games a year the team is on the hook for a mere $7.25 Million. We knew going into the offseason that there would be a need to do some bargain shopping if the Rays were going to find any means by which to replace the players that were lost to free agency, yet I don’t think that anyone could have predicted this to be the end result. Damon and Ramirez have big shoes to fill, as well as age and attitude concerns to overcome, so this by no means is a “wash” compared to what was lost. But after seeing their division rivals improve while making few moves themselves, the Rays have given their fans something (albeit minor) to be optimistic for in 2011 – just as long as this doesn’t turn out to be another failed attempt at filling seats (What is it about baseball fans in Florida? They flock to Spring Training games in droves but neither the Rays nor Marlins can consistently sell tickets.) like the team made in 2000.