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Baseball Notes

Resilient Rays deserve better

By Nick Cafardo
September 18, 2011

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This is too easy, but let’s do it anyway.

If the Rays fall short of making the playoffs, blame Manny Ramirez.

The Rays signed Ramirez as a cheap alternative at DH. Say all you want about him, but there’s no doubt that he could walk out of jail and immediately hit .300 with a .400 OBP and .950 OPS.

By now, he could have won a game or two or three or four for the Rays and would have provided enough of a threat to enhance (OK, bad word choice) the lineup around him.

He was exactly what they needed. It wasn’t that general manager Andrew Friedman or manager Joe Maddon identified the wrong guy, given the $2 million Ramirez was willing to take. They just chose an individual who had deeper issues than anyone thought.

Testing positive a second time for a banned substance and facing a 100-game suspension sent him spiraling into retirement. Why he felt he needed the stuff - again - is beyond anyone.

His recent arrest for domestic abuse is an indication that there’s more going on inside this human enigma than any of us will ever know.

In the Tampa lineup, Ramirez would have been the centerpiece, the hitter who made everything else run. The Rays wouldn’t have struggled as much to score runs and wouldn’t have been as reliant on their superb young starting pitchers.

So here we are. The Rays are at a crossroads, it seems. They have the best young starting pitching in baseball. Only ace James Shields is pushing 30. Next spring, they will add lefthander Matt Moore to the mix, creating a surplus (OK, no such thing).

There are some evaluators in the Rays organization - and certainly those outside - who believe Moore will be better than David Price. They believe Moore will be a No. 1 or 2 starter in a short time. What an amazing thing to have in your back pocket.

But is it enough for the Rays, with their paltry payroll, to challenge the Red Sox and Yankees for years? Or are they destined to be on the outside looking in until 1. the playoffs are expanded and 2. attendance improves to the point where they can add an impact hitter?

After dealing Matt Garza to the Cubs in a bold move last winter, the Rays may entertain lots of things this offseason. It would appear that anyone except Price could be available. While Shields will likely have his option picked up at $7 million, perhaps the Rays will be blown away by a trade offer for him.

Would they do it? They’d probably have to listen. But it seems more likely that Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis would end up in a deal for a hitter or a catcher or a shortstop.

The problem is, good hitting costs money.

The Rays, for the most part, have survived the mass exodus of players after last season. It’s remarkable when you think that they lost their closer (Rafael Soriano), their set-up man (Joaquin Benoit), their top seventh-inning guy (Grant Balfour), effective relievers Randy Choate and Dan Wheeler, Garza, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, and Carlos Pena, yet managed to hang in with a revamped bullpen of vagabonds and a lineup with very little thunder.

It does reinforce the power of pitching.

The bottom line appears to be all that is stopping the Rays. By now, it should be apparent that baseball and Florida do not go well together. There’s a reason the two Florida teams have the two worst attendances in baseball.

The Marlins, who are a mess in a lot of ways, will move to a brand new home next April, with all kinds of bells and whistles. But you still wonder whether it will matter to their attendance. Obviously, there will be an initial rush to see the new place, but after that, what?

The Rays simply can’t get a stadium built. It’s baffling why people in the Tampa/St. Pete area make such a big deal about driving over the bridge to St. Pete. It really isn’t that bad, is it?

How much more can Rays owner Stuart Sternberg stretch that payroll? Sure, attendance is low, but the money from revenue-sharing and TV is pretty decent. Could their $45 million budget be stretched to $55 million to get a big-time hitter, even if (OMG!) it means less of a profit?

Only their accountants know for sure.

The Rays do a lot of things right. They are swiftly becoming a model franchise, causing New York and Boston a little discomfort. The payroll disparity is huge, yet they always seem to be in the mix.

They don’t seem to make many poor decisions. Certainly, finances dictate how long they can hold on to a player, but did they not hit it right on Crawford? On Scott Kazmir? On Pena? On Edwin Jackson? On Pat Burrell? On Dioner Navarro?

For the most part, their decisions on when to discard players have been accurate.

But for a team with such a good track record, the Rays sure have holes.

They need a front-line catcher. They need a front-line shortstop. They need power at first base. They need a power arm to close games.

