Rays, Jays and Angels go gambling

Jan. 21 figured to be a quiet day in baseball, a day for teams to work on arbitration cases and point toward spring training. Instead, the day produced two sets of head-snapping moves.

January 21 figured to be a quiet day in baseball, a day for teams to work on arbitration cases and point toward spring training.

Instead, the day produced two sets of head-snapping moves — the Angels’ acquisition of Vernon Wells from the Blue Jays and the Rays’ twin signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.

Anyone wake up Friday morning expecting all that? Anyone wake up expecting any of it?

A look at the teams involved:

Angels: Gulp.

No one with an ounce of sabermetric or economic sensibility likes the Angels taking Wells for $86 million over the next four years while losing outfielder Juan Rivera and especially catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli in the process.

Most teams try to get younger, cheaper and better. The Angels got older, more expensive and possibly worse.

Wells, 32, struggled against left-handers the past two years, struggled on the road in 2010. He historically does not hit well at Angels Ballpark and rated as one of the game’s worst defensive center fielders last season according to advanced metrics.

The Angels will pay a combined $52.4 million to three center fielders next season — Wells, Torii Hunter and Gary Matthews Jr., who no longer is with the club. And, if the team commits to Peter Bourjos in center, it is possible that none of them will be in center field!

Or, to put it another way, the Angels’ payroll next season will be close to $150 million, if not above it. And they still might be the third-best club in a four-team division.

The Angels could play Wells in left, Bourjos in center and Hunter in right with Bobby Abreu moving to DH. That alignment would improve their outfield defense significantly. The team also could make another move, adding a leadoff man such as free-agent left fielder Scott Podsednik and using Bourjos as a reserve.

There’s no getting around it: Many in the industry believe that free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre would have been a far better investment than Wells -- for similar dollars, with no loss of major-
league talent. Yet, after covering this sport for nearly a quarter-century, I’m wary of snap judgments, even when they seem to be unanimous.

Few analysts liked the way Giants GM Brian Sabean put together his position club last season — though admittedly, none of his moves was as extravagant as Wells.

Somehow, the Giants turned out OK.

Wells will be overpaid. So will free agents Beltre, outfielder Jayson Werth and reliever Rafael Soriano. All are 31 or 32. The Angels’ commitment to Wells is four years, as opposed to five for Beltre and seven for Werth.

It’s Arte Moreno’s money. He’s putting together a new television network. And if this deal is a mistake, the Angels will be hurting only themselves. They didn’t set an industry standard by awarding Wells a seven-year, $126 million contract. The Jays did.

Is all that a rationalization? Probably.

No one ever expected the Jays to trade Wells without including a single penny in the deal.

Blue Jays: And you thought GM Alex Anthopoulos did well in the Roy Halladay trade, acquiring highly regarded pitcher Kyle Drabek and two other prospects when Halladay was unwilling to play for any team but the Phillies.

Well, one rival GM said he was speechless after learning that Anthopoulos would save the Jays about $75 million by dumping Wells on the Angels.

Rivera will earn $5.25 million next season, Napoli between $5.3 million and $6.1 million once his arbitration case is resolved. They will be the Jays’ second- and third-highest players behind Jose Bautista.

Just like that, the Jays are out of financial jail.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the team has only $17.4 million committed for 2012, not including an $8 million option for second baseman Aaron Hill and arbitration for Napoli, shortstop Yunel Escobar and others.

Their club in ’11 might not be worse off; Napoli will help replace Wells’ offense, and Rivera could prove useful. The Jays’ newfound flexibility also will allow them to spend strategically as their young
starting pitchers mature.

For now, Rajai Davis will take over in center, providing better defense than Wells; Podsednik still could fit in left, with Travis Snider playing right and Bautista third. Napoli will join the first base/catcher/DH mix, which also includes Adam Lind, Edwin Encarnacion, J.P. Arencibia and Jose Molina.

Wells’ leadership will be missed, and the bullpen probably will be weaker as Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel replace Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs. But the Jays keep stockpiling draft picks, and they also added top infield prospect Brett Lawrie from the Brewers for Shaun Marcum.

Their time is coming.

Rays: Damon and Ramirez for a combined $7.25 million could prove an incredible bargain — especially when you consider that the Rays would not have signed one without the other, according to major-league sources.

Signing Damon alone would have left the Rays with too little power. Signing Ramirez alone would have left them without all of Damon’s attributes — his ability to grind at-bats, get on base and provide base-running value.

The fits aren’t perfect. Damon will get most of his at-bats in left field, and at this stage of his career he is more of a DH. Ramirez will act up at some point — or, more likely, several points — though Damon could be a positive influence and the Tampa Bay market is as low-key as it gets.

To compete in the AL East, the Rays need to take chances. Their bullpen remains a work in progress. Their talent drain this offseason included everyone from left fielder Carl Crawford to first baseman Carlos Pena, closer Rafael Soriano to setup man Joaquin Benoit, shortstop Jason Bartlett to right-hander Matt Garza.

But you know what?

The Rays should be pretty good even with a payroll of only $40 million to $45 million; they used the money saved in the Bartlett and Garza trades to sign Damon, Ramirez and relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta.

The team’s future looks even more promising. The Rays hold 10 of the first 79 picks in the June draft, which analysts say will be the deepest in years. They also received nine players, almost all of them young, for Bartlett, Garza and three others.

Can’t wait to see if the Angels defy their critics. Can’t wait to see the Blue Jays rise again. Can’t wait to see Damon and Ramirez play for the Rays against the Red Sox — and Crawford play for the Red Sox against the Rays.

The offseason never ceases to amaze.

Wish the season started tomorrow.

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