Manny Ramirez is willing, and probably able, but is that going to be enough for any team?
Let's pretend, for a moment, that Manny Ramirez is not only sincere about his desire to change his ways, but is also capable of this Herculean task. It'll take some doing, but you all have working imaginations. Let's give Manny the benefit of the doubt -- he's enough of an oddball that turning into the baseball equivalent of a saint for a season would fit perfectly into the Manny Being Manny lifestyle we envision him having.
No circus, no shoved traveling secretaries, no trips inside the left field wall to relieve himself. No iPod while on defense, no trips to the bar with the opposition on nights he excused himself from the game -- no reasons for teams to want to deal him in the middle of the chase for a playoff spot. Pretend none of that is a concern, and that the only thing that matters is how good Manny Ramirez will be in the box scores every night. Is he worth signing?
Ramirez was caught violating Major League Baseball substance policies in 2009, and it cost him 50 games. Since then, he has been caught once more, effectively ending his 2011 season after just 17 plate appearances with the Rays. That's over 200 games missed due to violating the PED rules, but we still have just shy of 200 games worth of data to look at over the last three seasons. Ramirez has hit .287/.406/.489 since 2009, good for a 142 OPS+. More recent history -- 2010 and 2011 -- aren't as kind at .284/.392/.436 (127 OPS+) but that's still better than what many teams got out of the DH spot recently.
If the at-best average Alfonso Soriano would be an upgrade at DH for 40 percent of the American League compared to what they got out of the spot in 2011, then even Manny sans his historical power is someone worth looking into. He would also be far cheaper than Soriano, as the Cub is owed $54 million over the next three years, and forcing the Cubs to eat the contract might end up costing something tangible -- if it were that easy to dump Soriano and his contract, he wouldn't be in Chicago anymore.
Ramirez, on the other hand, is going to be so hard-up for work that even a non-roster invitation to spring training could bring him on board (assuming he's as serious about a comeback as he claims). The cost of an NRI is playing time for others in spring training, and if a team is having such a rough go of things that they're looking into Manny to begin with, quality players missing out on spring at-bats probably isn't an issue.
Baseball Prospectus's projection system, PECOTA, pegs Ramirez for .260/.361/.434 with 15 homers and 57 walks over 450 plate appearances. That's a few more plate appearances than he would likely get: missing 50 games due to the suspension he hasn't officially served cuts into his playing time ceiling. But the projected result is good, as DHs collectively hit .266/.341/.430 in 2011.
For the monetary cost, Ramirez is almost a no-brainer if he can produce at that level. Luke Scott has hit .262/.344/.490 the last three years, and is coming off of shoulder surgery -- he just signed a one-year, $5 million deal with an option and $1 million buyout with the Rays, in what is considered a bargain. Ramirez probably wouldn't hit that well, but if he hit his projection, would be an even better deal than Scott.
That projection accounts for the fact Ramirez missed basically all of 2011, his age, his production the last few years, and what other players in his situation at this stage in their career have done -- if you can think of an angle that might be negative towards Ramirez, PECOTA and other projection systems likely have it covered. Betting on him to hit around that level would be safe.
What teams are not going to want to bet on, though, is the mental exercise we had to go through at the beginning of this article. Ramirez might be sincere today, but who knows how he will feel if he actually makes a team? When the 50-game suspension is over? When he sees the word estrogen? Ramirez has so much baggage, that it's difficult to want to hold on to him. The Red Sox traded him away in 2008 when he was hitting .299/.398/.529 because, after years of dealing with him, they couldn't do it anymore.
It's easy to deal with the whole Manny Being Manny thing -- well, maybe not easy -- but easier when he's one of the game's premiere hitters. He has Hall of Fame credentials with his statistics, whether the future's voters will care about that or not, and that kind of consistent production is why teammates, managers, and general managers put up with his consistent Manny-ness. Today, he's a potentially useful piece, but not a game-changer. And he still has to serve that 50-game suspension, too. There are certainly teams who could use him -- again, Alfonso Soriano is an upgrade to some clubs -- but even if the monetary cost is low, he's still Manny. And that will likely be what keeps him retired.