Tampa Bay Rays have had 102 DHs and have found no perfect fit, but maybe No. 103, Manny Ramirez, is the one

PORT CHARLOTTE

Aubrey Huff might have been the wrong man at the wrong time, but he had the right perspective on his assignment as the Rays' designated hitter.

"Best job in the world," Huff said, and often. "Sit around and hit four times."

But for the better part of the Rays' 13-season existence, there has been a lot more designating than hitting.

They've tried 102 of them, from Abernathy (Brent, who was 1-for-1 his lone shot) to Zobrist (Ben, who was 4-for-8 in three games). And, aside from Jose Canseco's 31-homer first half of 1999, few have done very well.

Going by the simple measure of OPS — on-base percentage plus slugging percentage — Rays DHs have been the least productive in baseball since the team started play in 1998, with a .750 OPS that is nearly 50 points below the league average.

The kick is that the job seems to be attractive: good pay (an average salary of $7.5 million in 2010, third highest of position), decent hours, light duty, cool benefits.

"DH-ing is easy for me," new Ray Johnny Damon said. "You can almost take it as a day off."

So why have the Rays had such a hard time finding the right man to fill it?

"I can't answer that question," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "You would think that it would be the most fungible position, but we've just really struggled with it.

"I think part of it is that for a smaller revenue team, it's even more difficult because on average it's among the highest-paid positions in baseball. So that automatically puts us at a competitive disadvantage. We've tried to get creative to fill it, and we haven't done very well the past couple years."

Going back to their beginnings, creative might be a kind word.

The Rays have tried all kinds, from the big lugs such as Paul Sorrento and Bubba Trammell, to the big names such as Greg Vaughn and Fred McGriff, to the big busts, where Pat Burrell stands alone. They've tried bit players, young up-and-comers and several on the way out.

And in between?

A Jonny (Gomes) and two Johns (Flaherty and Jaso).

Two Bens (Grieve and Zobrist), Gabes (Gross and Kapler), Gregs (Norton and Vaughn), Jasons (Bartlett and Tyner), Joses (Canseco and Guillen), Joshes (Paul and Phelps) and Matts (Diaz and Joyce).

A Geoff (Blum) and a Jeff (Liefer). A Joe (Dillon), a Joey (Gathright) and a Joel (Guzman). A Damon (Hollins), a Damian (Rolls) and a Damion (Easley). Plus a Brook (Fordyce), a Kelly (Shoppach), a Michel (Hernandez), a Randy (Winn), a Terry (Shumpert), a Toby (Hall).

And now the Rays are going to hope Manny can be the man.

Overall, Manny Ramirez, 38, is considered one of the best hitters of his era, if not all time. But as a designated hitter? Maybe not so much.

Ramirez's numbers as a DH aren't bad — certainly better than anyone the Rays have had — with a .311 average in 323 games, 71 homers, 233 RBIs and a .968 OPS. But he hasn't done it much recently — 87 games in 2001 and 50 in 2002, then 93 games total until his final 21 of last season when claimed by the White Sox — and never on the somewhat full-time basis the Rays plan.

"I don't know," Ramirez said. "We'll see at the end of the year. It's something new; I haven't done it before."

David Ortiz, Ramirez's friend and former Boston teammate who is one of the game's best DHs, has some doubts.

"I don't know," Ortiz told ESPNBoston.com. "Manny's mind changed a lot — remember he tried to DH once, he was like 0-for-10, he was like, 'Bleep this.' But he's older now. His body has to get adjusted to that."

The Rays are hoping — as they did with Burrell and found out $16 million later otherwise — that Ramirez can make the adjustment, most important to the idle time between at-bats, without the mind-easing distraction of playing in the field.

"It's the silence between the notes that creates the music," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "There's all this down time you have to know what to do with. That's really where the problem lies, guys just not knowing what to do with the time."

Some spend their time in the batting cage or watching video or riding an exercise bike. Burrell got so desperate last year that he said he'd stand in the cage as if he were playing defense and mimic the movements of the outfielders.

Dan Johnson said he learned early in his career from Frank Thomas that the most important thing was to relax and take his mind off his previous at-bats — so after each at-bat he'll often head back to the clubhouse, sit in front of his locker and work a crossword puzzle.

"I try to take my mind off the game in any possible way," Johnson said.

Ramirez said, for now, he doesn't have a routine mapped out, planning to just stay in the dugout between at-bats, as he has in the spring. That could change during the regular season when there are batting cages accessible from the dugouts. "I'm just trying to learn," he said.

In essence, what the Rays are looking for is someone who can be an intelligent and productive hitter without thinking much about it.

"It takes a certain mind-set," Friedman said. "It's certainly a lot more difficult than I think most people appreciate. Finding a routine that works for you, to keep you mentally sharp, with that much time elapsing between at-bats, is difficult.

"You almost need someone who doesn't think much, that doesn't overanalyze the situation and just enjoys picking up a bat and hitting four times."

"You'd think," Johnson said, "it would be easy."

You'd think.

But the Rays, 102 times over, know otherwise.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

The complete DHs

From 1C, starting top left: Ozzie Timmons, Shawn Riggans, Antonio Perez, Josh Paul, Dioner Navarro, Dustan Mohr, Dave Martinez, David Lamb, Tim Laker, Kenny Kelly, Aki Iwamura, Michel Hernandez, Nathan Haynes, Nick Green, Charles Gipson, Brook Fordyce, John Flaherty, Felix Escalona, Raul Casanova, Reid Brignac, Brent Abernathy, Dave Silvestri, Jared Sandberg, Justin Ruggiano, Fernando Perez, Jeff Liefer, Travis Lee, Elliot Johnson, Desmond Jennings, Damon Hollins, Toby Hall, Joel Guzman, Joey Gathright, Geoff Blum, Ben Zobrist, Jerome Walton, Kelly Shoppach, Sean Rodriguez, Eric Munson, Mike Kelly, Delmon Young, Jason Tyner, Chris Singleton, Evan Longoria, Jose Guillen, Danny Clyburn, Miguel Cairo, Marlon Anderson, Adam Piatt, Herbert Perry, Julio Lugo, Matt Diaz, Javier Valentin, Randall Simon, Damian Rolls, Gerald Williams, Bobby Smith, Alex Sanchez, Aaron Ledesma, Gabe Kapler, Russ Johnson, Damion Easley, Jason Bartlett, Brad Hawpe, Joe Dillon, John Jaso, Gabe Gross, Elijah Dukes, Kevin Witt, Eduardo Perez, Randy Winn, Carlos Peña, Matt Joyce, Midre Cummings, Terry Shumpert, Pete LaForest, Hank Blalock, Ty Wigginton, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Tino Martinez, Dan Johnson, Eric Hinske, Jorge Cantu, Bubba Trammell, Robert Fick, Wade Boggs, Josh Phelps, Steve Cox, Al Martin, Rocco Baldelli, Fred McGriff, Cliff Floyd, Greg Norton, Ben Grieve, Paul Sorrento, Willy Aybar, Pat Burrell, Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco, Aubrey Huff, Jonny Gomes

Tampa Bay Rays have had 102 DHs and have found no perfect fit, but maybe No. 103, Manny Ramirez, is the one 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 10:18pm]

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