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April 13, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Manny Happy Returns

by Ben Kabak

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Growing up a Yankees fan, I came to both fear and respect Manny Ramirez. First with the Indians and later with the Red Sox, Manny had a tendency to haunt the Yankees at every opportunity. His lifetime batting line against the Bombers—.322/.413/.617, with 55 home runs in 203 games—is a testament to his ability. Although his goofy antics on and off the field offended purists, his swing was pure. Nonetheless, he has likely retired his way out of Cooperstown.

Of more immediate concern is the impact that Ramirez’s retirement will have on the Tampa Bay Rays. The defending division champions signed Ramirez to a one-year, $2 million contract with the idea that he would anchor a lineup that had lost key players such as Carl Crawford to free agency. His departure highlights the Rays’ lack of depth, a problem plaguing all of the AL East’s top teams.

Over the last week, the Rays have gone 3-4, although the club seemingly shook off its early-season offensive malaise around the time Ramirez bowed out. Tampa Bay plated nine runs against the White Sox on Friday—including five unearned runs in the ninth—to win 9-7, and tattooed Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield in a 16-5 drubbing of Boston on Monday night. Those two games accounted for nearly 60 percent of the Rays’ total runs scored to date.

With their 3-2 win last night over Boston, Tampa Bay finally notched back-to-back wins by their starting pitchers. Yet these recent victories mask a more serious problem with the club: Felipe Lopez and his career .395 slugging percentage batted clean-up for Joe Maddon on Tuesday. Although Dan Johnson and Matt Joyce should see more at-bats in the middle of the order going forward, the offensive impact of Manny’s retirement is undeniable. PECOTA had pegged Manny to post a .299 TAv and 25 VORP, and while his departure will spare the Rays from an overdose of Johnny Damon’s defense, lineup replacement Sam Fuld will have to outplay his .250 TAv/5.6 VORP projection to make the Rays forget about Manny. Fuld’s spectacular catch on Saturday could nab itself a Web Gem of the Year award, but the Rays could still lose two wins without Manny.

In the early going, Fuld has emerged as a cult hero for Tampa Bay fans. Since taking over a full-time gig, he’s posted a .313/.371/.594 line in 35 plate appearances with six stolen bases in six attempts. He has struck out just 21 times in 190 major league plate appearances, so his line isn’t overly BABIP-fueled. In fact, Fuld walked nearly 50 times more than he struck out during his six seasons in the minors. Yet, at 29, he was a throw-in from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade. His defense is spectacular, but he’s likely keeping left field warm until the Rays can ensure that Desmond Jennings will avoid Super Two status.

As the Rays fans go gaga for Fuld, the larger concerns rest on the bats of Dan Johnson, Matt Joyce, and, to a lesser extent, Johnny Damon. Right now, the three are a combined 18 for 111 with three home runs. Only Damon has an OPS above .450, and of the three, Damon is the one most likely to hit more. Damon hasn’t posted an on-base percentage below .350 since 2003, and his slugging, while declining, hasn’t dipped below .400 since 2001. Unless, at age 37, his bat speed is entirely too slow, his numbers will rise.

Johnson, on the other hand, is a mystery. PECOTA pegged him to hit .245/.367/.464 with 25 home runs; right now, he’s underperforming even his 10th percentile projection. In limited duty last year, Johnson posted an IsoP of .145 but managed just 22 hits in 111 ABs. He spent 2009 in Japan after struggling to duplicate his rookie success.

Joyce, too, managed to post an impressive .119 IsoP last year, and at 26 he’s more likely to shake off his early season slump than Johnson. Still, the Rays lineup looks much thinner today than it did seven days ago, and baseball has lost one of its true characters and all-time great hitters.

Meanwhile, Manny’s former team continues to struggle. Somehow, the Red Sox are 2-1 against the Yankees and 0-8 against everyone else. They’ve lost close games on wacky plays; they’ve gotten blown out by struggling offenses. For the pre-season favorites, 2011 has been anything but a walk in the park.

In going 2-5 over the past week, the Red Sox have struggled both to score runs and to prevent them. Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey have combined to allow 25 earned runs in 15.2 innings, and Clay Buchholz couldn’t locate his pitches against the Yankees on Saturday. When the Sox have gotten good pitching, their bats have fallen silent. The team has scored a total of seven runs in support of Jon Lester's three starts.

Just as Tampa Bay may not have the bats to replace Manny, the Red Sox look thin on major-league-ready pitching. On Monday, Matsuzaka simply could not locate his pitches. Most of his strikes were over the heart of the plate, and those outside the zone weren’t close. If he continues to falter, the Sox will have to turn to two guys with back problems. Wakefield served as the sacrificial lamb during that 16-5 loss, and he stands to inherit some starts. Alfredo Aceves, who looks healthy and sharp in the early going, could replace Matsuzaka as well.

These two pitchers have suffered their fair share of injuries. Wakefield is 44 years old with a bum back, and Aceves’ own disk issues limited him to just 12 innings last year. Felix Doubront replaced Matt Albers in the Boston pen last week, and he too could be in line for some starts as long as his elbow holds up.

The Yankees are another team in the AL East without depth in a key area. With Kevin Millwood working in extended spring training and Carlos Silva also arriving in Tampa, the club has some major-league names at its disposal, but Brian Cashman is clearly hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with his motley crew of pitching retreads. Unfortunately for the Yanks, their rotation depth might be tested sooner rather than later.

Since last week’s column, the Yanks have managed to play just four games in seven days, as two rainouts and a scheduled off-day have led to a disjointed stretch for the second-place, 5-4 club. Their most alarming loss came on Friday afternoon, when they fell to Boston 9-6. In that game, Phil Hughes brought little with him to the mound. His four-seamer averaged 89 miles per hour, and he induced just one swinging strike out of 46 pitches. It was his second start with disappointing velocity, following a failure to light up the gun during Grapefruit League action, and the Yankees are still searching for answers.

If Hughes goes down, the Yanks’ next-best options are Bartolo Colon, Millwood, and Silva. Top pitching prospect Manny Banuelos made his AA debut on Monday night, but the club will not rush the 20-year-old to the majors. Unless the Yankees can convince Andy Pettitte to put the pinstripes back on, it could be a long summer in the Bronx.

For New York’s next opponent, depth issues have yet to rear their heads. The Orioles, off to a 6-3 start despite ranking 27th in the majors in on-base percentage and 21st in slugging, are without Brian Matusz (strained intercostal) and Justin Duchscherer (back, hip) until at least early May. One of the club’s chosen solutions for eating the interim innings is Chris Tillman, one of the centerpieces of the Erik Bedard trade. Tillman hasn’t won a game yet, but the Orioles are 2-0 in his starts. As with Hughes, Tillman’s velocity hasn’t been where it needs to be, and after the accompanying promotion of the more successful Chris Britton, the Orioles’ farm system is thin.

The Blue Jays, currently in the midst of a West Coast road trip, haven’t needed depth as much as luck. Losers of four in a row and five out of seven, Toronto dropped four one-run games this week. Their bullpen, a weak link to start the season, allowed eight runs to the Seattle Mariners over the final three frames on Monday night after holding the Angels scoreless for 8.2 innings during a 14-inning loss on Saturday.

No team wants to talk about depth in early April. This is the time when the pieces should be fresh and ready to go. Yet just as Manny’s retirement leaves a hole in the Rays lineup, the rest of the league will have to plug and play as well. How the various contenders go about doing that could impact the division race once the rain moves out, the weather heats up, and the dog days arrive.

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