The American League East got a wee bit more interesting on Friday night with a trio of deals whose news broke after most of us had long since reached the cocktail hour. From a short-term standpoint, the Rays' pair of signings are likely to have more impact on the 2011 race, but from a long-term view, it's the Blue Jays' trade of Vernon Wells which could herald real change in a division where the team north of the border has existed somewhere south of the most compelling late-season action.
In Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, the Rays signed a pair of grizzled vets quite familiar to Yankees fans to one-year deals at bargains relative to their high-paid heydays. Damon, who turned 37 in November, signed for $5.25 million dollars with another $750,000 in potential incentives, a modest pay cut from the $8 million he earned with the Tigers last year but one which nonetheless makes him the Rays' highest-salaried player. He didn't have a great 2010 season, hitting .271/.355/.401 with just eight homers in 613 plate appearances, but oddly, his power outage had less to do with moving from Yankee Stadium to Comerica Park than you might think:
Year Team AVG/OBP/SLG HR/FB AVG/OBP/SLG HR/FB
2009 Yankees .279/.382/.533 16.5% .284/.349/.446 8.0%
2010 Tigers .291/.359/.435 8.4% .249/.351/.364 1.2%
After hitting a career-high 24 homers in his final year as a Yankee — 17 at NuYankee Stadium, seven on the road — Damon hit just seven homers at home and one away from Comerica last year. Where the new ballpark in the Bronx caters to lefty hitters (who batted .268/.349/.460 in 2009 for the fourth-highest OPS of any such ballpark split in the majors), the one in Motown is particularly hard on them (.257/.326/.387 in 2010, for the 19th-highest OPS of the 30 parks). Furthermore, Damon turned into Scott Podsednik when he was on the road; he had so much trouble buying homers you'd think he was trying to cash an out-of-state check. In all, his True Average (which takes into account park and league scoring levels) dropped from .293 to .276 (still above average relative to MLB's left fielders and DHs), and he fell from 4.7 WARP to 1.9.
As for Ramirez, the 38-year-old signed for just $2 million after earning $20 million (three-quarters of it deferred) in 2010. In between making three trips to the disabled list for hamstring and calf strains, he hit .311/.405/.510 with eight homers in 232 plate appearances for the Dodgers (good for a .332 TAv) before being shipped off to the south side of Chicago in a waiver-period deal; he hit just .261/.420/.319 with one homer in 88 PA (a .283 TAv) for the White Sox. While much was made of his power outage — which may have owed to a sports hernia for which he underwent postseason surgery — he was still a deadly hitter, contrary to what the noisy moralists who once again accused him of quitting on a team may have told you. Overall, he was worth 2.8 WARP, down from 4.0 the year before, when he served a 50-game suspension for violating major league baseball's drug policy.
Obviously, neither player was atop anyone's free agent priority list, which suited the Rays, who are paring their payroll to the bone, just fine. Having opened the 2010 season with a $71.9 million payroll and finished at $77.5 million including earned incentives and benefits — the 20th-highest in the majors, and an 8.8 percent increase over 2009 — the Rays have since shed the contracts of their seven most expensive players via free agency, namely Carlos Peña, Carl Crawford, Pat Burrell, Rafael Soriano, Jason Bartlett, Dan Wheeler and Matt Garza. The highest earner among returning players is B.J. Upton, who received $3 million last year and will get $4.825 million this year; Ben Zobrist ($4.64 million) and James Shields ($4.25 million) are the only others earning more than $4 million. The team has committed $34.1 million thus far for 2011, and their opening day payroll is expected to come in around $40 million.
That figure, which would have ranked as the majors' second-lowest last season ahead of only the Marlins, isn't necessarily going to prevent the Rays from remaining competitive in the division, as they have plenty of young talent on hand, not to mention one of the game's top farm systems. Nonetheless, their roster remains something of a work in progress, and they're likely to remain active in the Filene's Basement area of the market between now and opening day. With the trade of Garza to the Cubs opening a spot for highly-touted Jeremy Hellickson, their rotation is set, and all homegrown (with Shields, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis as well) to boot. The bullpen, which lost not only Soriano and Wheeler but also Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, Lance Cormer and Chad Qualls, remains under construction; they've added Joel Peralta and (snort) Kyle Farnsworth and will likely promote Jake McGee, their top reliever prospect, but will also have to sift through a number of less-proven and lower-upside commodities to fill out their pen.
