ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays are counting on Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to help them remain competitive in baseball’s toughest division.
The free-agent outfielders officially became the newest additions to the defending AL East champions on Tuesday, signing one-year contracts to fill a couple of holes on a roster depleted by the departure of several key players, including All-Star Carl Crawford and slugger Carlos Pena.
“We’re not going out there right now to just fill out a 162-game schedule,” manager Joe Maddon said during a news conference reuniting Ramirez and Damon, who were teammates in Boston from 2002-2005, helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series.
“Our goal is to repeat as division winners this year, and then moving on from there,” Maddon added. “These two guys definitely make us more solvent. There’s no question.”
Damon agreed to a $5.25 million deal that includes a chance to earn $750,000 in bonuses based on attendance.
Ramirez gets $2 million from the cost-conscious Rays — well below the $20 million he made last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.
While Damon is 37 and Ramirez turns 39 in May, both feel they have plenty to contribute on a team that thrived on good young pitching and strong defense last season.
“Absolutely this team can win the American League East,” said Damon, who earned $8 million season while hitting .271 with eight homers and 51 RBIs with the Detroit Tigers.
“What I really like about this team is you have two guys that you’d really like to build any franchise around,” Damon said, referring to All-Stars David Price and Evan Longoria. “This team is bred to win right now.”
Both players said the chance to play closer to home — Damon lives in nearby Orlando, and Ramirez resides in Pembroke Pines in South Florida — played in the decision to join a team that has not adbandoned hope of continuing to compete with big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox for AL East supremacy.
Since clinching their second division title in three years last fall, the Rays have traded starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett and lost Crawford, Pena and relievers Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate and Chad Qualls through free agency.
The club still has work to do on rebuilding the bullpen. But adding Damon and Ramirez addressed the need for a left fielder and cleanup hitter.
“We wanted this to happen ever since my departure from Boston years ago,” said Damon, who played with the Yankees from 2006-2009, helping New York win its most recent world title.
“We always felt great about each other, about what kind of teammates we were and we know we can bring a lot of experience — and playoff experience also — to these guys,” he added. “I think that’s why this move is very intriguing. Manny’s ready to go, and so am I.”
Ramirez, who likely be used mostly as a designated hitter, said he’s trimmed 12 pounds from last year’s playing weight of 237 and is eager to prove he can still be a productive player.
The 12-time All-Star’s career took a downward turn in May 2009 when he was suspended 50 games for using a banned female fertility drug. Injuries slowed him last season, when he hit a combined .298 with nine homers and 42 RBIs in the final season of a $45 million, two-year contract he signed with the Dodgers.
“Thank God, I already made my money,” Ramirez said shrugging off a question about how motivated he will be while earning just $2 million in 2011.
“I’m here, like I said, because I love the game, I love to compete. It doesn’t matter how much money you make,” the .313 career hitter said. “If you love the game, it doesn’t matter. What you want is a chance to prove to people that you still can do it. So for me, it was not about the money, I could have gone some place else.”
Maddon and Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman believe Damon and Ramirez will be strong additions to the clubhouse, as well as on the field.
Both have been contributors on two teams that won World Series titles and embrace an anticipated role in Tampa Bay as mentors to young players.
“Their contributions extend beyond just the field. It’s not necessarily them being rah-rah guys or giving impassioned speeches. It’s about how dedicated they are to their craft,” Friedman said. “In all the homework and conversations we’ve had with people, both these guys are extremely well regarded as teammates and the way they prepare.”
Losing players like Crawford, who signed a $142 million, seven-year deal with Boston, and Pena, who got a $10 million, one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs, Maddon felt it was imperative that the Rays needed to find some experienced help to help stabilize a mostly young clubhouse.
“For me, that was the one component coming into this season that I thought we were going to be lacking had we not addressed it,” the manager said.
“I don’t want them to come in here and think they have to do anything other than what they’ve done throughout their careers. I want them to come be themselves on a daily basis. … Leadership often times to me, that word is really thrown out there way too loosely. I think guys really lead by example more than anything within a major league clubhouse. Both of these guys have exemplary work habits. The success over the course of their careers also lends to credibility.”
Damon is a .287 career hitter who played is one of just five players in major league history who’ve appeared in 140 or more games for 15 consecutive seasons. The others are Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, Pete rose and Willie Mays.
Ramirez got tickled listening to his friend answer a question about whether at age 37 Damon is still capable of holding up over the course of a 162-game season.
Damon answered diplomatically, noting his track record of durability and adding: “My body is my temple. It always has been. I’ve learned over the years how to stay healthy.”
“Let’s do this,” he said, turning to face Damon. “You play 100 and I’ll play 62.”