The Tampa Bay Rays have not had a repeat showing from a designated hitter since Jonny Gomes led the team's DHs in PAs in both 2005 and 2006. Then the Rays marched through a procession of veterans: Greg Norton, Cliff Floyd, Pat Burrell, Willy Aybar, and then Johnny Damon.
This has been partly by design, but largely by misfortune. After Greg Norton spent 2006 as the team's main DG, the Rays planned on slotting Norton into the first baseman position for 2007, but an injury in late training camp opened the door for Carlos Pena to resuscitate his career. Floyd was only brought in on a 1-year contract and the Rays had no intentions to keep him -- he performed well, but struggled with injuries in his late age.
Then there was Pat Burrell, whom the Rays had hoped would be a repeat DH, but whom became the biggest goat since the Hit Show. Burrell was never able to adjust to the DH role and lasted only a season and change. So, Mr. Average, Willy Aybar took up the reigns for the remainder of the 2010 campaign and performed precisely as we might expect a backup corner infielder would -- not terrible, but not good.
This year, the Rays brought in Manny Ramirez to fill that opening, but Johnny Damon took his place when a drug test encouraged Ramirez to pursue other interests. Damon, despite his advanced years, actually performed admirably -- good for maybe second best DH in team history.
But the truth is: The Rays brought Damon in to play left field, and though his defense is not so sparkly anymore, he has much less value as a DH -- which is what he should probably be from here on out in his career. Unless Damon is willing to take a significant paycut (say from $5M to $2.5M) then the Rays will likely look elsewhere for their power needs.
Which actually creates a whole new problem: The Rays first baseman in 2011 -- Casey Kotchman -- is also a free agent. And given that he just went through a career year and plays elite defense, he may have played himself out of the Rays budget.
So it comes down to this: The Rays need a first baseman and a DH -- the two positions designed for excellent, typically-powerful hitters. But: The Rays need them on the cheap. Here is the list of free agent first basemen and free agent DHs. (NOTE: The list is not exhaustive, and some players may have already signed elsewhere.)
So let's look at some unusual and inexpensive candidates:
Dmitri Young, likelihood of a good match: Pretty low.
Remember this guy? Well, he's actually lost a bunch of weight and become this guy -- a guy who happens to be on a comeback trail. Currently, he's playing first base for the Caribes de Anzoátegui in the Venezuelan winter league. He's 38, a switch hitter, an injury risk, a career .826 OPS first baseman, and really, really cheap.
The Rays could easily get Young -- the older brother of former Devil Rays Delmon Young -- on a minor league invite and a scant 1-year, $1M deal. Cheaper was never so cheap. And as a bonus, the Rays can keep an eye on him this winter, and if he does not start mashing in Venezuela, they can just as easily forget about it.
Ryan Shealy, likelihood: Decent.
Brandon Warne of FanGraphs said this about Shealy:
At 32, this is probably near the end of the road for Shealy, who actually hit RHP at a .304/.359/.476 clip in his limited major league time. However, if any team has a hole at first and is looking to fill it on an ultra-cheap way, I can’t see why Shealy would not merit at least a look in spring training.
Frankly, I agree. With over five MLB season on his tab, Shealy has only put together one season's worth of PAs. Maybe the Rays should give him a cheap chance to show he can stick at the majors?
Russell Branyan, likelihood: Low.
Branyan signed with the Arizona Diamondback for a scant $1M last offseason. If he demands more this go-round, he's straight crazy. After the Diamondbacks released him, the Angels picked him up and then started him 16 times and called it a season.
As recently as 2010, Branyan hit a strong .237/.323/.487 slash and 25 homers with the Indians and Mariners, but for some reason he never got consistent playing time in 2011, despite being genuinely healthy for the first time in a long time. Maybe the Rays take a gamble on Branyan? Heaven knows he'd come cheap.
Jack Cust, likelihood: Not bad.
Much like Branyan's story, Jack Cust signed for cheap last winter ($2.5M) after doing well last year (an awesome .272/.395/.438 slash while in the Athletics' cavernous O.co Stadium), but found himself twice released -- once by the Mariners, once by the Phillies.
If there's one player the Rays need to seriously consider giving 500 PAs to, its Cust. He'll only be 33 in 2011 and could be steal on a $1M, 1-year contract with perhaps a $2.5M team option.
Jorge Posada, likelihood: Pretty good.
The long-time Yankees catcher has announced his time with the Bronx Bombers has expired. Last year, he hit a forgettable .714 OPS as the Yankees DH and backup catcher, but a career low BABIP suggests maybe Posada was a bit unlucky and has some power left in the proverbial tank.
Because Posada will be 40 in 2012, he will likely require more financial incentive to stay off the golf course and stay in the sport, but he could potentially be another one-year dandy at DH like Damon was.