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The Tampa Bay Rays should cut ties with Pat Burrell, call up Hank Blalock

Allow me to make the case for Hank Blalock as the Rays' designated hitter:

He is not Pat Burrell.

Any questions?

Because, really, isn't that what this debate is all about? To hear people in Tampa Bay talk, the question of who replaces Burrell is not nearly as important as how quickly that replacement can arrive.

Should the replacement be left-handed or right-handed? Young or old? Sober or drunk? Apparently, those type of details can be sorted out later. The real objective is acknowledging the Burrell era was a gross miscalculation and cutting ties before further damage is inflicted.

I don't know if Blalock is the answer, and I'm guessing Rays vice president Andrew Friedman doesn't know, either. But if this were a multiple choice test, I'm fairly confident the answer is not going to be Burrell.

He began his career with the Rays as a one-dimensional player. He did not bring defense. He did not bring speed. He did not bring a sunny, upbeat personality to the clubhouse. His only value to Tampa Bay was as a hitter. Specifically, a hitter against left-handed pitching.

And now, almost 600 plate appearances later, he has been so woeful against lefties that his role is reduced to DH against right-handers. He has gone from one-dimensional to semidimensional.

Now, to be fair, Burrell has actually been pretty good in that limited role this season. He is hitting .276 with a .364 on-base percentage against right-handed pitchers. And in a platoon with Willy Aybar, that would be better than what a lot of teams are getting out of their DHs.

However, there are a couple of problems with that version of the status quo:

No. 1, you must have faith that Burrell will continue hitting right-handers at such a nice clip. I have my doubts. Burrell is actually hitting better against right-handers in 2010 than he has for his career. For a guy who is 33 and fading, that's an unlikely trend.

No. 2, you have the possibility of Blalock walking away in the next few days. He can opt out of his contract if Tampa Bay declines to bring him up to the big leagues within 48 hours of exercising an exit clause.

So the Rays may be forced to make a decision on Burrell sooner than they would like.

In an ideal world, they would give Burrell another month to see if he continues to provide offense against right-handers and keep Blalock at Triple-A Durham in case Burrell, Carlos Peña or Evan Longoria get hurt.

But Blalock's agent, Scott Boras, made it pretty clear to St. Petersburg Times baseball writer Marc Topkin that Blalock, 29, is getting antsy in Durham.

So the Rays are soon to face a decision on Blalock:

Is it a slam-dunk choice?

Hardly.

It is true Blalock is playing well in Triple A. At last glance, he was leading the International League in hitting at .366. But it is also true that Dan Johnson, Chris Richard, Justin Ruggiano and Joe Dillon are off to similar hot starts in Durham, and that suggests the Bulls may have faced some fairly weak pitching in the season's first month.

You also have to remember that every team had a chance to sign Blalock to a major-league deal in the offseason, and all 30 passed on the opportunity. Maybe they made a mistake. That's certainly possible. But are you better off trusting a two-year decline in Blalock's big-league numbers, or a five-week hot streak in Triple A?

If you want to know the truth, Tampa Bay's solution may not even be on the field yet. Matt Joyce, who has been out with an elbow injury, could begin a rehab assignment soon, and he could give the Rays a solid bat along with more versatility.

So what would you do if you were Friedman?

If it were me, I would not let Blalock get away. Friedman has had success picking undervalued first basemen off the scrap heap. He signed Peña when no one else was interested, and he got a future AL home run champion. Of course, that doesn't mean Blalock will enjoy similar success. Frankly, the odds are probably against it.

But look at it this way:

Is there a better chance of a Blalock revival or a Burrell turnaround?

The money spent on Burrell ($16 million over two seasons) is gone and will never be recouped. I don't blame Friedman for that. At the time of the signing, a lot of very smart people thought the Rays got a bargain. Who could have predicted that a player who had averaged a home run every 15.7 at-bats against left-handers in his career would not hit a single homer against a lefty while in a Rays uniform?

So, no, it is not fair to scold Friedman. I blame Burrell for that.

On the other hand, the Rays cannot afford to compound the problem. If Blalock turns out to have success somewhere else in the big leagues this season, you won't be able to blame that one on Burrell.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

The Tampa Bay Rays should cut ties with Pat Burrell, call up Hank Blalock 05/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 7:24am]
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