Spring spotlight: Manny needs strong Cactus League effort

Spring training often resembles a working vacation for most veterans. You know, put in a couple innings of work and then call for your tee time. However, the list of proven veteran players who slumped in 2009 is a long one. For those players, regaining their confidence/swing/swagger starts when they report to their Grapefruit League or Cactus League camp. Which disappointing player from last season is in most desperate need of a strong spring?

Chris Bahr says Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano must return to form in order for the Cubs to compete, but Stan McNeal says all eyes should be on Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez:

Talk about a fast fall. In less than a year, Manny Ramirez has gone from superstar slugger to drug user to mediocre major leaguer to, well, who knows?

Questions abound as to whether Manny Ramirez can regain his old form.
Questions abound as to whether Manny Ramirez can regain his old form.

This we know: At 37 and in the last year of his contract, no player is in greater need of a strong spring to set himself up for a big season. Consider what is riding on Manny’s bat: his team’s playoff chances, his future and his already-tarnished legacy.

Not long ago, Ramirez was the hero that L.A. couldn’t afford to lose. He was coming off a two-month stretch when he carried the Dodgers to the NLCS by hitting .396/.489/.783 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 187 at-bats.

Manny was rounding into familiar form in 2009 until his world as he knew it ended in early May. He was suspended for 50 games for a positive drug test, and he hasn’t been the same since. He hit .269/.389/.492 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 260 at-bats after his return, and the Dodgers carried him to the playoffs this time.

In the NLCS, the Phillies did what few pitchers previously dared. They challenged Manny with fastballs, and the strategy worked. He hit a two-run homer in Game 1 but ended up drawing more attention in the series for an early shower than for his hitting.

Joe Torre recently admitted to the Los Angeles Times that Manny "wasn’t himself" after his return. Torre believes Ramirez’s struggles had more to do with an unbalanced approach at the plate than declining ability. But not even Torre knows if Ramirez will return to elite status.

Ramirez is at an age when most hitters are in decline — those without chemical assistance, anyway. Manny senses this. According to mlb.com, he told his teammates last year that he’d be better off as a DH. Of course, he is in the wrong league for that.

Manny will make $20 million this season but is as likely as you or me to get that much next season. A strong season, however, could land him a nice enough deal to be a DH. On the other hand, an entire season like the latter part of ’09 and Manny could find himself in the same spot as former teammate Nomar Garciaparra — on the verge of forced retirement.

Manny already killed a certain case for the Hall of Fame with his positive drug test. If he doesn’t show his old form, his reputation will be hurt even more because many will believe his entire career was built on performance-enhancing drugs.

His best chance to remove some of the doubts is with a productive year. A strong spring is the best way to begin.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Spring training often resembles a working vacation for most veterans. You know, put in a couple innings of work and then call for your tee time. However, the list of proven veteran players who slumped in 2009 is a long one. For those players, regaining their confidence/swing/swagger starts when they report to their Grapefruit League or Cactus League camp. Which disappointing player from last season is in most desperate need of a strong spring?

Chris Bahr says Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano must return to form in order for the Cubs to compete, but Stan McNeal says all eyes should be on Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez:

Talk about a fast fall. In less than a year, Manny Ramirez has gone from superstar slugger to drug user to mediocre major leaguer to, well, who knows?

Questions abound as to whether Manny Ramirez can regain his old form.
Questions abound as to whether Manny Ramirez can regain his old form.

This we know: At 37 and in the last year of his contract, no player is in greater need of a strong spring to set himself up for a big season. Consider what is riding on Manny’s bat: his team’s playoff chances, his future and his already-tarnished legacy.

Not long ago, Ramirez was the hero that L.A. couldn’t afford to lose. He was coming off a two-month stretch when he carried the Dodgers to the NLCS by hitting .396/.489/.783 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 187 at-bats.

Manny was rounding into familiar form in 2009 until his world as he knew it ended in early May. He was suspended for 50 games for a positive drug test, and he hasn’t been the same since. He hit .269/.389/.492 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 260 at-bats after his return, and the Dodgers carried him to the playoffs this time.

In the NLCS, the Phillies did what few pitchers previously dared. They challenged Manny with fastballs, and the strategy worked. He hit a two-run homer in Game 1 but ended up drawing more attention in the series for an early shower than for his hitting.

Joe Torre recently admitted to the Los Angeles Times that Manny "wasn’t himself" after his return. Torre believes Ramirez’s struggles had more to do with an unbalanced approach at the plate than declining ability. But not even Torre knows if Ramirez will return to elite status.

Ramirez is at an age when most hitters are in decline — those without chemical assistance, anyway. Manny senses this. According to mlb.com, he told his teammates last year that he’d be better off as a DH. Of course, he is in the wrong league for that.

Manny will make $20 million this season but is as likely as you or me to get that much next season. A strong season, however, could land him a nice enough deal to be a DH. On the other hand, an entire season like the latter part of ’09 and Manny could find himself in the same spot as former teammate Nomar Garciaparra — on the verge of forced retirement.

Manny already killed a certain case for the Hall of Fame with his positive drug test. If he doesn’t show his old form, his reputation will be hurt even more because many will believe his entire career was built on performance-enhancing drugs.

His best chance to remove some of the doubts is with a productive year. A strong spring is the best way to begin.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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