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Manny retires: The 'Jennings Watch' begins

4/8/2011

Fantasy owners can pretend the news of Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Manny Ramirez announcing his retirement Friday isn't a big deal, but Ramirez was a 17th-round selection in ESPN standard live drafts, and until a few days ago, he was owned in 100 percent of standard leagues.

Even as of the announcement, Ramirez remains owned in more than 90 percent of leagues, despite a .059 batting average through one messy week. His impending 100-game suspension from Major League Baseball reportedly played a part in his decision, likely more so than his slow start, but I don't see a Brett Favre waffle-job in the works here. Goodbye, Manny, thanks for being one of the top-10 offensive players in fantasy baseball the past 15 or so seasons.

This decision obviously creates opportunity for someone on the Rays, a winless team that was hitting a mere .145 with eight runs scored in six games entering play Friday, and I just don't think that person is first baseman Casey Kotchman. Four starting Rays hitters had accumulated only one hit so far: Ramirez, Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson and Johnny Damon. Rays manager Joe Maddon would probably like to bench them all, but he just doesn't have the depth, not when Felipe Lopez and Elliot Johnson are your bench. Having your best hitter (Evan Longoria) hit the disabled list after two games and your cleanup hitter retire after a week is a major problem.

Kotchman can be an elite first baseman defensively, but he just doesn't hit enough, so don't read too much into the fact he got the call from the minors and the news that the Rays likely will play him this weekend, with Johnson moving to designated hitter. First of all, Johnson hasn't hit. Second, Damon is not a good outfielder and is already having problems with the Tampa turf, so I still expect him to get most of his at-bats in the DH role. Damon should play enough outfield to qualify for the outfield in 2012 leagues, not that anyone's thinking about that today. Also, Damon shouldn't be this bad at the plate for long; he's a career .287 hitter, and even last season, arguably the worst of his career, he scored 81 runs. Damon is down to 41.4 percent owned in standard leagues, which seems a bit low, but then again he's 37 and not likely to reach 15 home runs or 15 stolen bases. Simply put, this Manny move doesn't make me want to add Damon.

In Friday's Box Score Bits, I wrote about the three stolen bases that unheralded outfielder Sam Fuld provided in Thursday's game, adding that Fuld really didn't have opportunity on this team unless either Joyce or Dan Johnson (a combined 2-for-41 so far) were benched. Well, following Manny's retirement, Fuld might get more playing time. That said, Fuld, however spunky and energetic he is, is 29 years old. He has generally walked more times than he has struck out and stole more than 20 bases in each of the past two seasons for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, but he still profiles as more of a fourth outfielder than everyday starter, even for a team off to a brutal start.

Instead, fantasy owners should turn their attention to hot prospect Desmond Jennings, because now the only thing holding the Rays back from promoting the "next Carl Crawford" is financial implications, and angry fan bases don't want to hear that. The Rays can't blame the Ramirez and Damon signings on why Jennings is at Triple-A Durham anymore, and just because Kotchman got the call Friday doesn't mean Jennings won't get a similar one soon. Jennings has speed to burn and could provide at least 30 stolen bases this season if the Rays play him, and that's even if Jennings doesn't hit much. He's not a power guy, but he's a potential leadoff hitter, and right now the Rays could use one. All that said, Jennings had a terrible spring training (.154 batting average, only one stolen base), and the team could opt to leave him at Triple-A Durham for a few months and save a year of arbitration down the line. I just don't think they will.

I think Joyce, more than Johnson, will hit, though I can't make a strong case to roster either of them in standard leagues. Joyce is more of a platoon guy in right field, but he isn't hitting right-handed pitching. Johnson has pop and takes walks but not enough to overcome hitless stretches such as this. Even after hitting 30 home runs in 98 games for Durham, Johnson hit just .198 for the Rays last season. Kotchman, for the record, hit .217 for the Mariners last season and it wasn't because of the tough ballpark or the lack of talented hitters around him. He's a .259 career hitter with a .392 slugging percentage. Teams can get away with that at second base, not first base. Expect to see Johnson, Joyce, Fuld and Kotchman all share the at-bats, with none of them holding Jennings back. Fuld should get some chances to play this weekend in left field, and in deeper leagues owners should add him and enjoy the stolen bases.

Ultimately, those who drafted Ramirez hoping for a return to reasonable numbers, such as a .300 batting average and 20 home runs, won't get that. It's time for the Rays to give Jennings a chance, let him sink or swim, and that could mean a lot more in fantasy.