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March 5, 2009
The Manny Has Landed
An e-mail exchange with a non-baseball friend:
Inelegant, perhaps, but that was my reaction to the news that the Dodgers had re-signed Manny Ramirez to what amounts to a one-year deal with a player option for 2010, a contract that includes up to $25 million in deferred money. According to AP, Ramirez will receive $10 million up front this season, and $10 million next season if he doesn't void the deal, with the remainder of the money payable starting in 2010 or 2011.
This is an excellent signing for the Dodgers. With the backup options all off of the market, they absolutely needed Ramirez in order to sustain a spot as the co-favorites in the NL West. The focus on signing Ramirez had consumed much of their winter, and while they re-signed Rafael Furcal, a lack of attention paid to the pitching staff left them needing to make up wins elsewhere. Put simply, the gap between Ramirez and Juan Pierre is 2.6 projected WARP, or about 2 ½ wins, and in a race like the NL West will be, those 2 ½ wins are as highly-leveraged as any you'll find.
For a more visceral take on the effect, check out the projected standings. The Dodgers were projected at 85 wins and a second-place finish prior to Ramirez's return. Now, they project to 89 and the division title, with the D'backs dropping to 88 just a hair behind. That's why you pay $25 million for the left fielder, because he could put you into October.
The Dodgers were able to leverage the soft market for corner outfielders, impacted by the economy, to bring Ramirez back on a contract that doesn't expose them to significant risk. Every trend this offseason, in fact, worked in their favor. Teams hoarded cash over concern about 2009 local revenues; many teams have begun emphasizing defensive performance in their player evaluation, hurting Ramirez's relative value; there were a number of similar players in type available, many of whom stayed available deep into the offseason; and there may be a trend toward being overly concerned with personalities, a retro paternalism creeping into the game that caused teams to shy away from the controversial, high-maintenance slugger.
In any case, this is a good signing for the Dodgers both on and off the field. They get a significant on-field upgrade over Pierre, whose slappy speed game is actually almost an asset on the bench. They can stop diddling with Blake DeWitt at shortstop, send him back to Triple-A, and let him push Casey Blake out of his sinecure by July. Their lineup falls into place nicely, with OBP machines Furcal and Russell Martin in front of a core of Ramirez, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp. Follow that with James Loney, Blake, and an all-but-free Orlando Hudson, and you have what should be a top-five offense in the NL, maybe even better. Only Blake and Ramirez are defensive liabilities.
The Dodgers need to score a lot of runs, because they're likely to be below-average at preventing them. Chad Billingsley is a legitimate ace in the top slot, but after that you have Hiroki Kuroda in the second spot, and he's not quite that able. Clayton Kershaw will eventually be a star, but right now he's just 21 years old, has 22 appearances above Double-A, and he walks a lot of guys. And he's the third starter; bringing in Randy Wolf and Shawn Estes pushes the team away from, rather than toward, a championship. They need a surprise to bolster the rotation, whether it's an emergent James McDonald, or a recovered Jason Schmidt. The bullpen, similarly, is strong at the back with Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo, plus last year's surprise in Cory Wade. The Dodgers have half of a championship-caliber staff, which means that they needed Ramirez, who helps them win some games 7-5-a skill they'll need this season.
Off the field, the Dodgers get Ramirez for a reasonable price, and, more importantly, with just a two-year commitment. They're not exposed to his declining defense past 2010, a point at which Ramirez will almost certainly have to look for a job DH'ing in the AL. He'll hit until they peel the uniform off of his body, but he's unlikely to be a viable outfielder as he approaches the age of 40. Even now, his defense eats away at his overall value.
As for Ramirez... this whole thing looks like a mistake. One year ago, he had a contract that included $20 million options for 2009 and 2010. Now, after acting in a manner that has damaged his reputation and allowed the media to portray him as a problem child, he's guaranteed just $5 million more, much of that deferred. Whatever imbalance existed in reporting the story of Ramirez's last days in Boston, there was truth to the idea that Ramirez was acting badly. The payoff for that was to be a contract that made the options on his Red Sox deal look like tip money. That deal never materialized, so all of the controversy last July was essentially for nothing. It was cost for Ramirez, without benefit.
Scott Boras doesn't make many mistakes, but this was one. He envisioned a market for Ramirez's services that failed to materialize, and while he'll pocket some money for getting Ramirez out of his old contract and into a new one, there's no way to spin this other than as a failure. Boras, and he's not alone in this, did not see the stagnant market coming for free agents this season, and because of that, he found himself with a lack of bidders for Ramirez. It seems clear that Ramirez would have been no worse off had he played out 2008 with the Sox. Either he would have been paid $20 million for his 2009 services, or he would have hit the market without the various issues of that summer hanging over his head. Instead, he'll be no better off financially, and he'll carry the stigma of his departure with him for the rest of his career.
Boras' miscalculation is the Dodgers' gain, and perhaps enough of one to put them back into October.