Idiots reunite! Damon, Ramirez join frugal Rays in clever package deal
The Tampa Bay Rays' surprise Friday night signing of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez is akin to a company paying a bodyguard three times as much as the salary given to its tempestuous star.
Or maybe it's just stingy parents paying the babysitter a substandard wage because he's an old friend of their grounded son, who in turn receives a pittance of an allowance.
But while it's difficult to wrap one's head around the unique package deal concocted by agent Scott Boras -- who represents both the 37-year-old Damon and 38-year-old Ramirez, whose careers predate the existence of the Rays franchise and who were teammates for four years with the Red Sox -- there is no denying two unassailable truths:
• Rumors of the Rays' demise, which already had been greatly exaggerated, have been extinguished thanks to the shrewd cunning of the club's executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, who has kept Tampa Bay in contention despite cutting its payroll by more than 40 percent.
• The booing this summer in Boston and New York will be legendary for each visit from the Rays, whose two newest additions have spurned Tampa Bay's big brother rivals but who may represent the pieces the Rays need to sustain their ability to threaten in the American League East.
Damon and Ramirez are stopgap signings but should help the once-lowly Devil Rays achieve the longevity needed to rechristen the division's axis of power into a Big Three. (Given Toronto's heist from earlier in the evening to dump Vernon Wells' massive contract and free its budget to further improve its own on-the-rise club, it may only be a couple years before there's a Big Four.)
Tampa Bay's acquisitions are, of course, pending physicals, and the new recruits are not spring chickens. While Damon has averaged 146 games in the past eight seasons, he played 97 of his 145 games in 2010 as the Tigers' designated hitter because his outfield range had deteriorated so drastically. Ramirez, meanwhile, has averaged only 97 games the past two seasons, making multiple trips to the disabled list and one extended trip to the suspended list.
Similarly, the Rays are not adding players in their prime, guys who at their peak lead the Red Sox to the 2004 World Series championship only after completing the most improbable comeback in sports history. Then again, the two made a combined $30.5 million that season, while they'll haul only a guaranteed $7.25 million collectively in 2011.
Of that amount, $5.25 million goes to Damon -- who becomes the club's highest-paid player next year and who has, somewhat laughably, $750,000 in attendance bonuses at routinely deserted Tropicana Field -- and $2 million to Ramirez. One does not read that previous sentence and conjure the Karl Marx axiom that instructs, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
He is still an above-average hitter who had a .355 on-base percentage last season but was sapped of his power, hitting just eights homers and slugging just .401. He also stole only 11 bases, his fewest since his rookie year in 1995. But he is a beloved teammate and stellar presence in the clubhouse, a leader willing to face the media every single day, helping young star Evan Longoria ease into that role, rather than assume the entire burden after the Rays lost both Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña.
But there should be no mistaking that, while Damon brings real value to the Rays, this move is about trying to unleash Ramirez on the AL East again. Ramirez also slipped last year, powering only nine home runs but he still had a .409 OBP and slugged .460, a good clip but still only his second sub-.500 mark for a full season in his career. He is a latent force who, even though he's lost some power, remains one of the game's most feared hitters and a welcome threat in a Rays lineup that lost the aforementioned Peña and Crawford, their first and third leading home-run hitters last year with 28 and 19.
Damon is the custodian of Ramirez in this arranged marriage concocted by Boras and Friedman. The two appeared to be friends in Boston in those Idiot days of yore and perhaps Damon can keep in check the moody Ramirez, who outwardly appeared to quit on the 2008 Red Sox in order to force a trade and then nearly the same scenario with the 2010 Dodgers. Ramirez's compensation of just $2 million -- one-tenth his salary last year -- is less than many of his teammates, including backup catcher Kelly Shoppach and setup man Kyle Farnsworth. At that wage, if Ramirez acts up, he carries little risk and can be cut with little remorse, ensuring that the Idiot label will not be extended from the Red Sox ex-pats on up to Friedman.
And so Friedman added a pair of proven high-pressure players familiar with the wars of the AL East and did so by waiting out the free-agent market until players' demands waned from unreasonable to eminently affordable. On paper Tampa Bay appears to have been ripped to shreds by losing Crawford, Peña, Jason Bartlett, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit and several other relievers.
But while the bullpen remains somewhat a work in progress, depending on how prepared the farm system's power arms are, almost everywhere else the club had a replacement at the ready, most notably with Jeremy Hellickson following Garza in the rotation, Reid Brignac taking over for Bartlett at shortstop and Dan Johnson assuming Peña's spot at first base.
The spot carrying the most concern had been left field where Crawford is all but irreplaceable. Rookie Desmond Jennings projects to have a ceiling nearly as high as his predecessor but will undoubtedly take a couple years to reach it -- if at all, in the uncertain game of prospects. Now Damon and Ramirez help solidify that position, by alleviating the burden on the rookie. While Ramirez will primarily DH and Damon is likely to log some time at first base, the Rays now have the two of them, plus Johnson, Jennings and Matt Joyce to rotate among the DH, first base and left field spots. If manager Joe Maddon keeps everyone happy, that group should produce.
Consider at what little cost the Rays made some of these improvements. Garza just agreed to a deal of nearly $6 million with the Cubs, meaning Friedman turned Garza, surplus outfielder Fernando Perez and $1.25 million into Damon, Ramirez and four prospects. Moves like those have helped the Rays shear their payroll from $73 million down to just more than $40 million.
Earlier today there was a report by MLB.com's Peter Gammons that Friedman, foreseeing years in advance that he'd be gaining a slew of draft picks for losing free agents this offseason, began saving up two years ago for the signing bonuses the Rays will be extending to their selections in a particularly deep 2011 draft. Tampa Bay picks 12 times in the first two rounds, including 10 in the first and supplemental portions of the draft.
The oddity now will be in seeing Damon and Ramirez don Tampa Bay uniforms. Ramirez entered the major leagues in 1993, Damon was promoted in 1995 and the Rays followed in 1998.
Ramirez inflicted enough damage on the Yankees that New Yorkers have always hated him and his acrimonious departure from the Red Sox -- especially after he pulled the same charade in Los Angeles -- meant that he has been sentenced to receiving vitriol in both cities. Damon, meanwhile, was condemned by Boston fans when he signed with the Yankees immediately following his tenure with the Sox, may now receive similarly bad treatment at Yankee Stadium as he now joins a third AL East rival. These two men will need each other in the Rays clubhouse as they will be subjected to the rudest welcomes from the two most passionate fan bases in the American League.
Tampa Bay travels to Boston and New York nine times each, with its first trip to Fenway Park is April 11 and its first visit to Yankee Stadium is July 7. Last year the average attendance at Yankee Stadium was 46,491 and Fenway Park's was 37,610, meaning that during the 18 games they play in particularly hostile foreign territory, Damon and Ramirez will be passionately despised by approximately 756,909 Bostonians and New Yorkers next year.
But that wrath will only intensify if Friedman's formulations enable the Rays' crew of has-beens and almost-readys to hold onto their AL East crown for another year -- a proposition that at the beginning of the offseason seemed to be the mere ravings of a, well, idiot.