Aging sluggers attempting to revive or prolong their careers seem to be finding fewer opportunities to continue plying their craft at the big league level. This has become increasingly apparent, with last week’s releases of Vladimir Guerrero by the Toronto Blue Jays and Manny Ramirez by the Oakland Athletics. Is there any hope for these two and what of players that may soon be like them such as Adam Dunn?
It wasn’t long ago that big single tool players dotted the landscape, especially in the American League, where their one dimensional abilities could be covered by the designated hitter role. Players like Rob Deer, Cecil Fielder and others that were known for prodigious power and the ability to hit home runs were secure in knowing that they had a place in the majors. These days, managers are more inclined to go with a younger player with speed or other avenues to give themselves flexibility in late game situations.
While there still are players like Dunn, who are better known for what they do with the bat than anything else, these days American League skippers are using the DH role to give regular position players a break from playing in the field. The Yankees have had Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira in the DH slot, Boston uses David Ortiz there regularly, Detroit gives Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera at bats from there as well. Even stalwarts like Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton will slip into the designated hitter role on occasion.
With the majority of teams willing to build from within and give younger players a chance to show their ability at the big league level, it leads to veterans getting squeezed out. In Ramirez’s case, most of the damage was self-inflicted: he was suspended for 50 games in 2009 for testing positive for human chorionic gonadotropin or hCG, which is used to restart testosterone after a steroid cycle. He went from the Dodgers to the White Sox in 2010 after being claimed on waivers and then signed a one year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for 2011.
Ramirez lasted all of five games with Tampa Bay before being notified that he had failed another drug test, which would carry a 100 game suspension. Rather than go through the legal channels and deal with the process, Ramirez chose instead to retire on April 8, 2011. In September, Ramirez wanted to play for the Cibao Eagles in the Dominican Winter League. That plan was foiled because Bud Selig stated that since the Dominican League was affiliated with Major League Baseball, the only way Ramirez would be able to play there would be to serve his suspension.
In December 2011, Ramirez decided that he wanted to give playing another shot and worked out a deal with Major League Baseball: he would serve 50 of the 100 games that he was scheduled to be suspended and he would be reinstated. This of course, was contingent on finding a team that was willing to take him on. Ramirez said that if no major league team was interested, he’d play in Japan or “some other place.” With the parameters of the agreement complete, Ramirez went out in search of a new team.
On February 20, 2012, the Oakland A’s signed Ramirez to a one year deal that carried a $500,000 salary should he make the major league roster. He served his 50 game suspension and became eligible to be reinstated and play for the A’s on his 40th birthday May 30. The A’s gave Ramirez some time to work back into playing shape, sending him to Sacramento, their Triple A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Ramirez played in 17 games for the River Cats, hitting .302 with 14 runs batted in over that time. However, he struck out more than a quarter of the time (17 strikeouts in 63 at-bats) and showed limited power. He had three doubles and no home runs while with Sacramento.
Oakland is anything but an offensive powerhouse in 2012: they were 24th in runs scored, 27th in on base percentage with a .304 clip, 29th in slugging percentage at .362 and dead last in the majors in hitting with a .226 average entering Thursday’s play. Josh Reddick leads the team with 15 home runs; after him it drops to the trio of Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes and Brandon Moss each with seven. Moss’ seven blasts have come in just 13 games, which may be the power bat Oakland needs. Smith leads the team with a .269 average, which underscores the difficulty the team has offensively.
With Ramirez’s inability to showcase hitting Triple-A pitchers for power, the A’s were reticent to bring him up and take playing time away from some of their younger players. They chose to go with Moss and Ramirez requested his release from the organization. It was granted last week and Manny is back to being on the outside looking in. In some ways he has become the Terrell Owens of major league baseball, having to try and make his way back to the big leagues after poor decisions and bad behavior.
For what it’s worth, Ramirez says that he is at peace with the decision he made. “The A’s treated me amazingly during this time, but sadly didn’t have space for me and this is something I can’t control.” The Indians have been speculated as a new landing place for the slugger but it seems more and more likely that he may have taken his final major league cuts.
A similar situation has affected Guerrero, who was once one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball. Guerrero had back to back 30-30 seasons, missing a 40-40 season in 2002 by a single home run. Nine times he was selected to the All Star Game and eight times he was the recipient of a Silver Slugger Award. He has 2,590 career hits to his credit along with 449 home runs and 1,496 runs batted in. Ten times he drove in at least 100 runs in a season and in 2004 with the Angels, Guerrero was the American League MVP after hitting .337 with 39 home runs, 126 runs batted in and a league leading 124 runs.
Guerrero played his final season with the Angels in 2009 as injuries took their toll, limiting him to 100 games, while his 15 home runs and 50 runs batted in were his lowest totals since 1997. He would sign a one year deal worth $5.5 million plus incentives with the Texas Rangers on January 11, 2010. The Rangers also held an option for the 2011 season as part of the terms of the contract. Guerrero produced for Texas, hitting .300 while clubbing 29 home runs and driving in 115. The team advanced to the World Series before being defeated by the San Francisco Giants. Surprisingly, the Rangers declined to pick up the option after the 2010 season, rendering Guerrero a free agent once again.
He caught on with the Baltimore Orioles, signing a one year deal worth $8 million. Guerrero added a veteran presence and leadership to an Orioles club laden with youth. He played in 145 games for the Orioles, hitting .290 but struggled power wise, as he hit just 13 home runs and drove in 63 runs for the struggling club. After the season, Baltimore was not interested in negotiating a new contract with him, pleased with the progress that the younger players like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters had made during the season. Guerrero did become Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in hits by a Dominican when he singled off Josh Beckett on September 26.
As the offseason wore on and spring training approached, no team had shown interest in procuring Guerrero’s services for the 2012 season. There was speculation that Guerrero was going to retire, which the slugger vehemently refuted at every opportunity. When the regular season began, Guerrero was still without a team and it appeared that he may not have much say in the matter regarding extending his career. Finally, on May 10th, the Blue Jays inked Guerrero to a minor league deal.
He played his first game in the minors for Class-A Dunedin on May 27th. Guerrero hit .450 in four games with Dunedin, blasting four home runs and driving in eight before being moved to Triple-A Las Vegas to play for the 51s. He played eight games for Las Vegas, hitting .303 with two doubles, a triple and four runs batted in. On June 12, Guerrero told the Blue Jays that if the team was not ready to call him up that he wanted to be released. The Blue Jays weren’t ready to bring Guerrero up to the majors at that point, so they granted his request to be released.
“He played [Monday] night and he decided that was enough for him,” Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “He felt he was worthy of a call-up and we weren’t prepared to do that right now.” In the blink of an eye, Guerrero was on the outside looking in again as well. The question remains, will either Ramirez or Guerrero get another shot at big league glory or has the door closed on that opportunity forever?