PORT CHARLOTTE — After a solid spring in which he impressed with his attitude, hustle and work ethic — not to mention his power, bat speed and overall hitting skills — Manny Ramirez has the Rays thinking big.
Johnny Damon, who has played with and against Ramirez for more than 15 years, said he expects Ramirez to carry the team at times and could "easily" see him logging 20 homers and 100-plus RBIs.
And Rays manager Joe Maddon, eschewing the basic stats, projects Ramirez for an on-base percentage in excess of .400 and an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of at least .850, and possibly over .900. "If he's doing those numbers," Maddon said, "then he's probably being very productive."
And that's when Manny is standing at the plate.
Just having him in the lineup should provide a considerable residual benefit as well.
"There's definitely a Manny trickle-down effect," Maddon said.
"It's amazing," Damon said. "Manny makes any lineup that much better."
Evan Longoria, hitting third with Ramirez fourth, should find out better than anyone, specifically in getting better pitches to hit with Ramirez looming in the on-deck circle.
Without much protection last year given Carlos Peña's struggles, Longoria was pitched carefully and cautiously and, at times, became impatient about it, putting balls in play less forcefully (evidenced by his decline from 33 homers to 22) or getting himself out by swinging at pitches out of his preferred zones.
"I feel more comfortable having him behind me, especially the way he's swinging the bat right now," Longoria said. "He's that threat, that name you need. You say Manny Ramirez's name, you just associate him as a great hitter. That in itself gives me a little bit more confidence going to the plate."
Peña hit behind Longoria more than 100 times last season, and between his historically low .196 average and annoyingly high 158 strikeouts (third in the AL), he didn't provide much help. Nor did Willy Aybar, Matt Joyce or the other six hitters the Rays tried.
"I think it had some impact on last season," Maddon said. "If you reverse the roles and that lineup card comes over to us and you look at (Longoria's) name and then what's hitting behind him, sometimes you're like, 'Listen, boys. Don't let this fella beat you.' You're going to say that in a meeting. I really believe that can not be said this year in a meeting. I really do. And Manny provides that."
Hitting coach Derek Shelton said pitchers "are going to have to attack Longo in the zone more now" knowing Ramirez will follow with a quality at-bat and is likely to put the ball in play in key situations. "So you have to be aware of the fact that he's back there," Shelton said.
There also, Shelton said, should be an educational benefit for Longoria in watching Ramirez hit.
"I think what Manny does probably better than anybody in the game is he controls his at-bats," Shelton said. "He controls the tempo of his at-bats, he controls the pitches he swings at, and it's something he's created over time. This guy's played 17 years and been one of the most productive right-handed hitters of all time. So having Longo be able to do that at his age and watch this guy is going to help. And it's also for someone to talk to who is a like hitter."
Residuals aside, the biggest payoff for the Rays, of course, will be Ramirez's numbers, as the 38-year-old seeks to re-establish himself after two unproductive seasons (28 homers and 105 RBIs combined) abbreviated by suspension and injuries.
Ramirez has refrained from any predictions this spring, saying, "It doesn't matter how it looks; we've got to wait and see how it works outs. … I don't know. I'm just trying to go and prove myself."
Maddon, though, has little doubts.
"Talking to him regularly," Maddon said, "I think he's pretty confident right now actually."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.