Saturday, January 22, 2011

Damon, Ramirez Provide Ray of Hope in Tampa Bay

Call it a fire sale, call it open season, call it anything you want. The 2010-2011 offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays has been anything but sunny. Not even three months after the World Series concluded with the San Francisco Giants beating the Texas Rangers, the Rays have already lost Joaquin Benoit, Carlos Peña, Jason Bartlett, Gabe Kapler, Grant Balfour, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, and (perhaps the biggest fish of them all in) Carl Crawford to either free agency or in trades made for future prospects.

It makes you wonder, do the Rays have anything to offer big name ballplayers?

As it turns out, they do (somehow). Pending physical examinations, the Rays have signed free agent outfielders Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to one-year deals on Friday.

Damon and Ramirez, who have previously played with each other for the Boston Red Sox from 2002-2005 during the "Idiot" regime, will make chump change compared to their previous salaries: Damon will get a little over five million dollars, while Ramirez will make a scant two million. Damon is also expected to replace Crawford as the Rays' starting left-fielder, and Ramirez will be the full-time designated hitter.

As probably one of the few diehard Tampa Bay Rays fans that exist, allow me to share with y'all a unique perspective on what this move will do for this team.

I'll buy these signings as good marketing, but I'm selling the notion that this team is a bona fide contender again. If anything, I fear this will be history repeating itself all over.

Many years ago, when the team was still known as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (gradients and all), they acquired a quartet of power-hitting athletes: Fred McGriff, Vinny Castilla, Jose Canseco, and Greg Vaughan. It was dubbed the "Hit Show" for the 2000 season, in an effort to improve their home run total. (The Devil Rays ranked next-to-last in the American League for home runs in 1998 and 1999, their first two years in baseball.) Unfortunately, the power went out on the quartet. Essentially, all four were busts – though McGriff put up respectable numbers – and Tampa Bay soon returned to their losing ways.

But that was then, this is now. Ever since Tampa Bay exorcised the 'Devil' out of their moniker, the Rays have won two division titles in the last three years – including a berth in the World Series – and they still have a young nucleus to build around, highlighted by AL Cy Young runner-up David Price and three-time All Star Evan Longoria. So what's the problem? Nobody's watching them, that's the problem.

In the three years since Tampa Bay changed their name and became a perennial playoff contender practically overnight, they drew 1,780,791 fans in 2008, 1,874,962 in 2009, and 1,864,999 in 2010. Sounds like a lot of people, until you realize that in those three years, the Rays ranked 12th, 11th, and 9th out of 14 teams in the American League, respectively. Adding all those figures divided by 3 (seasons), then divided by 81 (home games per regular season) gives a mean attendance of about 22,719 fans. That means, during the past three years, the Rays played their home games in a stadium barely 60 percent full. By comparison, more than double that many people would rather watch the nearby Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that’s saying something, considering the Bucs’ season-long issues with home blackouts and major cuts to their payroll. But I digress.

Speaking of payroll, that's the reason why they signed both outfielders for a bargain. Before the postseason last year, Rays management stated that they would cut upwards of $20 million from their payroll, even if they had won the World Series. Since the Rays couldn't (literally) afford to keep virtually every key player with an expiring contract heading into 2011, they let them all go their separate ways. The mass exodus that soon followed is comparable to what the Florida Marlins did following their remarkable run to a World Series title in 1997 going into 1998. The only difference is that the Rays are not anticipating on losing 38 more games this year than last. If anything, these latest free agent signings keep Tampa Bay relevant in the elite American League East, where Boston, New York, even Baltimore made big moves to bolster their own rosters earlier this offseason. Whether or not the Rays stay relevant heading into September is a whole 'nother ballpark.

But getting back to the players, Ramirez is 38 and Damon is 37 heading into this season. They're practically ancient artificats, especially since they're on one of the youngest teams (both in terms of the franchise and roster) in major league baseball. Personally, I don't expect either player to perform like they did in their prime while with Boston several seasons ago, but I do like the experience they bring to a rebuilding team. Not only that, but their presence alone ought to improve the Rays' home attendance woes that've plagued them since their inaugural season. As long as Damon can play effectively and Ramirez has some juice left over in his swing, the Rays are not going to go down without a fight in 2011.

And all of a sudden, I can't wait 'til Spring Training.

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