It may seem odd that an organization loaded with two of baseball’s top under-25 superstars, a young but effective starting rotation, an everyday lineup capable of wearing down opposing pitchers while playing stellar defense and a minor league system teeming with elite prospects would receive so little positive press during the offseason.

Due to free agency losses of stars Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena and two elite bullpen arms in Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano, along with the trades of popular starting pitcher Matt Garza and defensive wiz Jason Bartlett, this is the exact position Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman has found his club heading into the 2011 season.

Surely only an idiot could believe the Rays have a chance to compete in the AL East, what with their payroll about one-tenth of the combined salaries of their rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Rays lost a lot of talent this offseason, but Friedman, the former investment banker, is a genius when it comes to acquiring assets on the cheap and shoring up holes in cost-effective but competitive ways.

The package signing of two of Boston’s former self-proclaimed idiots (and Scott Boras clients) Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, for a combined $7.25 million over one year, is just the latest in Friedman’s assembly line of efficient moves.

Most projections have Ramirez, who is coming off a hernia injury, valued anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 WAR next season (1.6 WAR in 2010 over 320-plus at-bats, a career worst) as a full-time DH and hopefully not a clubhouse cancer.

With a contract for only $2 million (he’s still owned $15 million in deferred payments by the Dodgers over the next three seasons) and using the base value of $4 million = one win, a healthy Manny Ramirez could be one of the best bargains/steals in baseball by the end of the season. 

Johnny Damon is perceived to be a much safer bet, but to have a much lower upside than Ramirez. His contract will pay him $5.25 million during the season, which is also a bargain at his projected 2.0 WAR (1.9 in 2010, second worst season of career).

Additionally, Damon provides manager Joe Maddon with more flexibility due to his ability to play first base and left field, though his arm/defense will prove to be a major liability in comparison to the otherworldly defensive talents of Carl Crawford. 

Should either player continue to decline, their contracts will still likely break even at worst. An added plus with the one-year deals is that should the Rays find themselves lagging in the AL East come the end of July, either one or both players could provide a net gain in the form of prospects coming back via trade.

I doubt, however, that Tampa Bay will find itself lagging much at all.

The Rays’ starting rotation is above average and, as I mentioned earlier, very young. It will only continue to improve. David Price (25), Jeff Niemann (27), James Shields (29), Wade Davis (25), Andy Sonnanstine (27) and top MLB pitching prospect Jeremy Hellickson (23) need to take over the bullpen’s previous role as the backbone if this team has a chance to compete.

The lineup could be fierce, but likely not as potent as the everyday nine that the Red Sox and Yankees will send out. B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist need to bounce back after disappointing seasons, and Evan Longoria needs to assert himself as an elite power threat, not just a defender. Should anyone get hurt, the first player called up will likely be Desmond Jennings, the top outfield prospect in all of baseball.

In the bullpen, the addition of Kyle Farnsworth, who has been hated on for so long that he’s become underrated, and the return of J.P. Howell from labrum surgery should help deflect some of the negative attention surrounding the losses of Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Dan Wheeler.

By saving money on cheap deals for players like Damon and Ramirez, Friedman has provided himself with flexibility to add relievers and continue to strengthen the bullpen—the area that has given the Rays an advantage over most opponents since their 2008 turnaround.

With Friedman having room to add payroll, personnel flexibility for manager Joe Maddon, a stockpiled farm system and 12 picks in the first three rounds of the 2011 draft, the Tampa Bay Rays will be competitive for the foreseeable future.

For 2011, with Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon on board, the Rays will have a new attitude and a different swagger.

Go ahead, be an idiot and give the Rays a chance. I’ll bet they can’t wait to prove you right.

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