August 30, 2010
Going, Going, Gone
On Sunday, Manny Ramirez made just his second plate appearance in a four-day span, and it didn't last long. The Dodgers' 38-year-old slugger watched an outside fastball from Rockies pitcher Matt Reynolds go by on the first pitch of the at-bat, and when home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom called it a strike, Ramirez turned to argue and was immediately ejected. Instead of coming out to defend his player, manager Joe Torre remained in the dugout as Ramirez departed, a final symbolic act that brought down the curtain on his time in Dodger blue in surreal fashion. Hours later, the team reportedly let Ramirez go to the White Sox on a straight waiver claim.
When the Dodgers placed Ramirez on waivers last Wednesday, it was hardly a surprise, as the move had been telegraphed for nearly a month. While general manager Ned Colletti made himself look busy by making a trio of deals with the Royals, Cubs, and Pirates prior to the July 31 trading deadline—acquiring Scott Podsednik, Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, and Octavio Dotel in the process—it was apparent to all but those in rose-tinted glasses that the moves were too little, too late. The Dodgers' distance from first place had doubled during July as their offense fizzled in Ramirez's absence (3.53 runs per game) and their fifth starters were pulverized (20 runs in 20 innings over four starts), a problem which in turn exposed the bullpen's lack of depth; at the deadline, they were seven games out of first place and 4 1/2 back in the wild card, with their Playoff Odds just below 9 percent.
As if to underscore the fact that those trades were just a smokescreen, the team had taken down the "Mannywood" sign in Dodger Stadium's left field, claiming it was because another buyer had purchased the advertising space (who purchases advertising space at midseason?). The message was clear: The Dodgers were preparing for the slugger's inevitable departure. At the time, Ramirez was on the disabled list, serving his third stint of the season, first for a calf strain in late April, then for a hamstring strain in late June, and finally for yet another calf strain in mid-July, after he'd made just four plate appearances since his previous stint. Why dedicate a cheering section and a promotional package to a player who not only wasn't around anyway and certainly wasn't going to be around for much longer?
The final indication that Ramirez was going-going-gone came via Torre, who started him just three times in the eight games since he returned from the DL, and only once since he hit the wire. Claiming that the decision for the benching was his and not on orders from the front office, and that he was "trying to win games," Torre shoveled more manure in the space of four days than he had in 13 years at the helm of the Yankees. "This is just my dumb move," he told Los Angeles Times beat reporter Dylan Hernandez, fumfering disingenuously about getaway days, the big outfield of Coors Field, team chemistry, and the speed of Podsednik. "There's no reason I can give you that makes sense. A lot of what I do is a feel thing." Somewhere, Orlando Hudson nodded silently.
Torre was right: There is no earthly reason not to have Ramirez in the lineup, at least not in the service of a playoff race. It's only slight hyperbole to say that even spouting blood from three missing limbs à la the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he'd be a better hitter than Podsednik, though admittedly, under such conditions the latter would certainly have an edge afield. Presumably, the manager did Colletti's dirty work by serving tacit notice that if Ramirez didn't waive his no-trade clause, forgo his desire for a contract extension, and agree to go gentle into that good night, he'd be buried on the bench.
Ramirez has been a handful since coming to Los Angeles at the 2008 trading deadline, not that he wasn't a handful before that. From his ever-growing dreadlocks—which proved Ball Four author Jim Bouton's point: if you slug .743, you can have hair down to your ass—to his game of contractual chicken to his 50-game suspension for violating the game's drug policy to his three DL stints, he created his share of headaches for Torre, Colletti, and company. He also created thrill after thrill while hitting as well as he ever had; his .322/.433/.580 line in Dodger blue is good for a .345 True Average, compared to a .312/.409/.590 line and a .319 TAv for his years in Cleveland and Boston. His numbers this year (.311/.405/.510/.328 TAv) show that he hasn't lost anything substantial with the stick, and the Dodgers' record and scoring rates with and without him in the lineup (not including pinch-hit appearances) over the past three years speak volumes about his value:
Ramirez added nearly one run per game to the Dodgers lineup during his tumultuous two-plus years, almost single-handedly turning them from a .500 team to a contender, and he helped the team win its first two playoff series since 1988. He's one of the greatest hitters in history; his .321 TAv ranks 19th among players with at least 7,500 plate appearances, and if you raise the bar for playing time, his ranking climbs even higher.
He's gone now, and the Dodgers' season is fated to die an ignominious death; they're 10 games out of first place and 6 1/2 back in the wild-card race, with their Playoff Odds lingering around 2 percent. The team will save some $4.3 million in remaining salary, about three-quarters of which is deferred, no surprise given owner Frank McCourt's penny-pinching strategy with his divorce trial looming. And as happened when Juan Pierre played during Ramirez's suspension, they'll be the subject of many a moralizing columnist's tome about how much better, more versatile and more gosh-darn likable the team is with a slappy speedster who knows his place than with a petulant slugger who supposedly quits on his club. As a Dodger fan I can only ask: Please kill me.
As for the White Sox, while there's little question Ramirez can flourish at the hitter-friendly Cell—he's a career .338/.448/.601 hitter with 15 homers in 261 PA there—this pricey move may be too little, too late for them as well. After losing two out of three to the Yankees over the weekend, they're 4 1/2 behind the Twins in the AL Central race, and 9 1/2 back in the wild card, with their own Playoff Odds below 9.0 percent. The team's need for a designated hitter has been glaringly apparent ever since manager Ozzie Guillen told GM Kenny Williams not to re-sign free-agent slugger Jim Thome, who as a Twin dealt them a crushing blow during their series a couple weeks back. The rotating cast of Sox DHs have hit just .243/.313/.408, producing the third-lowest OPS of any position in their lineup and the sixth-lowest of any AL team. Consider whom they've been using there:
Brutal, Juice. While there's certainly reason to park Carlos Quentin and Paul Konerko in the spot for an occasional half-day's rest or to find Jones the occasional opportunity against lefties, the above is a long way from a defensible distribution of playing time, primarily because Mark Kotsay's bat died years ago; his career TAv is .261, but he hasn't had a season above that mark with at least 150 PA since 2004.
Two years ago, the Dodgers' bold acquisition of Ramirez and the slugger's subsequent tear carried them all the way to the National League Championship Series. It took something of a perfect storm for that to happen—a disgruntled player with immense talents, a chip on his shoulder, and a looming desire for a nine-figure contract moving to an easier league and tapping into the hot streak to end all hot streaks. While Manny is moving back to a more favorable hitter's park (albeit in a tougher league), he's got much less at stake here, and frankly, so do the White Sox. Expect some fireworks, both figuratively (Ozzie vs. Manny is the stuff of late-night Syfy Channel fodder) and literally (given the Cell's homer-friendly ways, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Ramirez double his season output for homers). But don't be surprised if the Sox fall short, because there's simply too little time to close the gap.