“We need offense, and everyone here knows it,’’ said a uniformed Rays staff member. “Our offense does get hot at times, and during those times, with our pitching being so good, we win a lot of games.

“But if we just had the offense that could bail out our starters or our bullpen once in a while, that would create three, four, five wins - who knows how many? - and we wouldn’t be looking up at anyone.’’

They need to decide whether B.J. Upton is their long-term franchise player or whether they should deal him to fill one of their other needs.

It’s always intriguing to see what low-cost solution Friedman comes up with. But at this point, there needs to be something done.

It’s awfully tough to waste a pitching staff this good.

Blame it on Manny.

KEEPING THE FAITH

Crawford not his best, but not a bust, either

One of my loyal readers, Michael Hammond, made a great point about the value the Rays have gotten by losing Carl Crawford to Boston and signing Johnny Damon.

Damon pretty much became the Rays’ full-time DH after Manny Ramirez quit, but he essentially replaced Crawford.

I remember writing that Damon would be able to generate 70-80 percent of Crawford’s production, but as it turns out, Crawford is struggling to match Damon’s production.

Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million deal with the Red Sox, and Damon was signed for one year at $5 million. Crawford is 30, Damon is 38. The numbers:

OPS HR R RBI SB

Damon .734 14 72 63 18

Crawford .687 11 60 53 18

When you think back, Jason Bay was perfect for the Sox. His swing was tailor-made for Fenway Park because he hit towering fly balls to left field. Stubbornness on both sides of the negotiations created a mess for the Sox. Bay signed with the Mets, and the Sox went after Mike Cameron and moved Jacoby Ellsbury to left field.

Ellsbury never liked the move to left and wound up cracking his ribs in a collision with Adrian Beltre in April 2010. Bay got lost in the expanse of Citi Field, then suffered a series of unfortunate breaks (including a concussion) that severely hurt his production.

This season, the Sox invested a ton in Crawford, who has looked like a shadow of himself. Internally, the Sox don’t seem to be alarmed. Their scouts have evaluated him and come to the conclusion that Crawford has not lost bat speed.

They take stock in the notion that the environment is totally different, that he couldn’t relax, and he felt too much pressure.

At this point, the Sox are not willing to say Crawford is a bust.

Similar questions will be raised about J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and John Lackey. The answer in those cases may be different.

PICKING A WINNER

Verlander’s value seems to be highest

The vote for American League MVP here is still with Justin Verlander.

Nobody has helped his team more than the big Tigers righthander, regardless of the fact that he pitches every five days. None of the Red Sox candidates - Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia is stepping up to lead the team into the playoffs.

Curtis Granderson has had a fabulous year and is a threat every time he steps up, but the Yankees have other fine hitters in their lineup. Jose Bautista in Toronto has had an excellent season, but the Blue Jays aren’t that good.

We’ve heard testimonials for Robinson Cano, who is a legitimate candidate. Another who should be in the mix is Tigers closer Jose Valverde, who is 45 for 45 in saves. How about the year Miguel Cabrera is having? He has gone under the radar.

But no one has single-handedly helped his team win more than Verlander.

The fancy stat WAR (wins above replacement) favors Bautista, whose number is 8.2. But Verlander is second at 7.9, and he’s a pitcher.

The race for the National League Cy Young Award is compelling. Many are dwelling on Clayton Kershaw vs. Ian Kennedy. But you have to have Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the equation, don’t you?

Halladay may be the choice. He’s 18-5 with a 2.34 ERA with eight complete games. Both he and Lee have pitched 219 2/3 innings. Lee, at 16-7, has six shutouts.

Kershaw and Kennedy both have 19 wins, but with the race this close, it would seem that you lean toward the pitcher who has pitched the toughest innings in a pennant race.

For me, that’s Halladay or Kennedy.

Etc.
Apropos of nothing 1. The reason the Red Sox chose Terry Francona over Joe Maddon in the winter of 2003 was managerial experience; 2. Who cares that Kevin Millwood is throwing 84? He’s 3-2 with a 3.68 ERA and a 1.182 WHIP for Colorado; 3. The model of efficiency: Kevin Doyle, who runs the Fenway press box; 4. If Buck Showalter pushes for John Hart as Orioles general manager, he likely will get his wish; 5. Seemed uncharacteristic of Mike Cameron to get released by the Marlins over a dispute with a flight attendant.

