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John Romano: Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon bring bit of hope to Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays did not spend a fortune on a fixture in leftfield. That was the Red Sox.

And the Rays did not have a family squabble before overspending for a relief pitcher. That was the Yankees.

What the Rays have done is less dramatic, less expensive and less risky.

You see, when it came down to crunch time, all the Rays could afford to buy was some hope.

For that is what the expected signings of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon should mean for 2011. It means the Rays can at least begin the season with an opportunity to contend. They can at least give their starting rotation a fighting chance. They can at least give their fans the hope that a 90-win season is not completely out of the question.

After seeing so many players sprinting out of Tropicana Field for the nearest ATM, the Rays finally have brought some stability back to the lineup. They have bought two names. Two bats. Two reasons for B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria to smile.

And the cost was fairly minimal. The combined contracts for Damon and Ramirez are less than half of what the Red Sox will pay Carl Crawford and a fraction of what the Yankees are paying Rafael Soriano. There is no long-term commitment and no significant blow to the future.

Tampa Bay might not be the favorite in the American League East, but it remains a player.

Sure, there are reasons to be cautious. Damon is 37 and did not hit well away from Comerica Park last season. Ramirez will soon be 39, and his power numbers have been in a steep decline since he was suspended in 2009 for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

And as a franchise, the Rays have never had much luck with older, bat-for-hire types. Jose Canseco gave them one great half season, Greg Vaughn gave them less, and Pat Burrell gave them a rash.

The point is there is a decent possibility that one or both of these guys will fall off a cliff as far as their skills. And there's a chance they will run across each other on the disabled list at some point. There is also a chance the personality of a clubhouse will change.

If you were going to gamble on which Ray would be the most popular among fans in spring training, I would say Ramirez would be a safe bet. And if you were going to gamble on which Ray would be the least popular by October, I would also suggest laying your money on Manny.

That's just who he is. Lovable when things are going well and infuriating when things are not.

So, yes, it's a gamble. But it's a gamble worth taking because the Rays still have the core of a very nice team. And, as well as Boston has done this offseason, the Yankees look vulnerable with their starting pitching.

Certainly this would look a little sexier in 2004 when Ramirez was the best hitter in the American League and Damon was in his prime. Then again, in 2004, they would have cost $30.5 million instead of $7.25 million. So there's that.

Up to this point, the Rays had been heading toward one of the greatest payroll slashings in modern times. They had gone from about $73 million in payroll last season to a projected $35 million or so in 2011. The payroll will still be much lower, but it's not quite the clearance aisle.

Tampa Bay went to the World Series in 2008 with a young rotation and a $43 million payroll, and that's similar to what they look like now.

And if you compare the lineup today with what the Rays had last season, the difference is not that dramatic. Swapping Reid Brignac for Jason Bartlett will have minimal impact. Swapping Dan Johnson for Carlos Peña might even be an upgrade, at least offensively, considering what Peña offered in 2010. Swapping Ramirez for the revolving door of designated hitters should be a huge improvement.

The only comparison that suffers is Damon for Crawford. And while there's little debate that Crawford is a better fielder, a more disruptive baserunner and an all-around better hitter, Damon should give the Rays less strikeouts, more walks and more strategic at-bats.

The bottom line is Tampa Bay has scored between 774 and 803 runs the previous three seasons, and I would guess they will fall somewhere close to that range again in 2011.

The bigger question is whether the Rays can replicate last season's bullpen. That will be far more difficult. Soriano and Joaquin Benoit were the best one-two punch in the AL, and both are gone. So are Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Randy Choate. Those are five relievers Joe Maddon trusted with leads late in games, and it'll be virtually impossible to find five more who are just as trustworthy in one offseason.

Even so, Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman has come up with stunning results before, so it's not a stretch to think he can do it again.

Yes, the Red Sox and Yankees have much better offenses. And they have much better bullpens, too.

But the Rays have a rotation, they have defense, and, today, they have a little more hope.

John Romano: Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon bring bit of hope to Tampa Bay Rays 01/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 12:25am]
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