I knew the Tampa Bay Rays were interested in both Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, but I was stunned upon learning that the team signed the duo for a combined $7.25 million. Ramirez, 38, played with Damon, 37, on the Boston Red Sox from 2002 to 2005. Now the stars meet up again on another American League East power.
These one-year contracts may be the last deals these two sign, so they can’t be expected to produce as they did in their prime, but the Rays certainly need their presence. This offseason has been a tough one for Tampa Bay.
The team won the American League East in 2010, winning 96 games before falling to the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series, but that success could not keep them from losing star outfielder Carl Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano through free agency to division rivals Boston and New York, while watching slugger Carlos Pena sign with the Chicago Cubs.
They also traded one of their top starting pitchers, Matt Garza, to the Cubs, receiving prospects in return.
Losing four key players who brought different skill sets to the table hurts. Those three “sprinted out of Tropicana Field for the nearest ATM,” as bitter St. Petersburg Times columnist John Romano put it, but they have found short-term solutions for both Crawford and Pena.
There’s no mistaking that, despite their old age, Damon and Ramirez can still rake. Their signings at least give Tampa Bay some confidence that they can compete with the Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Damon, a borderline Hall of Famer who has 2,571 hits to his name and a career .287 batting average, was very productive for the Detroit Tigers last season, hitting eight homers, driving in 51 and mashing 36 doubles while hitting a respectable .271. A slap-hitter from the left side with power to all fields, he should hit his fair share of gap-doubles and line-drive home runs in hitter-friendly Tropicana Field.
Ramirez, who battled injuries but hit .298 and posted a .409 on-base percentage with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox in 2010, should do the same. Given his usage of steroids in the early portion of this past decade writers may be hesitant to vote him into the Hall of Fame, but going solely by the numbers he has put up over the past 17 years he would without question be a first-ballot nomination.
Whether these two will be in Cooperstown is up in the air. For now, they are focused on putting the finishing touches to remarkable careers, to prove to the skeptics that they do have something left in the tank. And the Rays will need them to produce as they are still capable if they want to contend in the division.
Apparently, they were a package deal. Tampa Bay wouldn’t have signed Damon without Ramirez tagging along for the ride, and vice-versa.
Reacting to the deal in a text message sent to the St. Petersburg Times, Damon was excited to be joining another winner: “I am very excited to join an organization that has a very good chance to keep winning. And I love the opportunity to win in my home state, the team I will root for when my playing days are over. My family and I have been hoping for this for a while.”
Reaction was similarly positive throughout the baseball world.
Steve Slowinski of DRaysBay writes: “I’m still in shock. This feels like something out of a dream. This is probably the Rays’ biggest splash on the free agent market, and they managed to pull in two above-average players for less than Derrek Lee is making with the Orioles. This is the definition of a coup.”
Jonah Keri of FanGraphs chimes in: “They’ll win more games than they would have before these two moves. And even in perhaps the most fickle market in all of Major League Baseball, they may well draw more fans with Sideshow Manny in town, even after stripping out the effects of a higher win total. The Rays might still be a third-place team in 2011. But they’ll have plenty to YIPYIPYIP about.”
And finally, given both played for Boston, Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald can’t help but mention when they return: “Mark your calendars: The Rays visit Fenway on April 11-13, Aug. 16-17 and Sept. 15-18.” Tampa Bay certainly hopes the latter series will carry more meaning than just that.