- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Any time an all-time great returns to the game, fantasy owners' ears can't help but perk up. "Name value" -- that dreaded fantasy phrase -- has a way of hooking us in.
When it comes to Manny Ramirez, whose 555 career home runs rank third among active players, resist the urge.
News that the Oakland Athletics have signed the 12-time All-Star and two-time Hank Aaron Award winner, that coinciding with the opening of spring training, a time when fantasy owners are feasting upon any new information as they formulate their draft-day preparations, can have a way of inflating expectations. We might flash back to his most recent healthy, uninterrupted season, and drool at the prospect of what was a 37-homer, 121-RBI season during which he batted .332.
In reality, all the news does is restore Ramirez to the fantasy radar, requiring those of us in anything outside of a shallow mixed league -- meaning besides a standard, 10-team ESPN league, for example -- to at least kick the tires.
Ramirez's statistics in his three most recent "full" seasons -- and that's liberally judging his 2009 as one despite a 50-game suspension for PEDs -- support his potentially being of help. On a rate, or per-game, basis he might have something left in the tank, and that's the chance the Athletics are taking.
But the risk with Ramirez is substantial, and his pending suspension is one of several obstacles he faces en route to fantasy relevance.
By agreeing to another 50-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test, Ramirez presents a roster conundrum for those in standard ESPN leagues. As with Ryan Braun, whose appeal is pending but who seems likely to succumb to the same penalty, Ramirez will not be DL-eligible, meaning he'll eat up a valuable space on your bench. Considering standard ESPN leagues permit you only three such spots, Ramirez is a luxury few owners can afford. He'll be the kind of player more appealing as an in-season pickup, closer to when his suspension ends, in those leagues.
Ramirez also will turn exactly 40 years old on the day he becomes eligible to return, May 30 at Minnesota, meaning he already has played his final game aged in his 30s. (That, incidentally, doesn't account for potential postponements pushing it back.) That also will be exactly 419 days since he last appeared in a professional game, and he was denied approval to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, meaning his first game action will come during the Cactus League this spring.
Injuries also have presented problems for Ramirez since his initial 2009 suspension. He made three trips to the disabled list in 2010 alone, twice for a calf strain and a third time for a hamstring issue. These are his major league statistics in his past 162 scheduled team games for which he was eligible -- i.e., not on the suspended list:
While that stat line offers hope that Ramirez still can hit for power and strike fear into opposing pitchers, until we see him this exhibition season, we have no sense of how much his advancing age or the lengthy layoff might have impacted his performance. Assuming normal aging effects, Ramirez could manage a .380 on-base percentage and .425 slugging percentage while healthy, which are useful numbers in AL-only and deeper mixed leagues.
But Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum isn't a favorable ballpark for power hitters, favoring pitchers in terms of home runs in each of the past seven seasons and ranking among the five worst in the game in each of the past two, and Ramirez himself has only five home runs in his past 37 games there, averaging one homer per 26.2 at-bats there during that span. Walks and on-base percentage, not homers and RBIs, might be his strengths with the Athletics.
The Athletics also have several younger players who could stand in Ramirez's way -- counting first base, the outfield and designated hitter -- once he's eligible: Brandon Allen, Chris Carter, Yoenis Cespedes, Collin Cowgill and Josh Reddick are only five such candidates. Ramirez, if still productive, likely will take over at DH, forcing veterans Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith into a straight platoon and diminishing their value in AL-only formats. Whatever the arrangement, anyone at those positions for the Athletics will be in danger of a decrease in playing time come Memorial Day.
Before Ramirez landed with the Athletics, we had projected him for 50 games and ranked him well outside fantasy relevance, at No. 673. Today, he's projected for 73 and has risen to No. 476 overall (236th in AL-only formats).
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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