By Jeff Louderback
Cody Ross is the type of player that every team needs. He is a versatile outfielder who can play all three spots, he wields power as a right-handed hitter and is is a well-liked teammate who plays the game hard.
Jonny Gomes is also the kind of player that every team needs. He is a Dirt Dawg who loves the game, hustles and hits for power from the right side. Gomes is a below-average defensive outfielder, but he will not lolligag after a fly ball.
This offseason, the Red Sox opted to sign Gomes to a two-year-, $10 million deal instead of retaining Ross, who sought a three-year contract and got it from the Arizona Diamondbacks, which also added a team option for a fourth year.
WEEI.com’s Alex Speier, who is one of the country’s best baseball writers, wrote a column on Friday comparing Gomes and Ross, and offering reasons why the Red Sox chose the former over the latter.
Red Sox fans who follow the team year-round know by now about general manager Ben Cherington’s strategy over the offseason. Armed with payroll flexibility created by the Los Angeles Dodgers taking on the cumbersome contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett; and Daisuke’ Matsuzaka’s expiring deal, Boston’s front office was understandably reluctant to dole out new long-term deals to premium free agents like Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton. Instead, Cherington inked complementary players like Gomes and fellow outfielder Shane Victorino, catcher David Ross, first baseman Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew, starting pitcher Ryan Dempster and reliever Koji Uehara to short-term deals at higher annual salaries than they would have received elsewhere.
This strategy maintains long-term payroll flexibility for the Red Sox and does not block top prospects like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Bryce Brentz, and Matt Barnes among others. It also permits the club to have ample payroll space if they decide to acquire an impact player via trade or free agency.
How does this relate to the Gomes versus Ross debate? It’s simple. With promising names like Bradley, Brentz and Ryan Kalish (who has been plagued with injuries but is still just 24 and has a bright Major League future ahead) in the farm system, signing Ross to a three-year deal would clog the roster with a player who is average defensively and can only hit left-handed pitching.
Ross is best suited as a platoon outfielder, and not a regular. Gomes fits the same description. He mashes lefties and struggles against righties. The two-year contract at $5 million a season is worthwhile because he provides a favorable clubhouse presence, sets a good example by how hard he plays the game and gives manager John Farrell a weapon against premiere southpaws (like David Price and CC Sabathia), yet he does not hamstring the payroll or the roster long term.
Bradley is the heir apparent to Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. Brentz has a chance to become Boston’s starting right fielder in 2014. At the least, Kalish appears to be a potential platoon outfielder who hits from the left side. Shane Victorino, who is a switch-hitter and proficiently plays all three outfield spots, was inked to a three-year, $39 million contract, and that decision made sense because he is better defensively than Ross and hits from both sides. Like Ross and Gomes, Victorino is a high-energy guy who has an affable personality and a dedicated work ethic.
In Boston, where an annual contender is demanded and not just expected, there is no room for sentimentality in player personnel decisions. Ross is a nice guy, but he is not worth the three years he received from the Diamondbacks, just as Ellsbury is not worth the expensive long-term contract he will require.
Gomes and Victorino over Ross was the right choice.