Before Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon decided to make St. Petersburg, Florida their baseball home for the 2011 season, the AL East was already shaping up to be more fun than usual, and that's saying something. Big name players had already changed addresses within the division.
In the most blatant case of inter-divisional reshuffling, Carl Crawford spurned the Rays for the Red Sox when industry professionals believed he was going to play with Torii Hunter and the Angels of Anaheim. To make matters worse, on the day of his introductory press conference inside Fenway Park, he said that his heart was in Boston.
He may have confused his heart with his bank account, but that's just semantics.
The Rays then lost another key cog of their 2010 team to the Yankees more recently when Rafael Soriano jumped ship to become the highest paid setup man in the history of setup men.
Even if Yankees GM Brian Cashman believed ownership was ponying up too much money—$35 million—and too many years—three—for a pitcher who won't finish games and who's never been healthy for three straight seasons, it made the Bronx Bombers better and took another piece away from the Rays.
On Friday, a move that had been opined about for sometime came together, all at once like a tidal wave of baseballs crashing down on your skull: Damon and Ramirez were signing one year deals with the Rays, and at the same time. According to Ken Davidoff of Newsday, super (evil) agent Scott Boras conjured up the idea of Damon and Manny as a "package deal" for the Rays.
Considering Manny's name hadn't been thrown around the Hot Stove much, if at all, it shouldn't come as a surprise that a) Davidoff reported the news as such and b) it is totally true and the two were going to be joined at the hip somehow this coming season like a traveling sideshow circus.
One can't throw! The other can't field! They won a World Series together in the year 2004! Ladies and Gentlemen—Mannnnnnnnyyyyyy aaaaaannnnnd Daayyyyy-monnnn!
Jokes aside, this makes the AL East even more fun and it brings the Rays back into the contention discussion for 2011. They have arguably the best starting rotation in the division, perhaps the entire American League—they traded Matt Garza and will replace him with the best pitching prospect not named Strasburg in Jeremy Hellickson.
Tampa Bay's bullpen may have been turned over like a pancake, but general manager Andrew Friedman has a very solid track record when it comes to building those puppies, so for now he gets the benefit of the doubt that Joel Hanrahan and the two relievers he got for Jason Bartlett (Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos), among others, will protect leads in the later innings.
And this brings us back to the two remaining Idiots. They're two of only a handful of pieces left from that 2004 World Series winning team. Other than David Ortiz, Derek Lowe, Bronson Arroyo and Jason Varitek (to a lesser degree), no one's left.
Curt Schilling is designing role play games for internet geeks, Pedro Martinez is eating mangos under a tree in the Dominican Republic and Kevin Millar is analyzing stuff on MLB Network.
On the field, Damon should give the Rays a veteran left-handed bat at or near the top of their lineup. Even though his speed has diminished, he could bat lead off for the Rays when they face right-handed starters.
And when he's not playing (either left field or designated hitter), who better to mentor young hitters like Reid Brignac, Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson, et al? Damon, for all his antics and loose personality, is a consummate professional who flat out knows how to hit—he's less than 500 base hits away from 3,000 career.
At $5.25 million for the season, Damon will be the highest paid Rays player, but he will earn every penny of it, both on the field and off it.
With Manny, it's a totally different cat. He may be motivated, but only for a month and a half. He may become best buddies with manager Joe Maddon, sipping glasses of Emilio Moro in his office with Bruce Springsteen chirping in the background. There's equal chance he could hit .280 with 18-20 home runs in 120 games, or hit .228 with seven bombs in 81 games and fizzle out like a sparkler.
But if or when he quits on that team, it won't be a big loss financially for the frugal Rays, who are only paying him $2 million for the season. The Rays can cut ties as easily as Manny can, and that's good news for them.
Regardless of what Manny or Damon bring the field in 2011, one thing is for certain: this season will not be boring.
Just imagine what kinds of themed road trips Maddon and Co. will come out of the woodwork with now.