Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rays Sign Two Former Red Sox Players

On the same day that their AL East foes trade away Vernon Wells, the Tampa Bay Rays have gone out and signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to one-year contracts.

With these signings, we could see some changes to the Rays’ lineup for the 2011 season. Despite their declining defensive abilities, Damon and Ramirez managed to prove their worth this past season. Damon hit .271/.355/.401 in 145 games for the Detroit Tigers while Ramirez hit .298/.409/.460 in a suspension-shortened 90 games for the Dodgers and White Sox.

There is no doubt that the Rays are a better team with these two players in the lineup. But one must ask: Where do they fit in?

At the moment, the Rays have a good roster of quality players. They lost Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford to free agency this off-season, but Damon and Ramirez will help to ease the pain. Both Damon and Ramirez are outfielders, so that is obviously where they will play if they do not DH, but what happens with the rest of the Rays already on the roster?

Ben Zobrist, who started 80 games in right field, figures to move back to the infield. He started 81 games at second base for the Rays in 2009, and could very well move back to that position. Another option is to see Reid Brignac play second, but whatever happens, it is highly likely that Zobrist and Brignac are set to be the middle infielders for the Rays this season. Evan Longoria is a lock to return at third base, there really is not any dispute here. First base could likely be filled by Dan Johnson, but the Rays may also try to acquire somebody else to play that position.

As to where Damon and Ramirez fit in, let us first look at who they already have. B.J. Upton recently avoided arbitration with the team by signing a contract that will pay him $4.825-million this year. Compared to Damon and Ramirez, Upton is much faster and can still cover a lot of ground so he will almost certainly play centre field for the team this year.

This brings us to the issue of three positions for only a few players. Left field, right field and designated hitter are open at the moment. Who will fill these spots? Likely Damon, Ramirez, Matt Joyce or Desmond Jennings. The first three players I mentioned certainly have defensive deficiencies, while Jennings lacks Major League experience and will have to have a great Spring Training to get a spot on the 25-man roster in April.

If I had to pick the lineup right now, I would slot Jennings in at the centre field position, move Upton over to right and allow Damon to play left field with Ramirez as the designated hitter. At the same time, I may even consider playing Joyce at first base instead of Dan Johnson. I have never really been a big fan of Mr. Johnson, but I definitely think that he would be valuable as a bench player.

These two signings by the Rays have certainly created some questions about this team and who will play where come Opening Day. While many people are expecting Desmond Jennings to be the loser in this situation, I’d expect him to come out of Spring Training with a starting job, leaving Damon and Ramirez competing for playing time in the field with one of them being the designated hitter for the team.

See You Later, Vernon

Alex Anthopoulos continues to put his mark on the Toronto Blue Jays. With the recent trade of Vernon Wells to the Angels, the Blue Jays have rid themselves of an expensive contract. In return, the Blue Jays received Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. I have had many people asking me for my opinion on the deal, so here it is.

Napoli, expected to split time behind the plate and at first base, hit .238/.316/.468 for the Angels in 2010 which was arguably one of the worst offensive seasons of his career. However, he still managed to hit a career-high 26 home runs for the Halos.

The 32-year-old Rivera also had a down year. He hit .252/.312/.409 while spending most of his time in left field, a position where the left-handed batting Travis Snider is expected to play for the Blue Jays.

Rivera comes to the Blue Jays as a likely fourth outfielder. It is likely that we will see Jose Bautista remain in right with the newly acquired Rajai Davis playing centre and Snider in left, with Rivera likely taking over when somebody needs a day off.

Wells’ much maligned contract was considered by many as one of the worst signings made by former general manager J.P. Ricciardi. As recently as last week, Wells himself stated that he was probably not worth his contract. A contract that paid him $126-million over 7 years was seen as a good investment at the time. But in the four seasons that have passed since signing the richest contract in Blue Jays history, Wells has been a disappointment.

V-Dub played in approximately 88% of the teams’ games since 2007, while most notably missing 54 games during the 2008 season. He has been plagued by various groin and shoulder injuries, but has played through these injuries at times. His slash line in the past 4 seasons of .267/.321/.450 is hardly worth $126-million over 7 years. Add to that his 82 home runs and 37 steals, for an average of 20.5 and 9.25 per season respectively, and things begin to look a little more dim.

Is Wells a good player? Of course he is. He is still an elite centre fielder, and should play the position for the Angels despite a decline in range in recent years. Is he a $20-million per year player? Not at all. I’d even be inclined to argue against him being a $10-million per year player.

From the Jays’ point of view, this trade is a great investment. With four years and $86-million remaining on Wells’ contract, the Jays have managed to unload a financial burden while bringing in talented players who can contribute immediately. At $5.25-million, Rivera is currently the highest-paid Blue Jay for 2011. However, Napoli could get slightly more either through arbitration or negotiation after earning $3.6-million in 2010. That said, Bautista could earn more than both of them after his monstrous 2010 season.

How else does this trade benefit the Blue Jays? I have already mentioned the financial aspects of the deal, which will allow the team to either pursue other free agents or trades in the future or for them to lock up the players they already have in long-term deals such as Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil. I have mentioned the modified outfield situation, but I have failed to mention anything about how Napoli can contribute to this team.

Napoli is not known as a catcher with great defensive prowess. In 2010, he threw out just 27% of potential base stealers, and has thrown out just 24% in his career. Although he did spend more time at first base in 2010 than he did behind the plate, one would think that he should see more time behind the plate for the Jays.

A catching tandem of Napoli and Molina is more appealing to me than a tandem of John Buck and Molina. But this leaves J.P. Arencibia as the odd man out. Despite tearing it up in Triple-A, Arencibia failed to impress at the Major League level aside from his debut where he went 4-for-5 with 2 home runs.

That said, if Arencibia has a good spring, we could see him and Molina as the Jays’ catching tandem with Napoli as the starting first baseman. This would allow Adam Lind to be the DH, and, despite claims to the contrary, we could see Edwin Encarnacion assume his typical role at third base. I am still not convinced that he will spend most of his time at first base. I realize it was claimed that he would play first base, but this trade could change things slightly.

It has been reported that Brett Lawrie, the player the Jays acquired for Shaun Marcum, has been working out at third base in the off-season. It is an interesting move for a player who was drafted as a catcher, but certainly not strange as we have seen many catchers move to the hot corner in recent history. Some people seem to think he is ready for the Majors right now. So, this trade has certainly created some interesting competitions within the organization for spots in the starting lineup this spring.

Overall, I think both teams are winners here. The Blue Jays rid themselves of a terrible contract, thus freeing up money over the next four years that can be spent elsewhere. While not elite offensive players, Napoli and Rivera can certainly contribute to this team. Rivera has been a .300 hitter twice in his career, while Napoli could bounce back from a below average 2010 to provide some power and offence from behind the plate. The Angels obtain one of the best defensive outfielders in the game who could potentially hit 30 home runs in Anaheim while trading away another outfielder and an offensive catcher who struggled this past season.

It remains to be seen what else Anthopoulos does with this Jays’ team. All I can say at the moment is that I am extremely excited when it comes to the future of this franchise.