“You never know where help will come from — until you look for it.”
— Tobias Funkë, Arrested Development
News broke last night that Florida police arrested Manny Ramirez on battery charges concerning his wife. Just a few months ago, Ramirez was preparing for another MLB season and had a gold-plated opportunity for redemption.
Since then, though, the former Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox slugger has journeyed down a divergent path from his most recent team, the Tampa Bay Rays.
Rewind to the beginning of the season: The Rays management willingly admits 2011 would be a “reloading” year — which is to say the team anticipated a good, but not good-enough performance.
Sure, they had the pitching — what with David Price, James Shields and three young and above-average starters in Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann — and they had the defenders — again boasting some of the league’s most valuable fielders in Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and B.J. Upton — but they also had holes aplenty.
For one, the Rays lacked a legitimate DH and a proven first baseman. In hopes of putting power in the DH spot and getting the team a few lucky bounces away from the playoffs, they signed Manny Ramirez to a $2M, 1-year contract — deemed by many as a triumph of Friedmanonics — and Johnny Damon to a
$7M $5.25M (excluding incentives), 1-year deal. But even with these additions, the Rays had little chance to out-talent the Red Sox and Yankees in 2011.
The story, as any good story goes, proved quite unpredictable.
Just weeks into the season, news broke that Manny Ramirez had again violated the MLB’s substance abuse policy (he had previously been caught while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers; I think it was either Teamocil or Xanotab) and faced a 100-game suspension. Instead, Ramirez retired and the Rays muddled through a 1-8 start.
Essentially, the AL East team most looking for some good-luck glisten instead received a lump of sour-fortune cornballs. Ramirez retired, Sam Fuld’s start hot turned cold, Evan Longoria missed a month with injuries, and the catching and shortstop situations proved as dire as ever.
But with Ramirez retired, Johnny Damon took the DH reins — performing admirably despite a nearly-career-low on-base percentage — and Casey Kotchman proceeded to have a career year at first base. The Rays never slipped beyond contention, but seemed entirely threatless.
Heck, on September 3rd, Boston had a 9.0 game lead in the AL Wild Card and Tampa Bay had a 0.5% playoff chance according Cool Standings.
Now, after a hot August and a scalding September, the Rays are now a scant 3.0 games behind the powerhouse Red Sox (and their top slot in the Wild Card standings) and a more sizable 7.0 games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East. Cool standings had them at a 1 in 10 chance of winning the Wild Card as of last night.
This trade deadline, the Rays made the audacious decision to not trade a slew of interesting and valuable players — Damon, Shields, Upton, and de facto closer Kyle Farnsworth — and they have clearly reaped the reward of a Wild Card race because of that decision.
As Jayston Stark noted on Sunday: “#Rays are in position to do something epically historic. No team ever came from 71/2 back or more in Sept. They were 9 1/2 behind Bos on 9/1”
Actually, they were 8.5 back, but the comeback would be historical nonetheless. What do they have to do through the next two weeks and two days? Here’s what they face:
2 vs Orioles (away)
4 vs Red Sox (away)
4 vs Yankees (away)
3 vs Blue Jays (home)
3 vs Yankees (home)
What crazy algorithm monkey made this schedule?! Anyway, the Rays have 11 games against teams well over .500, 3 games against a virtually .500 team (the Jays), and 2 games against a sub-.500 practically-high-school team.
In other words: The road ahead is certainly working against the storybook finish. As Joe Maddon noted, the Rays have already entered the playoff stage of the season. A few losses can and will effectively end the Rays’ season.
But then again, this season — what with the Ramirez life-collapse and the Boston Red Sox’ standings-collapse — has been anything but a storybook story. It’s been more of a crazy, twisting comedy and I, for one, am rooting for these men in blue.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.