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Rays of Hope

What free-agent exodus? With two new vets and a stacked farm, Tampa Bay can still be an AL East beast

By signing Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to one-year deals last week, the Rays acquired two of the game's most colorful and recognizable figures of this century, players whose hairstyles have kept them in the headlines as much as their hits and home runs. The signings help cushion the losses of sluggers Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña to free agency and of starter Matt Garza, who was traded to the Cubs for prospects. The moves are also an indication that Tampa Bay's owners aren't going to ape the penny-pinching ways of their National League counterparts to the south.

Not that the Rays broke the bank: Ramirez, 38, who will make $2 million, could turn out to be a steal. Ramirez's biggest problem has been staying on the field. A performance-enhancing-drug suspension cut 50 games from his 2009 season, and calf problems hindered him in 2010. When able to play, however, he has hit: .293/.414/.501 in 194 games over the last two seasons. His skills are basically the same as they were two years ago, when he was an MVP candidate in two months of work for Los Angeles.

Damon, 37, who will earn $5.25 million and be the leftfielder against righthanders, carries more risk. He has lost much of his speed, stealing just 23 bases in the past two seasons and showing decreasing outfield range. Changes to his swing that served him well as a Yankee in 2009, when he pulled the ball in the air more, did him little good in spacious Comerica Park last year. His strikeout rate has also jumped. The Rays need OBP, and if Damon can't reduce his strikeouts and get back to hitting line drives, he may not provide it.

Together, the signings provide depth and will give Joe Maddon day-to-day flexibility while keeping the payroll low. With the DH and leftfield spots taken care of, the manager can rotate Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac in the middle infield and rightfield. Damon and Ramirez also provide some insurance in case prospect Desmond Jennings isn't quite ready to replace Crawford in the lineup.

You can compare these moves to the Rays' shopping spree a decade ago, when they signed aging sluggers Greg Vaughn, Vinny Castilla and Jose Canseco. Now, though, Damon and Ramirez aren't being asked to carry a good team or distract from a bad one. They're being asked to support a good team built around third baseman Evan Longoria and ace David Price—and, with 10 picks in the first two rounds of the draft, a team that can replenish its system in June. It's been a hard winter, but the Rays have more than enough talent to be competitive, even in baseball's toughest division.

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THE NUMBERS

Wells Done

By trading centerfielder Vernon Wells to the Angels for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera, Blue Jays G.M. Alex Anthopoulos pulled off a coup. Wells, 32, never reached the heights expected of him after a big 2006 season, and the $86 million owed to him over the next four years made him seemingly untradable. Anthopoulos added a good starting catcher in Napoli and a platoon DH in Rivera. More important, he got the Angels to pick up nearly all of Wells's contract. Credit Anthopoulos with taking advantage of a team that was rejected by all of its top free-agent targets this winter and had money to burn. Since taking over in October 2009, he has steadily improved the Jays' talent level and financial position as they build a team that can compete with the scary monsters of the AL East.

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STEVE NESIUS/REUTERS (JENNINGS)

RUNS INTENDED Production from Ramirez (below) will ease the pressure on Jennings (left).

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KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IMAGES (RAMIREZ)

[See caption above]

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MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS (WELLS)