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The Cutoff Man: New look, same great player

January 24, 2011

Published in The Tartan, 1/24/2011:

As the off-season quickly becomes the preseason, there are still some proven veterans on the market. A few of them, such as Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, found new homes last week, while other players who already had homes found themselves new ones. Now that most teams — most, not all — have gotten the basic architecture of their rosters built, the last few weeks of the off-season are for shoring up their weaknesses and looking at all available options to improve on their team’s core. For some, that means adding depth. For others, it means finally getting a difference-maker. For free agents and trade candidates, it means getting ready to scour the real estate pages.

The Tampa Bay Rays made the biggest splash this past week when they signed proven veterans Ramirez and Damon to surprisingly cheap one-year deals. The Rays have been utterly depleted this winter, losing perennial Ray and star outfielder Carl Crawford to free agency along with first baseman Carlos Pena and closer Rafael Soriano, and trading pitcher Matt Garza. Signing Ramirez to a mere $2 million and Damon to $5.25 million (with incentives that’d push it to an even $6 million) not only allowed them to spend less than the Yankees did on Soriano, but gives the Rays low-risk, high-reward solutions to fill the holes in their lineup. Damon, who played mainly designated hitter for the Tigers in 2010, gives the Rays a relatively potent bat at the top of their lineup who could be a serviceable replacement for Crawford if he stays healthy and maintains a high on-base percentage.

Ramirez is a bit more of a wild card — wild indeed — but could end up giving the Rays a very big bat to protect Evan Longoria in the lineup and fill the hole that Pena’s bat left. A new uniform helped his production when he was traded from Boston to Los Angeles, but not necessarily after his 2010 deadline trade to the White Sox; however, if he truly enjoys playing in Tampa, the young Rays may prove to be the perfect environment to foster the best in Ramirez once more. Ramirez’s cheap deal surprised everyone after he held out each of his past two years of free agency for too much money, so perhaps this is a sign that Ramirez just wants to play some good ball and prove himself again.

Meanwhile, the Angels and Blue Jays pulled off a big trade on Friday when Vernon Wells was sent to Los Angeles of Anaheim in exchange for catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera. The Angels’ beat reporter, Lyle Spencer, said on Twitter that Wells is “that big bat fans want.” Technically, yes. But there is a reason the fans wanted a big bat: The Angels completely wiped out in their lackluster attempts to lure both Crawford and third baseman Adrian Beltre, and they seemed essentially to be banking on the return of Kendry Morales to be their big off-season improvement. Getting Wells, a three-time Gold Glover who averages 26 homers and 95 RBI a year, gives the Angels a solid outfield and a much more complete middle of the order. Wells is not only the big bat the fans want; he is the big bat the team needs.

For Napoli and Rivera, the deal provides a chance to start anew. While Napoli most likely will not be a starter, I expect him to serve as a veteran presence on the bench who can help mentor both the pitching staff and the team’s highly-touted rookie catcher, J.P. Arencibia. Rivera, the other guy in the deal, never really got going in 2010 after hitting 25 home runs in 2009. There was really no place for him in the Angels outfield, and starting over in Toronto — where it seems everyone on the team gets a power boost — could be just the thing for Rivera to establish himself as a feared and productive Major League hitter.

Spring training is now only three weeks away. Teams are still looking to improve, so look for the number of last-minute trades and signings to keep picking up. Soon, teams will see what the future holds for their has-beens and could-bes.

At the end of the season, every team wants to hear, “What a bargain those guys got! That pickup really worked out for them!” Which team will hear that come November 2011? We’ll soon find out.

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