The lineup is more in flux, even with the two signings:
C: John Jaso (bats left) / Kelly Shoppach (r)
1B: Possibly Dan Johnson (l) / Ben Zobrist (s)
2B: Likely Sean Rodriguez (r) / Zobrist
SS: Reid Brignac (l)
3B: Evan Longoria (r)
LF: Damon (l)
CF: Upton (r)
RF: Likely Zobrist / Matt Joyce (l)
DH: Ramirez (r) / Damon
Thanks to the versatility of both Zobrist (who saw time at six positions) and Rodriguez (seven positions), Rays manager Joe Maddon has done much to revive the art of multiposition platooning; his lineup options last year centered around Zobrist playing primarily at second and in right but also filling in anywhere the injury bug bit, and Rodriguez, Brignac and the departed Bartlett shared the remaining duties in the middle infield. Such arrangements helped Rays hitters gain the platoon advantage against opposing pitchers 63.4 percent of the time, second in the league to the Yankees (68.4 percent) and well above the league average (56.3 percent). Where Zobrist will spend most of his time in 2011 remains a mystery, but he could wind up at first base (where he started nine times last year) quite often, which will obviously have a ripple effect up and down the line.
Ramirez is the obvious candidate to get the bulk of at-bats at DH, which bodes better both for his health and that of the Rays pitchers; he was two to six runs below average in limited duty according to FRAA, UZR and Plus/Minus. His presence should shore up a hole in the lineup where Burrell, Hank Blalock and Willy Aybar combined to hit .226/.301/.339 before Johnson stabilized the position late in the year.
The Damon move is more problematic. He played just 37 games in the field last year but only two from August onward, as calf and back strains limited his mobility in the outfield. He was more or less average according to the major defensive systems, and he actually didn't fare too badly in 2009 either despite reviews of an arm so weak it wouldn't look out of place in a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
What his arrival does is block the spot where top hitting prospect Desmond Jennings was expected to play. An electrifying speeder who's been described as a Crawford clone with more plate discipline and the ability to play center field, Jennings won Southern League MVP honors in 2009 and ranking seventh among Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospects, but he spent the early part of 2010 struggling with the effects of a wrist sprain, most notably a loss of power. He hit .245/.343/.319 through May but recovered well enough (.289/.364/.416 from June through August) to make a late-season cameo in Tampa Bay. It's at least somewhat understandable why the Rays would want to let him start the year in Triple-A, both to insure that his wrist is healthy and to game his service clock so that they can forestall his arbitration and free agency eligibility.
Notably, Damon doesn't have a no-trade clause in this year's deal, something he had last year, though the possibility also looms that the Rays could explore trading Upton, who at the very least has been perceived as a something of a disappointment thanks to injuries, a falling batting average, and conflicts with his teammates and his manager. Nonetheless, he still outproduced the average center fielder and came on particularly strong over the season's final two months, hitting .255/.333/.480 with 10 homers. He could generate quite a midseason haul if he continues to rebound and goes on the market, though it's more likely the Rays would simply settle for one of their top homegrown commodities living up to his potential.
The bottom line is that the two old Red Sox give a team that was already flexible enough to out-yoga their AL East competitors additional flexibility for 2011 with regards to their lineup and roster. Their returns to Yankee Stadium should make for some good times as well. Few players in recent New York/Boston history have undergone the foe-to-friend transition to the extent that Damon did when he jumped from four years in Boston (where he helped end their 86-year championship drought) to his four years in the Bronx (capped by another well-earned World Series ring), and few foes have ever menaced the Yankees to the extent that Ramirez (who owns a lifetime .322/.413/.617 line in 861 PA against the pinstripes) has.
The AL East plot has already thickened, and with the Wells deal, which one of us will be along to analyze soon enough, it will only continue to do so.