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.