Andrew Friedman Boston Red Sox Carl Crawford Carlos Pena Chicago Cubs evan longoria Jason Bartlett Johnny Damon Manny Ramirez Matt Garza MLB MLB Off-Season MLB Spring Training New York Yankees Tampa Bay Rays
I haven’t written about my beloved Tampa Bay Rays in 101 days. And for good reason.
To put it simply, this off-season has felt like death. Not a surprising, gone-in-your-sleep, heart attack kind of death. Anyone who follows the team knew it had to come. It’s been more like a slow, cancerous destruction.
We knew Carl Crawford was gone. We knew, for better or worse, Carlos Pena was gone. Most assumed Matt Garza would be traded by July at the very latest. But few prepared for the realism of actually seeing any of this happen.
I had the posts ready. I was prepared to write farewells to Crawford and Pena and Garza, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it when I saw the news.
The additional losses didn’t exactly pack an element of surprise either. Once the tornado was over, the Rays managed to lose nine players to free agency and two players to trade.
Some of the losses will hurt (Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Jason Bartlett). Some of them will not (Dioner Navarro, Randy Choate, Brad Hawpe, Dan Wheeler).
And it’s certainly difficult to fault any of these players for their decisions unless your the biggest Rays homer ever.
As Chipper Jones once said, ““When kids are in the backyard playing pretend games of baseball against their pretend buddies, it’s 3-2, two outs, bases loaded and they ain’t in Ted Turner Field [or Tropicana Field]. They’re at Yankee Stadium [or Fenway Park or Wrigley Field].”
Of the 11 players who left St. Petersburg, five will take the field for the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs next year. All will make substantially more money than the Rays could afford to pay them and play to crowds in large markets that actually give a damn about them. There’s no one to blame, it’s just the way baseball is.
Andrew Friedman is the most brilliant general manager in baseball, but sometimes simple financial issues make his genius only slightly more effective than the gate that keeps boys from going upstairs at Sarah Palin’s house.
In return, Friedman gets what can only be described as a developmental orgy. The Rays, known for being kings of the draft, will have 10 draft selections before the second round and own a startling 12 of the top 93 picks in the draft.
Due to their trades which involved Garza, Bartlett and struggling Triple-A outfielder Fernando Perez, the Rays acquired a total of nine minor league players. Two of the minor leaguers are pitchers (Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell) who should help fill the void in the Rays’ bullpen this season.
It has been said that Russell could be the reliever getting primed for a run at Soriano’s vacant closer spot.
But just when you got ready to throw down your cowbell and write this group off as “rebuilding,” Friedman got a little footloose on us.
Enter Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.
Now I know, I know. Damon and Man Ram are old, washed-up and nothing like the idiots that took shots of pregame Jack Daniels on their way to breaking baseball’s most infamous curse in 2004.
Guess what else I know … It doesn’t matter.
Sure, if the Rays were getting the 2004 editions of Damon and Ramirez, this would be crazy news that would probably have the Rays a couple of bullpen spots away from an AL pennant. But that’s not reality, and when you’re a team whose payroll has been forced down to Pirate-like figures, you don’t have time to work in any way other than reality.
The reality is that the Rays lineup was absolutely anemic for a large portion of 2010. Carlos Pena, yes the same man that the Cubs will pay $10 million next year, batted .196 last season and struck out 63 more times than he hit. The Rays haven’t had even average production from a designated hitter since, well, ever.
Friedman thought he found something with Pat Burrell who turned out to be one of Friedman’s biggest mistakes since taking the job in 2005.
Combined, Ramirez and Damon will make $1.75 million less than Burrell did in 2010. Excuse me, they’ll make a combined $1 million less if Damon some how earns the $750k “attendance incentive” that’s in his contract. Basically this is Friedman’s way of telling Scott Boras, “Okay, you want to sell me this 37-year-old based partially on popularity? Let’s see him fill up baseball’s dreariest stadium.”
From a lineup perspective, these signings can only help. Even if these two are nothing more than shells of their former selves. Ramirez is an upgrade over a DH unit that had been watered-down to the level of Rocco Baldelli and Willy Aybar by the end of 2010. Damon is certainly nothing close to Crawford in left field, but he is a pleasant surprise for those of us who were dreading the return of Justin Ruggiano.
To paraphrase both of those articles, this is a good thing. The Rays really can’t lose here and those are the kinds of situations that a team with limited means has to put itself in.
And if nothing else, it has the potential for fun. Imagine Ramirez and Joe Maddon in the same dugout. Think about Damon’s take on Maddon’s infamous themed road trips.
There are obviously no guarantees. I’ve gotten excited over this team for far more promising reasons before and received the ultimate result of disappointment. We were going to make another run in 2009. We were destined for a World Series in 2010.
But it has seldom felt as refreshing as this random hope that I have right now.
Last season felt like an ending, but it doesn’t anymore. There’s a rotation full of some of the most talented young pitchers in baseball, a lineup with a few fun story-lines (and Evan Longoria) and a bullpen that’s going to be auditioning young prospects all season.
I’m not sure if I have expectations, but for the first time this off-season, I just looked to see when pitchers and catchers report. The thought of spring training excites me, and I think that just might be a good start.