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Tampa Bay Rays: Even If Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez Shine, Rays Will Fall Short

Tampa Bay Rays fans shouldn’t pin their hopes upon the dual offseason signings of veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez

The addition of the pair of former World Series-winning heroes is merely papering over the cracks of Tampa Bay‘s unconvincing roster.

Early signs out of Rays camp seem encouraging, as the former Boston Red Sox teammates each have shown a willingness to prove themselves coming off subpar seasons.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon is confident that both can be positive influences on his young roster.

Maddon appreciates the effect Damon can have inside major league clubhouses. 

“I’ve been watching it from a distance and I know what he’s doing and I can see it. You read about him every place he’s been he’s done it in those clubhouses, so I’m just watching it because I know he’s going to have a great impact,” he explained.

He also commented on Ramirez’s renewed focus: “I love the idea that he feels as though he needs to go out there or wants to go out there and prove something. It’s going to benefit him and us.”

Ramirez missed a significant portion of 2010 and only took part in 90 games in combined duty between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. He was able to hit .290 overall, but his power numbers took a sharp decline as he only managed nine home runs and 42 RBI in more than a half-season of play. 

It remains questionable whether Manny will be able to regain the power stroke that once made him one of the most feared hitters in baseball, but he has come to spring training 12 pounds lighter and is eager to prove himself once again.

Damon’s numbers at the plate also took a dip last season, but his lack of production as a member of the Detroit Tigers could be partially attributed to hitting at Comerica Park.

The spacious ballpark shaved 16 home runs and 31 RBI from Damon’s 2009 totals, but that season was spent at Yankee Stadium, which is very friendly to left-handed hitters.

His 2010 average of .271 makes for a more alarming statistic, but could be boosted by Tropicana Field’s turf known to help grounders get past infielders.

In a “best-case” scenario in 2011, Damon could pick up his power numbers and raise his average closer to his career mark of .287. Meanwhile, a resurgent Ramirez could team with superstar Evan Longoria for an imposing middle-lineup for opposing pitchers to get around. 

Even in that case, Tampa Bay is still lacking what is needed to defend their 2010 AL East Division Title.

The free agent departures of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano will greatly hinder the Rays’ playoff chances in 2011. Soriano and Crawford will especially hurt the Rays after joining their AL East divisional rivals, the New York Yankees and Red Sox, respectively. 

Crawford’s athleticism, raw tools and energetic presence now will be providing a spark for Boston’s lineup while Soriano will form a dynamic one-two punch with closer Mariano Rivera in late games for the Yankees

Pena’s massive power will be missed, as will his Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base after joining the Chicago Cubs.

Losing Crawford and Pena’s production will be difficult even with the additions of Damon and Ramirez.

If rookie Desmond Jennings is given a full-time role in the majors, he could actually match Crawford’s 2010 stole base total of 47, but it is unlikely he could come anywhere near Crawford’s plate-production.

Tampa Bay’s projected starting lineup lacks a solid supporting cast; outside of Longoria, their entire infield is made up of unproven and weak hitters. 

In the outfield, both B.J Upton and Ben Zobrist need to prove that their respective career-years of 2007 and 2009 weren’t a fluke. It would be very unlikely for the Rays to match their 160 home runs that was sixth-best in the AL last season.

Finding a reliable closer will be an even harder task without Soriano who led the American League with 45 saves and posted a sparking 1.73 ERA in 2010.

J.P. Howell—who is recovering from shoulder surgery—could return in May but it remains to be been seen whether he can match his successful stint as the Rays closer in 2009.

If Howell has a setback, do the options of Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta or Andy Sonnanstine sound like capable backup plans? I didn’t think so.

Tampa Bay’s saving grace is their talented rotation. 

David Price is a strong candidate for the 2011 AL Cy Young and is joined by a blossoming group of young starters. Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann have proven to be reliable hurlers at the big-league level—though James Shields needs to rediscover his early career form after suffering a miserable 2010.

The highly-touted Jeremy Hellickson has the ability to become a future ace like Price, but Rays fans shouldn’t expect brilliance right away.

His sharp command and excellent Triple-A numbers might suggest otherwise but placing such demands on a young starter wouldn’t be fair. The Rays are taking a patient approach with Hellickson.

Judging by the assembled team for the upcoming season, Tampa Bay’s roster has the look of a club built for the future rather than one that can actually compete for a postseason spot in 2011. 

It wouldn’t be shocking if the Rays fell out of contention by the trade deadline and would be willing to move both Ramirez and Damon to secure more promising talent for the future.


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Curtis Granderson: Is the New York Yankee Primed for a Bounce-Back Season?