Updates on nine 1. Ryne Sandberg, manager, Lehigh Valley - After another successful minor league season, Sandberg may have thrust himself into the Cubs managerial picture again. Obviously, with no GM or president of baseball operations in place, it’s difficult to name a manager, but there are Cubs personnel who feel that hiring Sandberg - if and when Mike Quade is let go - would be a major public relations bump for owner Tom Ricketts. Here’s a Hall of Fame player willing to go back to the minors to learn his new job. He has the lunchpail mentality that would be embraced in Chicago, let alone his name and popularity.

2. Larry Baer, president/CEO, Giants - Baer has taken over the job from the departing Bill Neukom, but one thing that won’t change is his stance on waiving territorial rights in Santa Clara County and allowing the A’s to build a stadium in San Jose. “There is no change on that position,’’ Baer said. “It’s a position Bill’s had, a position our board has had, a position I have.’’ The A’s frustration level is off the charts. The blue ribbon panel to explore the stadium issue has been in place for more than 2 1/2 years. A’s owner Lew Wolff, who has never talked about challenging the Giants in court, continues to say the decision is Major League Baseball’s. Don’t forget, Wolff and Bud Selig are the oldest and dearest of friends.

3. Josh Willingham, OF, A’s - He has had a very good season and wants to return to Oakland, even though he’s coming into free agency. Willingham has hit 27 homers and knocked in 92 runs and should be sought after as a power righthanded bat. He’s also the only A’s free agent who would bring an additional first-round pick if they lose him. David DeJesus will be a Type B free agent. It appears that Rich Harden will be unranked as a free agent.

4. David Wright, 3B, Mets - He made eight errors over a 10-game stretch, prompting a scout to say, “It seems to me that he’s still having problems with his back. He’s making errors on balls that he normally scoops up.’’ It will be interesting to see if the Mets entertain offers for Wright this offseason.

5. Mike Scioscia, manager, Angels - Can’t blame him for being upset about the schedule, given that the Angels have to travel to the East Coast this late in the season. “We need schedule reform, which coincides with realignment and a more balanced test for each team within its division,’’ Scioscia said. “That’s really the way this whole championship schedule is set up - based on divisional rivalries. We have, what, 13 games left and more than half of them are at Baltimore and Toronto against teams that are not in the divisional component? Scheduling is very complicated. But it should not be this patchwork.’’

6. Walt Jocketty, GM, Reds - His name was mentioned in relation to the Cubs job by the Chicago Sun-Times last week, and while Jocketty said he was happy in Cincinnati, don’t discount the possibility yet. He has always done a nice job building teams, and his contract is up. The Cubs seem to be after the younger “superstars’’ - Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman, Billy Beane - but Jocketty could be in the next group if they shy away. One thing Jocketty could bring with him is his former manager, Tony La Russa. And - dare we say? - Albert Pujols.

7. Tim Naehring, scout, Yankees - The former Red Sox infielder is considered a top talent evaluator and future GM candidate. In this musical chairs game, if Jocketty should leave Cincinnati, would Naehring, a Cincinnati native, be on the Reds’ radar?

8. Ozzie Guillen, manager, White Sox - There’s always a lot of noise where Ozzie is concerned, but the scenario is this: He won’t be fired, but he’d be free to go to Florida if the sides can work out a deal. Such a move would also free La Russa to return to Chicago.

9. Tony Pena, coach, Yankees - There has been some poking around - some back-door conversations, if you will - regarding Pena and Florida. If Guillen is out of the picture, the Marlins could do worse than to hire Pena, who has spent the last few seasons working under Joe Torre and Joe Girardi. Pena was AL Manager of the Year with the Royals in 2003.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “So far, 14 players have hit at least 30 homers this season, the 25th-most of any season on record. The most was in 2000, when 47 players hit at least 30.’’ Also, “Michael Bourn, Coco Crisp, Brett Gardner, and Ichiro Suzuki have stolen 40 bases this season. That’s the fewest 40-base stealers since there were five in 2004.’’ And, “Since his first full season in 2003, Carl Crawford has never stolen fewer than 25 bases (in 2008, when he played in only 109 games). So far this season, he has 18, but then again, you can’t steal first base.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Randy Williams (36) and Sam Bowen (59).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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