Like many people, I was about to hand Tampa Bay fifth in the American League East this upcoming season.
Albeit reluctantly, we all know the losses they've endured: Matt Garza in the starting rotation, Rafael Soriano and Joakim Benoit in the bullpen, Carl Crawford in the outfield and Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena in the infield.
Add it all together and there wasn't a position that wasn't directly affected on the Rays roster, save for maybe the bench. So it was easy to see why they likely would have been a near-lock for fifth place.
Why do I say "near" lock? Because I believed all along that with their young starting rotation of David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson, along with the serviceable (i.e. worst of the bunch) James Shields, not to mention depth with Andy Sonnanstine, they'd still be competitive in games; I just saw them losing a lot of 3-1 games because of their lack of offense.
Friday's late-night moves of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon changed all that for those moves were simply done for two reasons. First of which was to quite honestly fill holes, but more importantly it was done to provide veteran leadership to the kids littering the roster and to produce runs.
Since I like Damon more in this deal, I will first discuss his impact (as I think it will be greater).
I've always liked Damon from his early days with the lowly Kansas City Royals to the Oakland A's and finally to the Boston Red Sox. He's a leader in the clubhouse and his loose attitude could be reminiscent of the Rays' 2008 World Series run. Look at what the Yankees did in 2009 with a similar loose clubhouse with who else but Damon?
Even last year on an underachieving Tigers team Damon still managed to score 81 runs and have 146 hits. I am sure the Rays would gladly take that. Like Ramirez, he's better than anything they had on the roster or could have had at this point in free agency. You have to ask yourself the question I always do with such a deal: "If not him, than who?"
The Rays starters now look like this:
Before the Ramirez deal, the projected starter in left was Demond Jennings, the Rays' No. 1 prospect, who hit just .190 last year. Clearly he's not ready.
Carl Crawford (19 HR, 90 RBI), Carlos Pena (28 HR, 84 RBI) and Jason Bartlett (four HR, 47 RBI) are a lot to replace not only in a career, but in a lone offseason and to do it under the Rays' financial limitations is a tough task.
Total production: 51 HR, 221 RBI.
Their replacements, Johnny Damon (eight HR, 51 RBI), Manny Ramirez (nine HR, 42 RBI) and Sean Rodriguez (nine HR, 40 RBI), surely won't make anyone soon forget the latter, but considering who they lost and who was available I think they did quite well.
Total production: 26 HR, 133 RBI (60 percent less RBI production and half the HR power).
Still, it's not totally fair to look at it quite like that. Sean Rodriguez has earned his chance to start and he's actually a very good (but streaky hitter). But so what? So were Pena and Bartlett. Zobrist had a role once of super utility player and he excelled and look at him now.
Ramirez on the other hand, only played in 90 games last year so projecting his production over the course of a season; he'd hit 16.2 HR and have 75 RBI. The RBI are very similar to Pena at one-fourth the cost of Pena's $8 million 2010 salary and Manny has historically hit well at Tropicana field.
So putting it under those numbers, Damon (eight, 51), Rodriguez (nine, 40) and Ramirez (16, 75) total 33 HR, 166 RBI.
Crawford ($10M), Pena ($8M), Bartlett ($5M), Benoit ($3M), Soriano ($7.25M) and Garza ($3.3M) are all off the books for a total of $36.8M or 51 percent less than their $71M 2010 Opening Day payroll. Infused are Damon ($5.25M), Ramirez ($2M) and slight raises to Brignac, Rodriguez and Kyle Farnsworth ($3.5M) to make up the difference for a total of about $13.75M after $1M raises to Rodriguez, Brignac and whoever closes based on their service time.
People will mention the fact Damon has no arm and Manny can no longer play defense. Obviously the team is going to take a hit in these regards, but the point of this article remains—given their availability and the fact they have payroll constraints, the Rays, outside of signing a more productive Vlad Guerrero, did about as well as could be expected.
Manny will generate a circus wherever he goes. That means ESPN and SportsCenter reels. St. Petersburg has a ton of New England transplants with Red Sox ties so they may show up to watch two players who directly gave Boston two rings.
Finally, if you are thinking Manny is Pat Burrell II, he's only getting paid $2 million so if it doesn't work out they are only out the money and it was worth the gamble. He could be Jose Canseco and do you remember how well that worked out for the (Devil) Rays on a similar one-year deal?
Relief Pitching Still Needed
The team still doesn't have a replacement for All-Star closer Rafael Soriano who went to the rival Yankees, nor for Joaquin Benoit who took a ransom from Damon's former team, the Tigers, so until they get that resolved their mission is not complete. Still, they might now have a shot at third place and honestly after the Red Sox at No. 1, I have no idea the order of second to fifth. What I do know is the Rays just got themselves back in the conversation.
I have no doubt some kid will emerge and they might be able to hold their own. Also, don't forget the haul they got from crabby Matt Garza in the Cubs deal. I've got friends who are Cubs fans who say they gave up quite a bit in that package and it's a tantalizing variety of pitching and position prospects. Knowing the Rays farm system, eventually someone will have success.
If you are thinking Damon is Greg Vaughn II or Ramirez is Vinny Casilla II and they are going to suck, put your money on Manny, but remember this team still has much better starting pitching and holdovers like Longoria and Upton than those aberration teams ever did. That, and GM Andrew Friedman is no Chuck LaMarr and that's a good thing.
Information and statistics from ESPN.com directly contributed to the content of this article.