Curtis Granderson’s debut season with the New York Yankees can best be described as one filled with many peaks and valleys.  Judging by his strong second half and impressive postseason numbers, it wouldn’t be surprising if Granderson has a 2011 similar to his breakout 2007 season with the Detroit Tigers.

His Yankee career couldn’t have gotten off to a finer start.  In his first at bat of the season, he crushed a Josh Beckett pitch into the right-center field bleachers at Fenway Park. 

Just three days later, Granderson led off against the Red Sox in the 10th inning and delivered an early moment of ecstasy to Yankee fans by blasting a game-winning home run to right field stands off of Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Granderson quickly endeared himself to his teammates and the “Bleacher Creatures” by immediately performing against their hated rivals, but his numbers would soon take a tailspin. 

He finished April with a batting average of just .211 and only two home runs.  Some Yankee fans began to question whether their center fielder would be able to produce under the bright lights in the Bronx.

Granderson’s struggles at the plate continued into July.  His sub-par first half totals consisted of a .240 batting average, seven home runs and 24 RBI and wasn’t impressing the hard-to-please crowds at Yankee Stadium. 

He soon found his power stroke and went on a torrid run, hitting 17 home runs in the second of half of the season including nine in September/October.  Granderson complied a slugging percentage of .523 after the All-Star break, which was 114 points higher than his first half mark.

In the 2010 playoffs, he took his game to new heights by leading the Yankees with a .357 batting average and tied Robinson Cano with a team-best six RBI.  In the ALDS against the Twins, Granderson dominated the Minnesota pitching logging a .455 batting average and a monstrous slugging percentage of .727.

Granderson will be looking to turn the page in 2011 and find the consistency that allowed him compile some fantastic seasons in Detroit. 

He told the New York Daily News, “All those ‘firsts’ are done with.  I know the guys more, I know the facility more, the coaching staff more.  This year will be very similar in mentality to every other Spring Training except for last year.  I’m excited about that.  Everything is just normal again.”

A player that possesses tremendous tools, Granderson played very well defensively last year and has the all-around ability to mold himself into a complete ballplayer.  Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long will work with Granderson during Spring Training to perfect his swing. 

Long was able to turn a struggling Cano into a fearsome MVP candidate and has been known to expertly retool the approach of Yankee batters over the years like Alex Rodriguez.

If Granderson can continue his bright performances throughout the 2011 season, he could come close to raising his average to above the .280 mark that he was accustomed to with the Tigers.  In a down year in 2010, Granderson still was able to hit 24 home runs and drive in 67 RBI.

Once he figures out Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field, he might have a shot at surpassing his career-best total of 30 home runs.  I’d like to see manager Joe Girardi take the training wheels off and allow Granderson to be aggressive on the basepaths. 

In 2007, Granderson stole 26 bases and only was thrown out once all season.  Last year, he converted 12 of 14 stolen base attempts and should come closer to being a “20-20” man in the upcoming season.

Granderson will turn 30 before the Yankees’ March 31 season opener against the Tigers.  He is in what most would consider his prime years and very well could go on to produce a career-best season in 2011.

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New York Yankees: Winter of Discontent Continues As Kerry Wood Returns To Cubs

As Christmas approaches, fans of the New York Yankees have been left with nothing but coal in their stockings.  This isn’t by any means meant to be a slight on recently acquired catcher Russell Martin whose signing makes for a decent “stocking stuffer.”  It is the big prize though that has so far eluded the Yankees.

Fans of the Bronx Bombers expected their annual free-agent gift to be delivered in the form of Cliff Lee but were left with Ebenezer Scrooge-like feelings when he opted to return to the Philadelphia Phillies.  Now another Yankee target in Kerry Wood follows suit by making his own homecoming.

Around midnight central time, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal broke the news that Wood was returning to the Chicago Cubs.  Wood, 33, has agreed to a two-year pact with the “North Siders” worth $12 million to once again become their closer.  By returning to Wrigley Field, his career has now come full circle, back to a setting in which he made his debut as a 20 year-old rookie phenom.

Winter hopes haven’t come to fruition for Yankees general manager Cashman who has been left out in the cold all offseason.  The rival Boston Red Sox have already delivered two major presents to their fans in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, something that Yankee fans are usually accustomed to.  Acquiring Martin and oft-injured starter Mark Prior wasn’t what most imagined would be the Yanks’ biggest captures thus far.

A growing number of Yankee fans have begun to question Cashman who will need to dip into his farm system to acquire not only one but two talented starting pitchers if Andy Pettitte decides to hang up his spikes.  Speculation that the enigmatic Carlos Zambrano is on his radar isn’t encouraging and anything short of landing Felix Hernandez or Zach Greinke will only make disgruntled fans’ voices louder.

