Saturday, February 14, 2009

Is Manny Smelling Green and Seeing Blue?

One of two things is about to happen to Los Angeles baseball: Manny Ramirez will sign with the Dodgers, or the Angels will get a rapid boost in their quest to coax L.A. fans south to Anaheim.

For the Dodgers to be taken seriously if they don't resign Manny Ramirez, one of the most dominating hitters in all of baseball and the heart of the blue batting order for the final two months of last season, they would have to replace his loss to their lineup

And now they can't.

With the signings of Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn late this week, Ramirez becomes the only marquee hitter remaining on the free agent market.

Neither Abreu or Dunn are in the class of Ramirez, but both could have filled the hole in the Dodger batting order. Despite his low batting average, Dunn would have been the better fit, filling the need for a power threat in the heart of the lineup.

Hitting at least 40 home runs in each of his last five seasons, Dunn would have provided some much-needed force in a lineup that, while well-rounded, only features three serious threats to hit even half as many long balls (Matt Kemp, Casey Blake and Andre Ethier).

Dunn's drawback is his average. A lifetime .247 hitter with a propensity for strikeouts, he signed a two year, $20 million contract with the Washington Nationals Wednesday.

Abreu can't match Dunn's power, but he is one of the most rounded hitters in the game, a lifetime .300 hitter who has scored at least 98 runs in 10 consecutive seasons, tallied at least 100 RBI in seven of his last eight seasons, hit 20 home runs in eight of his last ten, and stolen at least 22 bases a season for the past decade.

Turning 35 on March 11, Abreu joins Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson as the only players in history to hit 200 home runs and steal 300 bases with a lifetime on-base-percentage of at least .400. He signed a one year, $5 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels Thursday, including bonus incentives that could push the contract beyond $6 million.

Ramirez hit .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI in 187 AB after coming to the Dodgers in a deadline deal with Boston and Pittsburgh August 1. To put his impact in perspective, only Blake (21), Ethier (20) and Kemp (18) hit that many homers for manager Joe Torre's Los Angeles team all last season.

One of the games elite talents, Ramirez is a .314 lifetime hitter who has averaged 99 runs, 36 HR and 118 RBI over the last 14 seasons. His age (he will be 37 when the season starts) and motivation are heavy concerns, which is why he remains a free agent this late in the off-season.

Seeking a contract that would keep him under wraps until he turns 40, Ramirez and uber-agent Scott Boras are looking for a four year deal in the neighborhood of $100 million. So far, the Dodgers have come to the table with a two-year, $45 million deal, and a one-year, $25 million offer.

With Spring Training already underway and no free agent options remaining, the negotiations have tilted in the slugger's favor. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti has commented that the trade market would be an in-season option and, yes, trimming salary has its advantages in today's economy, but neither of those would mean much to fans heading into the 2009 season.

In addition to a lethal bat, the acquisition of Manny Ramirez also brought a high-profile Latin superstar to a city whose blue collar population was hungry for a baseball hero. His presence electrified Dodger Stadium, and with the Southern California economy crumbling, a player of his magnitude will no doubt help in selling tickets.

The only other team thought to be considering Ramirez are the Dodgers' upstate division rival San Francisco Giants, who have one of the best pitching staffs in the National League. Though their offense ranked amongst the worst in baseball last season, the addition of Ramirez would make them an immediate favorite in the NL West.

While the Dodgers might be able to contend in their weak division without the addition of Ramirez, fan excitement will no doubt be tempered by a team forced to play small ball with emerging talent and little star power.

Ramirez pending, last season's entire starting lineup is returning intact. But the same can't be said for the starting rotation.

After losing Derek Lowe, Brad Penny and Greg Maddux to free agency, the only addition was veteran Randy Wolf. The fifth starter is likely to be either Jason Schmidt, who at 36 has been nagged by injuries and pitched only 25 innings since 2006, or converted outfielder and top prospect James McDonald, who impressed in relief as as September call-up last season, but whose endurance is still a question mark.

Where does this leave the Dodgers?

Without Ramirez, their lineup lacks a spark plug and their rotation will be in constant need of run support.

Not a good place to be heading into a season with hopes of repeating as division winners for the first time since 1978.

This means a Manny-sized payday may be on the horizon.

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