Less than a year after retiring in disgrace to avoid a second performance-enhancing drug suspension, Manny Ramirez just might catch on with another major league team. Ramirez was reinstated from the retirement list in mid-December, began working out in Florida in January, and the Orioles, A's, and Blue Jays have since shown public interest in signing the 12-time All-Star. That interest comes despite the fact that Ramirez would still have to serve a 50-game suspension (reduced from 100 games in recognition of his having sat out all but five games of the 2011 season) before he could take the field and will turn 40 right around the time that suspension would end in late May.
The Orioles and Jays both sent scouts to see Ramirez hit at an indoor batting cage in Miami in early January, and Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette and both A's owner Lew Wolff and assistant GM David Forst have since made public statements about their interest in bringing Ramirez and his baggage to their teams.
"I think it would be fun," Wolff told the Associated Press in late January. "This should be viewed on the basis of talent. Once he's served the penalty, he should be free to do what he wants. I don't know what kind of shape he's in, though I hear he's in great shape. . . . I really don't see any non-baseball reason for not having him. I wouldn't want to not have a player because he made a mistake and paid the price for it, but that's really up to [general manager] Billy [Beane]."
Beane hasn't commented on Ramirez, but his assistant Forst did, telling the AP at A's Fanfest last week, "We're open to it. We do have other things going on, and we do expect other additions between now and Opening Day. We have never been in a situation where we had too many good players."
The A's have made a habit out of handing their designated hitter job to fading stars on their way out of baseball in recent years, employing Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, and Hideki Matsui at the position in four of the last six seasons, and are apparently unconcerned about the distraction Ramirez might cause in the clubhouse.
That is less true of Duquette, who, as GM of the Red Sox, brought Ramirez to Boston in 2001 via a $160 million, eight-year contract that still ranks as one of the 10 richest deals in major league history. During Monday's conference call to discuss the trade that sent Jeremy Guthrie from Baltimore to Colorado, Duquette admitted to having "exploratory talks" with Ramirez and his agents, but added that he is, "still considering the composition of this club, and some of the challenges of integrating a player like Manny into our ballclub and market." Not to mention into the clubhouse of no-nonsense field manager Buck Showalter.
The truth of the matter is that the media circus that might follow Ramirez to Oakland or Baltimore could be a boon to either team. Neither expects to contend this season, and both ranked in the bottom five in attendance in all of baseball last year. The A's were dead last in attendance in 2011 and this winter traded their three best pitchers and lost their corner outfielders to free agency. The Orioles are trapped beneath a thousand miles of solid granite in the AL East and could use an attention-getting move such as inking Ramirez.
The Blue Jays have similar attendance woes (they were 25th in attendance last year, just in front of the Orioles), but they appear to be an up-and-coming team that could take advantage of the expanded playoff field which remains in play for the coming season and will definitely be in place next year. A stunt like signing Ramirez could send the wrong message to their fans. Though they're still rumored to be in the mix, it's telling that the Jays have not made any indications about Ramirez since seeing him hit, though it will be interesting to see if their interest spikes if the new playoff format -- two wild cards in each league -- is implemented while Ramirez is still a free agent.
As to just what kind of on-field value Ramirez can offer, that is more difficult to say. Clearly he's only viable as a designated hitter at this point -- he was a brutal fielder even in his prime -- but how much hitting can he be expected to do? Ramirez was stuck in a vicious slump before retiring last year, going 1-for-17 for the Rays, but one can't draw a meaningful conclusion from a five-game sample. Ramirez also struggled with the White Sox down the stretch after an August trade from the Dodgers in 2010, managing just two extra-base hits in 88 plate appearances, though he did post a .420 on-base percentage for Chicago, which is plenty valuable. Take Ramirez's entire 2010 and 2011 seasons together, and he hit .284/.392/.436 in 337 plate appearances, which, despite the lack of power (just nine home runs) is better than what the Jays got from 2011 DH Edwin Encarnacion (.272/.334/.453).
Ramirez blames that relatively poor showing on the 50-game performance enhancing drug suspension that he served in mid-2009, but the more likely culprits were age, decreasing bat speed and chronic leg injuries, particularly given that he slugged .492 in 311 plate appearances over the remainder of 2009 and got off to a hot start in 2010 before a late April calf strain. Even if taken at face value, Ramirez's explanation doesn't bode particularly well for his comeback.
"It took me three years to reach ideal conditioning again," Ramirez told ESPN Deportes's Enrique Rojas in December. "In 2009 due to the suspension, in Chicago, in Tampa, my mechanics were off. Physically I was doing well, but not mentally. Baseball is a mental game. You can have a car with 1,000 horsepower, but if you don't have someone who can drive it, forget it."
That statement is thick with internal contradictions (his mechanics were off but physically he was doing well?) and simple untruths (he hit the disabled list three times in 2010). More significantly, why should any team believe that Ramirez will be in the right physical and mental place to produce after a year on the shelf when he blames a 50-game suspension for his poor performance over the next season and a half and beyond, particularly when he has to serve another 50-game suspension before he can return to the majors?
The simple fact is that whatever team does sign Ramirez will be lucky to get more than 300 at-bats out of him between the suspension and his high risk of injury, and the chances are low that he's going to slug above .450 in whatever time he does get. He might still reach base at a good clip, and that's very important, but that could be the sum total of his value. I can't see much reason for Toronto to bother, and the A's would be better off giving those at-bats to a young player who might actually contribute to the team they're trying to build (they'd also be better off with Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes platooning at DH rather than left field).
The Orioles, however, might be the perfect team for Ramirez. Wilson Betemit is in desperate need of a right-handed platoon partner at DH (he's a .246/.299/.385 career hitter against lefthanded pitching), and that arrangement would allow Ramirez to ease himself back into the major league grind, reducing his chance of injury. Besides, there are no prospects like Chris Carter or Michael Taylor that he'd be taking at-bats away from in Baltimore the way he would in Oakland.
Duquette knows Ramirez and is sympathetic to the regrets he has expressed about his sudden retirement from the game last April. As he said on Monday's conference call, "Manny is looking for a second chance. I think it is a good story." The only question is if he'll help Ramirez with the ending.