Cody Ross is having the career year that no one is noticing. In the process, he is doing his best to demolish the logic behind the criticisms of the Red Sox’ most controversial roster move of the offseason.
Rewind to January. Carl Crawford had just undergone surgery for his ailing wrist. With the left-fielder sidelined for at least the earliest part of the season, the Red Sox felt that they needed to reinforce their outfield depth.
And so, the team cleared some payroll by trading Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for right-hander Clayton Mortensen. The Sox had some hope (since borne out) that Mortensen could be an effective big league pitcher, but the team’s primary motivation was to unload payroll ($7.67 million, as calculated for luxury tax purposes) so that it could sign Ross while also creating some financial flexibility going forward.
The team was skewered. Scutaro had been one of the Sox’ best performers last September, and he was heralded (rightly) as an excellent clubhouse presence who was willing to play through considerable pain. Meanwhile, with Mike Aviles (who hadn’t been an everyday shortstop since his rookie year of 2008, thus making him a relatively unproven alternative) representing an unknown quantity, the Sox were confronted by skepticism if not outright hostility for making the move.
The Sox did not view it that way. The team saw in Scutaro a shortstop whose defense was average to slightly above average in his best years at shortstop, but who was sinking to below average at the position due to age and injuries. Those physical limitations suggested a player best suited for second base, a position with a “No Vacancy” sign in Boston thanks to Dustin Pedroia. Among shortstops, he featured above-average on-base ability but unspectacular power; the overall package suggested an average to slightly above average shortstop.
It wasn’t a high bar to clear, however, and the Sox thought Aviles could do so. The team believed that he had shown slightly above-average range at short throughout his career. Based on age -- Aviles is 31, Scutaro 36 -- he was more likely to resist defensive decline than Scutaro. And while Aviles would not match Scutaro’s on-base skill, the team expected that his power would offset the OBP hit. Overall, the team felt that Aviles could perform at a level roughly equivalent to Scutaro, perhaps a bit above, perhaps a bit below, but close.
That assessment has played out as largely accurate to this point in 2012. Scutaro has posted numbers in line with his career marks -- a .287 average, .338 OBP, .394 slugging mark and .732 OPS -- but he’s a) done so primarily as a second baseman (even with Troy Tulowitzki out, the Rockies have had Scutaro play second) and b) experiencing massive home-road splits, as he’s hitting .318/.376/.459/.834 at home, and .250/.291/.318/.609 away from Coors Field.
Aviles, meanwhile, has been everything for which the Sox could have hoped defensively, validating the team’s belief that he could be above-average at the position. Offensively, he’s hitting .267/.287/.423/.710, with worse numbers at home (.258/.278/.403/.681) than away from Fenway (.277/.297/.447/.743). Judged solely by road numbers, Aviles has been the far better player this year.
But the Aviles-Scutaro debate is secondary. The Sox’ motivation in trading Scutaro was primarily about the acquisition of Ross, whom the team signed to a one-year, $3 million deal. And right now, that deal looks like a tremendous bargain, with Ross delivering further evidence of that notion in the Red Sox’ 5-0 victory over the Mariners on Friday night.
Ross went 1-for-4 while destroying a Hector Noesi fastball, sending the pitch soaring into the second deck at Safeco Field for his 12th homer of the year. With the blast, Ross has a chance to set full-season career-highs in virtually every major offensive category.
Though limited to 48 games after missing a month due to injury, he is hitting .277 with a .345 OBP, .578 slugging mark and .923 OPS. He has 12 homers, a pace that would project to 41 in 162 games and that, even now, despite his month of inaction, has him on pace for a career-high 25 homers.
Among AL outfielders with at least 150 plate appearances, Ross ranks third in slugging, behind only Josh Hamilton (.643) and Mark Trumbo (.620). He is fifth among AL outfielders in OPS (.923).
In short, he has been one of the most impactful offensive outfielders around. That status is all the more impressive given that he missed a month after breaking a bone in his foot by smashing a foul ball off of it. It seemed fair to expect rust upon his return.
Yet just the opposite has been evident. Ross, who was amidst his best stretch of the year (a .360/.500/.840/1.340 stretch in eight games) at the time of his injury, has demolished the ball since his return. He went 1-for-3 with a homer in his first game back and has walloped the ball ever since. He has four homers and five doubles in 11 games since coming off the DL, hitting .300/.333/.725/1.058 in that span.
“Sometimes you get right back in the groove of things, feeling good, or it can take a while. Fortunately, for me, I’ve felt good since day one,” Ross said recently. “Confidence is a big part of it. Even though it was a month off, when I got hurt, I felt really good. As crazy as it sounds, I tried to keep that mentality throughout the whole time I was hurt.
“I wanted to make sure when I went down on my rehab assignment [in Triple-A Pawtucket] that I felt comfortable enough to step back up here and not put myself in a hole. Those two games that I played in, I was just seeing the ball really well, and I thought to myself, it’s not going to get much better than this as far as tracking pitches and seeing the ball. I told them I was ready and fortunately, it carried over.”
Indeed it has, with Ross serving as a significant factor in the Red Sox’ 8-3 record since his return. Of course, he has been prone to both hot and cold streaks, and so it seems possible, even likely, that at some point, he will come back to earth.
Even so, on the whole, he’s delivered a far more consistent impact than anything the Sox could have imagined. His numbers have climbed in each month of the year -- from an .817 OPS in April to a .962 mark in May to a 1.058 in June -- and his performance against righties (.267/.331/.500/.831 with six homers) has made him a steady force far beyond the team’s baseline expectation that he would be a regular contributor against left-handed pitchers.
In short, Ross has been one of the best hitters on the team, a player whose giant swing has produced big results to this stage of the season. And with every moonscraper that he launches, the hostility towards the Scutaro trade seems increasingly misplaced.
The Sox had their share of offseason moves that went awry, but to this point, dealing Scutaro was not one of them. Not only have they enjoyed steady play from Aviles at short, but they have also benefited tremendously from one of the most productive outfielders in the game. As such, that is certainly a move on which the Sox would not request a mulligan.