The public handling of Derek Jeter’s new deal hasn’t helped Cashman’s standing as even outside the greater New York area, fans nationwide felt he insulted the revered Yankees captain.  His comment during negotiations infuriated many non-biased hardball addicts: “We’ve encouraged him to test the market and see if there’s something he would prefer other than this. If he can, fine. That’s the way it works.”

Treating Jeter like an over-the-hill utility man in contract talks infuriated baseball fans nationwide and even the classy shortstop admitted his distaste for Cashman’s methods.

“I was pretty angry about it, but I let that be known,” Jeter said.  “I was angry about it because I was the one that said I didn’t want to do it, that I wasn’t going to (test the market).  To hear the organization tell me to go shop it when I just told you I wasn’t going to, if I’m going to be honest, I was angry about it.  I never wanted to be a free agent.”

The pressure will surely increase on Cashman if he is unable to acquire a dominant starter, make due with an unpopular trade or force unproven young arms into the Yankees rotation.  Cashman whose job is “to play Santa for the Yankees” has a long list in front of him if he is to assemble a team capable of challenging the Red Sox for the AL East, let alone a squad capable of making the World Series. 

Besides a top-tier starter or two, New York is in need of a new setup man in Wood’s absence.  David Robertson had an awful postseason, as he gave up vital runs that led to their 2010 playoff elimination at the hands of the Texas Rangers.  Joba Chamberlain can’t be trusted either as the formerly standout reliever is now seen as an unpredictable question mark.

Some baseball analysts feel that Nick Swisher should be moved after the free-spirited outfielder had yet another poor postseason.  In his two seasons as a Yankee, Swisher complied pitiful playoff averages of .128 and .176 in 2009 and 2010 respectively.  His erratic defense and lack of range also add credence to the thought that New York would be better off without the right fielder.

Instead of focusing on speedy outfielder Carl Crawford, Cashman turned his full attention to the pursuit of Lee, who behind the scenes made little indication that he wanted to come to the Bronx.  With Brett Gardner as the Yankees’ only consistent base-stealer in their lineup, Crawford would have been a welcome addition.  He would have given the Bombers two speedsters capable of swiping 50 bases apiece.

Along with Gardner and Curtis Granderson, Crawford would have made the Yankees outfield one of the most athletic in all of baseball and a long-term heir to Jeter’s spot in the top of the order.  With Crawford snapped up by the Red Sox, Cashman should still consider dealing Swisher and finding a younger, more athletic outfielder to improve New York’s flexibility in not relying on the long ball.

All of this being said, Cashman is still a very shrewd businessman.  He has stockpiled coveted minor league talents to deal away to reshape the Yankees roster into one that is worthy of returning to the Fall Classic.  It will be interesting to see how he goes about addressing his club’s needs as he definitely has his work cut out for him.

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Cliff Lee Addition To Dominant Staff Makes Philadelphia Phillies Unstoppable

Surprise, surprise…coveted free-agent ace Cliff Lee has signed with his former club the Philadelphia Phillies.  According to multiple media outlets, the 32 year-old All-Star hurler will make a return to the team who he helped lead to the 2009 World Series and reportedly has agreed to a five-year, $120 million deal with a vesting option for a sixth year.

Lee put up sparkling numbers that postseason with a 4–0 record, 33 strikeouts in 40.1 innings pitched, and a microscopic ERA of 1.56 ERA and was the only Philadelphia starter earn a victory during the 2009 World Series with each of their two victories.

In a move that will stun baseball fans across the nation, Lee turned down the advances of the New York Yankees who defeated the Phillies during that same World Series.  By joining Philadelphia, he will have rejected a seven-year offer from the Yankees that would have paid him in the range of $160 million. 

It should also be mentioned that Lee would have earned significantly higher endorsement contracts if he opted to put on the pinstripes and the opportunity to team up with close friend C.C. Sabathia.

The Texas Rangers were said to have given Lee multiple deals to consider including one that worth more than $20 million annually over six seasons.  Rangers‘ manager Ron Washington admitted that he was confident that the star hurler telling reporters “that he’ll be here.” 

Lee’s performances this past postseason propelled the Rangers into the 2010 World Series where they lost to the San Francisco Giants in six games.  Some baseball insiders felt that Texas held an advantage in negotiations due to the Rangers’ proximity to his Arkansas home.

Lee will now form a piece of what experts will undoubtedly refer to as an “All-Star” Phillies rotation.  Along with Lee, Roy Halladay is one of the most revered pitchers in the game. 

