FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Why did the Red Sox sign Jonny Gomes instead of bringing back Cody Ross?
That question was stirred anew on Thursday, when Red Sox CEO/president Larry Lucchino -- in a broad-ranging media session -- was asked if there were any moves this winter that he regretted not making.
"I was always a big Cody Ross fan. To be honest, I would say, at one point we were joking in a meeting in baseball that I should wear a Cody Ross jersey to the next meeting because I was so eager to see us reach out to him," said Lucchino. "And I do have a great fondness for him and a lot of respect for him. I'm not surprised that an old general manager that I worked with, Kevin Towers, talked him into playing out there [in Arizona]. That's not to say I'm not excited about Jonny Gomes and the other outfield prospects that we have here. I think our fans are going to fall in love with Jonny Gomes."
Lucchino, of course, was not alone in his enthusiasm for Ross. Unquestionably, others in the baseball operations department had interest in bringing him back to Boston and Ross wanted to come back to a city where he relished playing.
So in an offseason when the Sox moved quickly to set the market on a number of players on one-, two- and three-year deals, why did the team fail to find common ground with Ross while moving aggressively to secure the services of Gomes in a deal that some viewed as an overpay in late November?
To get an understanding of that decision, it's worth profiling Ross and Gomes.
Both are 32. Both players enjoyed terrific seasons in 2012 that ranked among the best of their careers, Ross as an everyday corner outfielder with the Red Sox, Gomes as a left fielder and DH who saw action in 99 games and started about half of the A's contests last year, with his opportunities skewed heavily towards the abuse of left-handed pitchers.
Both are dead pull hitters who generate considerable loft and power in a fashion that suggests a made-for-Fenway approach. (Gomes, it is worth noting, works deeper in counts and has a higher walk rate than Ross -- important considerations for a Sox team trying to rebuild a lineup that exhausts opposing pitchers.) Both are considered outstanding teammates and strong clubhouse presences.
Ross graded as roughly an average defensive outfielder, playing a solid right field for most of the year after struggling early under the shadow of the Green Monster in left. Gomes grades as a tick below average in left, explaining why he started more games last year in Oakland as a DH than an outfielder.
Based on those descriptions alone, one would have expected the Sox to move more aggressively to retain Ross. He's the better defender, he offers greater positional versatility given that he can play right and his production came as an everyday player, as opposed to Gomes' status as a more-than-part-time/less-than-full-time member of the A's. And, to be sure, the Sox did value Ross more highly than they did Gomes in free agent negotiations.
The Sox, according to multiple industry sources, wanted to give Ross a two-year deal with what the team considered a high average annual salary -- perhaps something in the vicinity of the two-year, $15 million or $16 million range. Ross wanted a three-year deal.
While there may have been a willingness, in the end, to accept something of a discount to return to Boston -- particularly had the Sox nudged their offer to a third year during the exclusive window for free-agent negotiations prior to the end of the World Series -- Ross appeared to be aiming for something between the three-year, $21 million deal that former teammate and close friend Josh Willingham received from the Twins after the 2011 season and the three-year, $31.5 million deal that Michael Cuddyer got from the Rockies.
The Sox, however, proved reluctant to go to three years on Ross. Instead, they moved on to Gomes, making a winning two-year, $10 million bid that some industry sources considered high, and that the Sox acknowledged to be aggressive.
In other words, the team proved willing to set the market on Gomes while passing on what may have been a chance to get Ross at something below the three-year, $26.5 million deal for which he signed with the Diamondbacks. So: why?
First, it's worth noting that among the many needs the Sox faced in the offseason, they needed not just one but two corner outfielders. As such, the team wanted to move relatively quickly to address at least one of the spots to cross an item off the lengthy offseason shopping list that included two corner outfielders, a starting pitcher and a first baseman (as well as any potential upgrades at other positions).
Secondly, the Sox knew what it would take to sign Gomes, and knew that his price point fell within what they considered an acceptable range. In theory, would the team have felt better about signing him to, say, a two-year, $7 million or two-year, $8 million deal? Of course. Might the team have gotten a lower price by waiting a bit longer into the offseason? That possibility certainly exists ... but it might not have.
Given the gap at that stage of the offseason between what Gomes wanted and what Ross wanted, the team was still more comfortable with the idea of an "overpay" for Gomes than it was with what it would have taken to sign Ross at that stage of the winter.
Signing Ross would have meant waiting. The Sox would have had to hope he came off his asking price, either relenting on a two-year deal with which the team would have had comfort or perhaps landing at a three-year deal with a shorter average annual value.
Such a deal would have been an exercise in a game of chicken. And while the Sox would have had to wait to see about finding common ground with Ross, other outfield options likely would have come off the board.
The Sox weren't going to go as high as the three-year, $26 million deal that the Diamondbacks offered. That being the case, the team feared that it would miss out on other corner outfield alternatives (such as Gomes) while waiting for Ross' asking price to come down, only to see another team swoop in and meet Ross' asking price -- precisely what happened with Arizona. If that had happened, the Sox would have missed out on both players.
The certainty of Gomes at a price with which the Sox were comfortable -- even if it represented a top-of-the-market offer -- made more sense for Boston than did the idea of holding out and hoping to find common ground with Ross. Gomes is now, at the least, expected to be a formidable lineup presence at Fenway and against left-handed pitching.
And, of course, there is the chance that Gomes -- particularly in a park that is so well-suited to his swing such as Fenway -- could become more than that. After all, his strong 2012 season came in spite of a home park in Oakland that killed offensive numbers. His road production was outrageous, as Gomes hit .273/.409/.578/.987. Ross, in contrast, benefited immensely from playing in Fenway Park, but his numbers nosedived on the road, where he hit .232/.294/.390/.684.
From a career vantage point, both players have put up startlingly similar lines since breaking into the big leagues in 2003. Ross is a career .262/.324/.460/.783 hitter; Gomes has a lower average but a higher OBP, with a .244/.334/.455/.790 line. Both have a career OPS+ of 100, meaning that both profile as league average players for their careers. Gomes hits homers with more frequency and walks more frequently.
Moreover, the two have posted similar numbers against right-handers, both in 2012 and in their careers. Offensively, if one is to pigeon-hole Gomes as a platoon player, it's hard (simply based on statistics) not to level a similar charge at Ross.
For his part, Gomes would love to shed the mantle of the platoon player.
"Platooning isn't a position," Gomes said. "There's not platooning in high school, there's not platooning in 12-year-old all-stars. We're baseball players. Baseball players, there's two L's. There's leather, lumber and you play every single day. Have I platooned in the past? Yeah, and it's helped us win. I figure, if you succeed at platooning, you should have the opportunity to have more on your plate. If you succeed at a task, you should be able to have more on your plate.
"Am I putting my foot down, asking for more time? No, absolutely not. I do whatever helps the team. Last year, I platooned with a couple of guys, no one ran their mouth, no one did anything [disruptive] and that all leads to success and that all leads to winning. As soon as you have guys butting heads for playing time, it all starts to go downhill a little bit. I came into camp to play 162. It's not my choice, I don't make the lineup but when my name is called, count on that I'll be ready."
With his Ross No. 7 jersey having been swapped for Gomes' No. 5, Lucchino certainly can be forgiven for having a rooting interest in such an outcome.