With the Red Sox continuing to struggle, a reasonable person may decide that it's time to start looking towards building this team for 2013 and beyond. This offseason is going to have a number of intriguing storylines. Will Bobby Valentine be fired? If he is, what type of manager should the front office choose to replace him? Will they deal Jacoby Ellsbury, and what kind of package can he bring back? Will they be able to find a taker for Josh Beckett who's willing to give up something at least semi-valuable? Is David Ortiz going to be back? Another storyline that hasn't been talked about as much, and is admittedly not as interesting, is will the Sox re-sign breakout outfielder Cody Ross?
Last winter, the Red Sox were in need of a new right fielder after the departure of J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick. I spent much of the offseason clamoring for the front office to sign then-free agent Josh Willingham. Instead, he went to Minnesota and the Red Sox opted for a cheaper option. They signed 2010-postseason hero Cody Ross to a minuscule one-year three million dollar deal. Looking back, the team may have gotten the steal as the entire offseason, as Ross has put up outstanding offensive numbers in 2012.
However, as he is a free agent at year's end, he is likely due for a fairly significant pay raise. This offseason's free agent class is loaded with center fielders, but the corner outfield market isn't nearly as stacked. There will likely be a number of suitors for Ross' services, which will drive his price up even more. The question is: just how much will his price tag raise?
This winter, there are two big-named corner outfield free agents on the market. Josh Hamilton may be the biggest name of any free agent in baseball this winter, and will certainly be asking for a huge deal. Moving one notch lower, Nick Swisher's contract with the Yankees will be expiring at the end of the year. With a bit more of an extended track record, he will probably be commanding a bigger deal than Ross will. However, Ross probably falls to third on the corner-outfield market, depending on whether you consider Melky Cabrera a center fielder or a corner outfielder.
Looking back at last offseason once again, there are three outfielders who had comparable track records to what Ross will carry into the coming winter. The aforementioned Willingham leads that group, and he is currently enjoying a breakout season of his own. Additionally, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer also found themselves in a similar position. Below is a chart comparing each of these players' stats from their final three years before free agency.
|Player||Age Heading into Offseason||Slash-Line||OPS+||Contract Received|
|Josh Willingham||32||.257/.360/.479||126||3 yrs/ $21 mil|
|Jason Kubel||29||.274/.342/.470||118||2 yrs/ $16 ml|
|Michael Cuddyer||32||.276/.341/.465||117||3 yrs/ 31.5 mil|
On the surface, Ross appears to be a notch below the other three guys. However, a few of things push him into the same category as this group. Firstly, he already has a reputation of a "big-game player." In 2010, the Giants picked him up on the waiver wire and he performed admirably down the stretch, posting a 122 OPS+ in 33 games during the postseason run. Then, he put up more monster numbers en route to a World Series championship, even winning the NLCS MVP on the way.
On top of that, he has been a beast for the Red Sox this year. Using Fenway Park to his advantage, Ross has put up his best season to date, posting a .274/.339/.525 slash-line, good for a 125 OPS+. Amongst all batters with at least 350 plate appearances, his .251 isolated power (ISO) is tied for 19th. When a player is up for free agency, his most recent season will typically be weighed the most when teams decide how much to offer him.
In addition to these two reasons, Ross' value could rise a bit due to his ability to play center field in a pinch. In his career, he's actually played center more than he's played in either corner spot, though most of that playing time came in 2008, 2009 and 2010. However, teams that miss out on the big center fielders this winter (Cabrera, Michael Bourn, BJ Upton, Shane Victorino) will likely look highly upon Ross' ability to man the premium outfield postion.
With all of this being said, I would expect Ross to sign for a similar deal as the three players discussed above. He may have to wait a few months before signing, as the bigger names could set the market a little better. After the big names sign, the teams that miss out will be scrambling for their "Plan B's," which is where Ross fits perfectly. In the end, I think it would be reasonable to expect he can land a three-year deal, with between seven and eight million dollars in average annual value (AAV).
If he can be talked into a two-year deal, with the AAV possibly reaching eight-and-a-half to nine million dollars, the Red Sox should jump on that. In the right situation, Ross is the type of player who can be plugged into the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup and put up big power numbers. The Sox have been long-criticized for having a lineup that is too lefty-centric. This makes them vulnerable against same-handed starting pitching. In his career, Ross has mashed lefties, with a 136 OPS+ against southpaws, and a 201 OPS+ in those situations this year. Additionally, he has proven that he fits perfectly with Fenway Park. This season, he has a .307/.365/.630 slash-line with a 163 OPS+ at home, compared to a .233/.305/.393 line and a 97 OPS+ on the road.
There will likely be some competition for his services, so getting a two-year deal may be difficult to achieve. Ross will be in his age-32 season in 2013, which likely signals the beginning of his decline. Because of this, a three-year deal may push me over the edge and scare me out of signing him. However, it's impossible to deny his fit with this team and ballpark. If he can be talked into signing a two-year, $16-$20 million deal, Ben Cherington and company should jump all over that opportunity.