Monday, January 24, 2011

Rays Sign a Pair of Idiots

First of all, let's get this out of the way - I'm a Red Sox fan, and I HATED the term "Idiots" that was used by the national media to describe the Red Sox in 2004. Taken from a Johnny Damon quote about something to the effect of the Red Sox just being a bunch of fun loving idiots, the media just ran with it. I was 100% on board with Cowboy Up in 2003, but the whole Idiots thing was so contrived, and so beaten into the ground. What was worse, though, was that I never heard a single person in the Boston area use the term. Every time I'd watch a national broadcast, the announcers would make it seem as though everyone was on this Idiots bandwagon. But the fans hated, and it seems to annoy basically everyone on the team other than Damon and Kevin Millar.

Having said all that, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon both have said and done their share of dumb things. So I'll stick with the headline.

After the news that the Rays had signed former Red Sox teammates Damon and Ramirez to a pair of one-year contracts worth $5.25M and $2M respectively, most of the attention was paid to how this would play out in the clubhouse. Would Damon's act take some pressure off of the young roster? Would Manny try? Would they recreate that 2004 magic? Of course, we have no idea how this will play out behind the scenes - it's tough to now how personalities will meld, especially when you're talking about one as mercurial as Ramirez. What we can look at is how this will help the Rays on the baseball field.

The first subject is about Manny Ramirez being "washed up." Having hit 20 home runs or fewer in three of the last four years, a popular narrative is that he simply doesn't have any juice (snicker) left in his old body. In reality though, Ramirez went .298/.409/.460, and over the past four years, he's been at .307/.412/.532. The man can still hit. He's not a 40 homer guy anymore, but he still clearly has excellent plate discipline and plate recognition, and will be among the better DHs in the league. Can he still hit cleanup? In 2010, my personal "runs created" calculation shows Ramirez having created 45.2 runs, 6.25, per every 27 outs he made. This is an excellent number, right around what Robinson Cano produced, slightly more than Adrian Beltre. Of course, Cano and Beltre have much, much, much more value because of the defensive position and skill, but those two were receiving MVP votes last year based mostly on their offensive output. This just goes to show the value of not making outs. A player with a .400 OBP will lead to his team scoring more runs, even if he doesn't factor directly into the run scoring event with the RBI or by scoring the run.

For comparison, the guy who Ramirez is replacing at the cleanup spot, Carlos Pena, received a one-year $10M contract from the Chicago Cubs, $8M more than Ramirez will receive. This despite a 2010 line of .196/.325/.407, which translated into being worth about 5.05 runs per 27 outs. Yes, Pena plays an excellent defensive first base, while Ramirez is either a DH or bad defensive LF. The bigger point, though, is whether Ramirez will be on the field enough to make that difference in offensive production meaningful. For various reasons, Ramirez has only 750 plate appearances over the past two seasons. Considering his production though, If being a designated hitter can keep him healthy, and if the team can be competitive enough to keep him motivated, he seems like a sensible risk. Let me put it this way - would you rather gamble $2M that Ramirez will find his way into the lineup for 130+ games, or $10M that Carlos Pena will reverse four years of steady decline and find the 30 points of OBP he needs in order to be serviceable.

As far as Damon goes, he's always been a little bit overrated. His offensive stats would be worthwhile if he were still an acceptable CF, but he stopped being that nearly five years ago. As a corner OF/1B, he's basically a tick above replacement level. His one strong point is that he does still see a LOT of pitches. His ability to foul off several hard pitches and make the opposing hurler throw 5 to 10 more times a game is worthwhile. Even if he's not making pitchers pay as often as other players who see a lot of pitches, like Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu, it is still a value.

Where will Damon play? For all of the talk about the logjam this creates in the outfield, I don't see it. Desmond Jennings wasn't fantastic at AAA Durham last year, posting a .278/.362/.393 line. His physical tools are evident, and if he comes to camp this spring and blows everyone away, I certainly wouldn't fault the Rays for keeping him on the roster. Depth is a problem here, though. Damon has practiced some at first base, and Dan Johnson, despite his great minor league numbers, has not held a job in numerous big-league opportunities. Ben Zobrist was fantastic in 2009, but fell back to earth in 2010. He might be best employed as a super-utility type. Matt Joyce was fantastic in the minors and very good in the majors, so he should be in line to start in right field. Nobody here is a sure thing, though. Signing Damon to give Joe Maddon increased flexibility makes sense. The $5.25M price tag is a little steep, because again, we're talking about someone who is sliding close to replacement level, but it is only a one-year commitment. If Jennings is ready, I would hope that Damon doesn't take too many of his AB's away, but Maddon has shown himself to be perfectly willing to play the rookie over the established veteran when that is appropriate.

So, while Ramirez and Damon might have become famous for being "idiots," the Rays appear to be anything but.

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