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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Plowing The Depths of the Designated Hitting Market

When the week began, the only question remaining for the Hot Stove season was how to sort out the plethora of defensively-challenged veterans still looking for work.  You could've had your pick of players with Hall of Fame (or, at least, borderline Hall of Fame) credentials, including Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, and Johnny Damon.  As the week comes to a close, it looks like they've all been signed (or are on the verge of signing) and several teams are faced with the need to creatively distribute at-bats.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Only a handful of the self-anointed "idiots" who broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 are still bouncing around the major leagues.  Two of the most recognizable players from that legendary team, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, brought their talents back to the AL East this morning by signing one-year deals with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Both are coming off severely disappointing seasons:

Damon: .271/.355/.401, 145 G, 81 R, 8 HR, 51 RBI, 11 SB
Ramirez: .298/.409/.460, 90 G, 38 R, 9 HR, 42 RBI, 1 SB

However, the Rays can certainly find evidence of remaining skills (especially in the OBP department) and may hope that giving them the opportunity to stick it to their former teams will further motivate the former superstars.

ESPN is speculating that Damon, coming of a year in which he spent the majority of his time at DH for the Tigers, will get the bulk of the innings in left field, while Manny concentrates exclusively on his hitting.  It is certainly true that, while both are suspect fielders, Damon is the preferable option.

However, what has gone largely uncommented upon, at least thusfar, is the extent to which this complicates Tampa Bay's roster math.  There has been some dramatic turnover on the Rays since they got knocked out of the playoffs last October.  Among hitters, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, Rocco Baldelli, and Willy Aybar have all been jettisoned.  Only a few things about the 2011 Rays lineup seem certain.  Evan Longoria, presuming his health, will start every game at third base.  Ben Zobrist will also play nearly everyday, wherever he is asked.  John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach will share the catching duties.

The remaining six lineup spots will presumably be shared by some combination of Ramirez, Damon, B. J. Upton, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson, and Leslie Anderson.  That's right, there may not be enough roster spots for all these guys, especially of the Rays need to carry extra relievers in the early weeks of the season.  The Spring Training competition could get pretty heated.

If you've read this blog at all, you're aware that I consider depth to be one of the foremost necessities of a competitive franchise, so Andrew Friedman has clearly done his manager a great service with these cost-effective signings.  Joe Maddon has a great track record for finding a sizable share of at-bats for everybody on his bench and he like to play matchup baseball.  It's worth pointing out, the above list of players features four lefties and five righties.

I wouldn't assume that Damon (L) and Ramirez (R) are everyday players.  Tampa Bay has generally put a high priority on defense, and there's no doubt that their best defensive alignment features Upton, Jennings, and either Zobrist or Joyce in the outfield.

This move should, however, light a fire under Jennings.  Most had assumed Jennings would open 2011 as a starter, but Tampa has frequently looked to slow down the arbitration clock on their top prospects by promoting them in May or June.

I'd also direct your attention to these splits from 2010:

Brignac (2B/SS): .224 AVG/654 OPS v. LH, .263 AVG/701 OPS v. RH
Rodriguez (2B/SS/OF): .282 AVG/824 OPS v. LH, .231 AVG/629 OPS v. RH
Joyce (1B/OF/DH): .190 AVG/774 OPS v. LH, .246 AVG/843 OPS v. RH
Johnson (1B/DH): .343 AVG/1068 OPS v. LH, .170 AVG/.696 OPS v. RH

Now, these are young players (except Johnson) who had only limited playing time in 2010, so the sample sizes are small and therefore suspect, but you can see the possibility of Maddon exploring platoons (good news for Rays fans, bad news for fantasy owners).

Toronto Blue Jays:

Alex Anthopoulos appears to have pulled off the biggest swindle since A. J. Pierzynski spent an unhappy year in San Francisco.  Yesterday, he sent Vernon Wells and $75 Million of remaining salary to the Los Angeles Angels (of Desperation Valley) for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.  The evisceration of Tony Reagins commenced the moment this deal was announced.  Anthopoulos couldn't have given Wells away to any of the other 28 GMs.  But, instead of lingering over the creative destruction of one of the most successful franchises of the last decade (in 2011, the Angels owe approximately $60 Million, which is the Blue Jays entire payroll, to Wells, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, and Gary Matthews Jr.), I want to concentrate on the somewhat odd situation this creates for Toronto.

The Jays now feature five players - Napoli, Rivera, Adam Lind, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion - who are, to put it mildly, defensive liabilities.  Anthopolous has basically fielded an entire roster of DHs.  And I'm not even considering the fact that early scouting reports are very skeptical about the glovework of young Travis Snider and J. P. Arencibia.

The Jays are sluggers (#1 in HR, SLG% in 2010), but they are also slugs (28th in SB), and the loss of Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, and John Buck (actually some of their better defensive players) isn't going to change that.  Lind, who made 120 starts at DH last year, is slated to be their new first-baseman (he's logged a total of 76 innings there in his career).  Bautista will reprise his role as a utilityman of the Paul Molitor variety (a.k.a. he plays many positions poorly).  The Jays manager will daily debate whether he prefers Rivera and his -7.5 UZR in LF or Encarnacion and his -11.5 UZR at 3B.  Napoli (24% CS) and Arencibia (28% CS in minors) will take turns letting AL speedsters run wild.

None of this is intended as derision toward Anthopoulos.  He's pumped up the offense while slashing the payroll.  One can easily imagine the Jays and their solid corps of young talent developing into contenders while somebody else is still paying the outrageous contracts of Wells and Alex Rios (both through 2014!).

Up the middle, the Jays have actually improved via the quiet acquisitions (during the 2010 season) of Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar. Nevertheless, there will probably be some Bad New Bears reenactments as Toronto tries to find someplace on the field to hide all their brawny bashers.

Minnesota Twins:

The good news for Twins fans is that Jim Thome and Carl Pavano, both of whom played major roles in last year's 94-win campaign, are back for another go-round.  The bad news is that means Jason Kubel will be forced to reprise his role as "outfielder."  Anybody who watched the Twins play with any regularity last season will not be surprised to discover these stats:

Denard Span: 1349 INN, 6.3 UZR (#4 among 15 AL CF)
Delmon Young: 1277 INN, -9.7 UZR (#13 among 14 AL LF)
Jason Kubel: 670 INN, -8.8 UZR (#15 among 16 AL RF)
Michael Cuddyer: 539 INN, -8.5 UZR (#14 among 16 AL RF)

Yes, their corner outfield defense was abyssmal, easily the worst in either league.

Last year, this shortcoming was balanced, at least in part, by the fact that J. J. Hardy (#3 among AL SS in UZR) and Orlando Hudson (#2 among AL 2B in UZR) were outstanding middle-infielders.  Minnesota must hope they can get similar defense from Alexi Casilla (-7.9 UZR/150 in 1998 career innings at 2B) and rookie shortstop, Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

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