Philadelphia will now have a one-two combination that no team across the MLB can match.  Completing the “murderer’s row” of top-four starters are Roy Oswalt, who after July trade from the Houston Astros recaptured his dominant ways, and Cole Hamels who enjoyed a terrific comeback season in 2010.

The capture of Lee will give Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel an arsenal of supreme starters to choose from in potential playoff matchups as the Phillies are surely a “shoe-in” to make the playoffs in the upcoming season. 

Club general manager Ruben Amaro will likely deal away Joe Blanton to free up some funds as 26-year-old Kyle Kendrick is their fifth starter to fill out the rotation.

Lee is coming off of a fine 2009 regular season campaign where he put up a 3.18 ERA, 185 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.00 in combined duty with the Rangers and the Seattle Mariners.  A nine-year veteran, his career ERA stands at 3.85 with a win-loss record of 102-61.

As Phillies fans awake to Tuesday morning, the will be greeted by the sensational news that their club has reacquired one of the predominant starters in baseball to add to their already stunning rotation. 

Late-night message board “Phanatics” are already predicting a return to the “fall classic” for their beloved Phils.  Only time will tell if this group can live up to the lofty expectations that most MLB pundits will place upon the Phillies in 2011.

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Adam Dunn Brings Monster Power to Chicago White Sox Lineup

According to various reports, The Chicago White Sox have pulled off the tremendous coup of slugger Adam Dunn.  Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman reported earlier on his Twitter account that terms of the deal are said to be $56 million over four years.

As a member of the White Sox, Dunn’s long-ball ability should fit well U.S. Cellular Field.  In his last two seasons spent with the Washington Nationals, he 38 hit home runs in consecutive years at Nationals Park.  His new home in Chicago is considered to be a power hitter’s paradise and Dunn could well eclipse 50 long-balls in the upcoming 2011 season. lists their “Ballpark Factors” home run index for every major league stadium since 2001.  For those who are unaware, the mathematical equation takes into account home runs hit by clubs at home and on the road to decide which ballpark is the most long-ball friendly.

U.S. Cellular field came out on top of the rankings in 2010 and since 2003 has been amongst the top five in all of baseball, according to the formula.  During Dunn’s two seasons in Washington, Nationals Park has placed 19th and 15th, respectively, from 2009 to 2010, making the stadium “middle of the road” at surrendering home runs.

Judging by the evidence presented, Dunn should have a significant surge in power numbers in 2011.  His signing makes perfect sense for the White Sox, who are yet to re-sign their previous foremost slugger in Paul Konerko

The first baseman who hit 39 home runs in 2010 is reportedly being chased by the Chicago Cubs, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox.  If the White Sox are unable to retain Konerko, Dunn would fill his absence in the lineup.

White Sox general manager Kenny Williams will do his best to keep Konerko on “The South Side” of Chicago.  Losing him to inter-city rivals in the Cubs or the American League playoff contending Red Sox or the defending AL champion Rangers would be a hard pill to swallow.

If Williams is able to hold on to the loyal Konerko, the White Sox would have a dominant pair of No. 3 and 4 hitters in their lineup and make a stronger push at making the playoffs in 2011.  Last year, the “Pale Hose” finished six games behind the division-winning Minnesota Twins and failed to meet the expectations that many baseball writers had of playoff berth.

With Dunn in the mix and the probable re-signing of Konerko, the White Sox will have an excellent chance at overtaking the Twins and clinching a postseason place in 2011.

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Showalter Takes Orioles Post & Looks to Set Franchise in Right Direction

The Baltimore Orioles have named 54 year-old Buck Showalter their new manager taking over from interim manager Juan Samuel.  The former Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers manager had been previously out of baseball since he was fired by Texas in 2006.

Since his time as Yankees manager, Showalter has had a sort of “midas touch” getting the best out of under-performing franchises.  When took over the helm in the Bronx in 1992, the Yankees were far from a championship calibre team.

Showalter turned the over-paid Yankees around by changing the clubhouse atmosphere into one of seriousness and dedication.  Along with then general manager Gene Michael, he shipped out veterans who were unwilling to conform to his demanding methods.  In 1995, Showalter led the Yankees to their first playoff appearance since in 1981 but possibly could have done so the year before if not for the 1994 strike as the Yankees at the time held the best record in the American League.

A falling out with owner George Steinbrenner led to Showalter’s exit with the Yankees but the pieces were in place for a championship run as Joe Torre entered their manager’s office.  Torre deserving got the credit for the future success of the franchise but Showalter had done much of the work in restoring the Bronx Bombers.

