Ostensibly, the day will come when the Rays can sign a future Hall of Famer without inciting Hit Show references. The statute of limitations runs deeper than a decade, but look at the Boston Red Sox. July 2014 will bring the century anniversary mark the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth. Nobody compared Max Ramirez to Ruth. More than a half-century has passed since the Red Sox passed on Willie Mays and others because of their race, but if the Red Sox passed on Carl Crawford not a person would have uttered racist accusations.
Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon are old. Fred McGriff, Vinny Castilla, Greg Vaughn, and Jose Canseco were old too. Each likely had their best seasons before signing with the Rays. After that, the comparisons become a reach. The problems with The Hit Show were never about age. Start with the most basic of analyses: contract size. The Rays’ newest pair will make about $8 million in one season. Vaughn made that in one season as part of his four-year $34 million deal. Castilla inked for two years and $13.5 million, Canseco for two years and $6.325 million, and McGriff wound up making more than $23 million over parts of four seasons.
Ignore the money and focus on the win curve. Those teams were horrendous for reasons beyond The Hit Show. This team has three straight winning seasons and two of the past three American League East division crowns hanging on its bedpost. Devoting tons of money to aging players with limited upside when your upshot is 75 wins is mismanaging assets. Devoting money to aging players with limited upside when your upshot is 95 wins is what general managers have done for ages.
Performance wise, McGriff and Canseco were actually sound.
McGriff hit .284/.361/.475 in his three previous seasons with the Atlanta Braves and then hit .291/.380/.484 with the Devil Rays. Canseco remains the best DH in team history – at least for the time being – because of his composite line of .272/.373/.525 with 43 home runs in more than 750 plate appearances. Even Vaughn’s time in St. Petersburg had some highs. In 2000, he hit .254/.365/.499 with 28 home runs. Vaughn would then go on to hit .209/.317/.393 with 32 home runs over the next two seasons before being ushered away unceremoniously.
Castilla, though, Castilla was bad. His career line with Colorado: .294/.340/.530 (more than 4,400 plate appearances) his career highs throughout the rest of his careers: .270/.320/.492 (all with Houston, in 484 plate appearances). There’s a reason that more than 50% of Castilla’s career plate appearances are with Colorado yet his career line is .276/.321/.476 and it has something to do with Coors Field.
One could look at Canseco and McGriff and call them successes. Unfortunately, Vaughn’s deal had about a zero percent chance of ever looking good and the old front office never understood that value of the internet, how could one expect them to understand park factors?
So, looking at the Ramirez and Damon deals, how do those come close to comparing to Castilla and Canseco? They don’t. That’s the point. In the past few seasons, teams have gotten great value out of older players undervalued by the market. Since 2006, older players on one-year deals like Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, Jim Thome, Gary Sheffield, and even Jim Edmonds have contributed in meaningful ways.
You know what most of those guys have in common? Almost all of them missed time in the previous seasons due to injury. Thomas played in 108 games during the 2004 and 2005 seasons before joining Oakland, playing in 137, and hitting .270/.381/.545 in a difficult offensive environment. Piazza struggled with catching and ineffectiveness over the previous two seasons before joining San Diego and providing a final hurrah (.283/.342/.501 in Petco). Sheffield averaged 95 games a season and a. 790 OSP in the three years before joining the Mets in 2009. He hit for a. 832 OPS in 100 games. And Edmonds, well he looked dead in the water. During his time with St. Louis in 2007 and San Diego in 2008. He then posted an OPS of .937 with Chicago in 298 plate appearances, sat out for a season, and hit .276/.342/.504 between Milwaukee and Cincinnati last season.
It’s difficult to tell when old players are finished. Past success does not guarantee future success, but it’s more telling than unrelated failures. All of those players were considerable talents in their heyday, just like Ramirez and Damon, and not built off park factors or what have you. The first rule for projecting baseball players is to get a list of comparable players. Comparing Damon or Ramirez to Castilla or Vaughn is like comparing Evan Longoria to Jared Sandberg and Alex S. Gonzalez because they all played third base for the Rays.
The good news is that at least Longoria will have a future in coaching and these signings will produce a catchy jingle.