He then became the inaugural manager of the newly former Arizona Diamonbacks and with all expansion teams, it takes time to win.  Showalter though was able to do so in this second season in the Arizona desert as the D’Backs went 100-62 and won the NL West.  He was booted the following season as Arizona struggled but again he had set the path to their World Series championship under Bob Brenly.

His next stop was in Texas where he inherited a team of stars that finished the 79-91 while Jerry Narron was at the Rangers’ helm.  Showalter struggled to the get the Rangers to play as unit for most of his tenure in Texas but found success in 2004.  He won the Manager of the Year award as the club finished 89-73 despite a serious lack of pitching and the loss of superstar Alex Rodriguez who was traded to the Yankees.  The Rangers fired Showalter after the 2006 season and for once he was unable to breathe life into a struggling franchise.

Showalter now takes over a Baltimore Oriole team that is buried in the AL East and realistically will never compete as they share the division with the powerhouses that are the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays.  The Orioles have been willing to deal away their best talent every year and there isn’t much end in sight to the club’s misery.

Baltimore hasn’t been able to eclipse 70 wins since the 2005 season and Showalter has a huge rebuilding job ahead of him.  For the Orioles to finish near .500 over the next three seasons would be a tremendous accomplishment.  Especially considering the last time they came near that mark was the 1998 season where they finished 79-83.

Despite the lack of talent available on the Orioles’ roster and their inability to lure free agents due to the AL East division being a perennial “three-horse race,” Showalter is the sort of manager who can achieve steady progress in Baltimore.  It would be foolish to count him out based upon his track record and if owner Peter Angelos is patient, it is possible that Showalter can get the team playing near .500 baseball during his contract that runs through the 2013 season.

To call the Orioles a “stepping stone” might be a bit harsh but it is justified in this case.  If Showalter can make decent progress early in his tenure, there is a strong chance contending clubs will come calling for his guidance.  Once he gets his feet wet and proves that he still hasn’t lost his managerial ability, there is no doubt that Showalter will surface as a hot candidate for future vacancies around baseball.

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MLB Trade Rumors: Dan Haren Would Fit Nicely with New York Yankees

If the New York Yankees were to land Arizona’s Dan Haren, they would be getting a top pitcher to add to their already impressive group of starters.

The Diamondbacks’ hurler is currently having a difficult 2010, posting a 7-8 record with an ERA of 4.60.  Haren, though, is only a year removed from a fantastic season where he went 14-10 with an ERA of 3.14, and 223 strikeouts.

He represents greater value than Roy Oswalt, who is due $16 million in 2011 with an option for the same amount in 2012. Haren is set to earn $12.75 million for each of the next two seasons but also carries a 2013 option of $15.5 million. 

Judging by the inflated contracts given out to halfway decent free-agent starters, Haren’s deal is quite reasonable. 

Cliff Lee had been close to joining the Yankees but talks with the Mariners broke down, and the lefty was eventually dealt to Texas. Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman maintains an interest in signing Lee in the offseason but he will demand  “Halladay-like” figures in free agency or even command an annual salary and contract length similar to C.C. Sabathia if a New York-Boston bidding war emerges.

Cashman has been tracking Haren for quite some time and was rumored to have pursued a trade for the 29-year-old in his younger days with the Oakland Athletics.

The Diamondbacks are said to want top-level prospects in return for the starter, and in this case the Yankees’ GM should consider dealing either of their two most heralded minor-league pitchers, Iván Nova or Zach McAllister.

Arizona might have a greater interest in McAllister as his career outlook tends to be that of a legitimate major league starter, and also is the son of its scout, Steve McAllister.

It is unclear how much Diamondbacks’ GM Jerry Dipoto would want for Haren, but some writers have speculated the Yankees could be sending away the two prospects as well as the struggling Joba Chamberlain.

In the potential deal for Lee, Cashman smartly chose to hold onto his farmhands, as the trade centered around hot-hitting catching prospect Jesús Montero. Giving up top minor-league talent for a player who could essentially be a “rent-a-player” like Lee would be foolish, but in Haren’s case, would be worthwhile.

Outside of this year, Haren has consistently been a 220 inning workhorse who has stayed clear of injury, starting nearly 34 games every season since 2005. Between 2007-2009, his strikeout totals have averaged 207 per year and his ERA comes out to 3.18. 

The Yankees would be keen to replace the underwhelming Javier Vázquez’s spot in the 2011 rotation with Haren, and the 38-year-old Andy Pettitte may retire despite his terrific 2010 numbers.

Haren “ticks all the boxes” of a great acquisition and would be a perfect fit to join to New York’s already incredible pitching arsenal.

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