Call me crazy, but at the time that Arizona brought Cody Ross to the desert on a three-year, $26M deal, I thought it was a smart move for the club. I still do, as it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that the deal looks bad now. It doesn’t help that the deal was somewhat backloaded, but I believe it’s only his injury that makes the deal look like a blunder. And while you can predict injury to some extent (past injury and age being the principal risk factors), there’s really no such thing as a team that does better than others in avoiding injury.
Cody Ross’s hip injury was the freakest of freak accidents. And before that, Ross was part of an outstanding outfield; 1.8 WAR in just 351 PA is pretty damned good. In fact, the “breakout” season Ross had on a $3M pillow contract with Boston saw him tally 2.3 WAR in 528 PA; Ross was showing that the D-backs front office (or Ken Kendrick?) had gauged his value correctly.
If we thought that Ross coulda/woulda been a 2.5 WAR type of player, we could do a team-of-Parras analysis. I’ll spare you that analysis because what we’re really interested in now is who Ross is now, but essentially: with league-average pitching, a team of Cody Rosses would be right on the playoff line in terms of projected wins (88 or so). At $8.5M per Ross, it’d be an expensive team, but that’s not really the point (and there are always some young players). The point is that the player Cody Ross was in 2013 was a strength, and that he helped make the team better, as opposed to preventing the team from becoming better.
Who is Cody Ross now?
Alas, that is no longer who Cody Ross appears to be. In a lesser amount of playing time (218 PA, but 82 games), Ross has been worth -1.2 WAR this season. There seem to be two main things responsible for that big a swing in value.
1. Defense. Give a slightly-above-average hitter some very good defensive numbers, and you have a very good player, a Shane Victorino type who generally gets undervalued across the sport. Give a slightly-above-average hitter some poor defensive numbers, and you…don’t.
Ross hasn’t always been a great outfielder, but “great” is not overstating his prowess in the field in 2013. With a 23.0 UZR/150, he would have ranked 13th among all MLB players in UZR/150 with at least 500 innings played — if he had in fact accumulated all of his playing time in either right field or left field, instead of both. 13th in defense among 252 players. And I’m not cherry-picking — he also accumulated 20 Defensive Runs Saved despite playing just 712 innings in the field. Only 8 players had as many DRS as Ross, and all of them played quite a bit more. Ross was outstanding.
This year, Ross has a UZR/150 of -33.6. That is truly Kubel-esque. And it doesn’t really matter how well you hit (ok, it does a little), if you play defense that badly, you’re not a good player. Of course, just because that’s who Ross has been this season, it need not follow that that’s who Ross is today, or who he’ll be next year. Which brings me to:
2. The Way Way Back (I liked that movie; sue me). The Diamondbacks were not required to give playing time to Ross this year as he worked his way back from injury, and they didn’t actually give him much time. But over the winter, as the front office made plans, they had to know that Ross was unlikely to return back to his 2013 form without a transition period. Here’s how that transition period played out at the plate:
In some jurisdictions, I could be put in jail for presenting sample sizes this small. But suffice it to say: there’s reason to believe it took Ross a while to get back into the swing of things, and there’s reason to believe he’s been a pretty good hitter since June.
There’s even more good news. Historically, Ross has had a sizeable platoon split; that’s what led me to suggest a Ross-Chavez platoon (with Martin Prado shuttling to and fro) when Mark Trumbo went down with injury in April. At that point, Ross had a .935 career OPS versus lefties (Goldy-like) and a .710 OPS against RHP. That’s a pretty big split, especially for a right-handed hitter. But even though we’re seeing part-time numbers from Ross, we are not seeing him benefit from being platooned.
Just 78 of Ross’s 218 total PA have come against lefties, and that percentage (35%) is actually slightly lower than league average. It may be that Ross is back to who he was, at least at the plate: a slightly above average hitter.
Ross in Translation
In short, who Ross appears to be moving forward is a slightly above average hitter about whom you might have some serious doubts when it comes to defense. Anecdotally, I think Ross is moving around a bit better in the outfield, but when it comes to 2015, even the most optimistic view should probably only have him at a fringe-average defensive level. He might be playable (which is an upgrade over Jason Kubel), but his defense will still sap his value, not enhance it.
As a starting player, then, Ross might only be worth 1 WAR or so. Going back to the team-of-Parras analysis, that’s just not good enough for a team that wishes to compete. Going back to the actual roster, and it’s clear that the D-backs have superior options already in-house.
The D-backs probably won’t buy what I’ve been selling in terms of Ender Inciarte platooning with Mark Trumbo, but it might still be safe to say that it will be Trumbo, Inciarte and A.J. Pollock handling the duties in left and center field next season (barring a trade or free agent acquisition). Maybe Inciarte will take on more of a fourth-outfielder role and get some playing time in right field, too, but he’s not an ideal backup at right field if David Peralta is the primary right fielder.
David Peralta looks like he’s pretty good. He hasn’t been quite as good as he was in his hot start at the major league level, but he’s still been good for solidly above average offense, and given his minor league track record, there’s reason to think he could get better than that (unlike with Ross). He’s a good candidate to get a backup, because this year, he’s had fantastic success against righties (130 wRC+) and equally fantastic failure against LHP (42 wRC+). What’s more, Gerardo Parra has taught us that a converted pitcher who hits from the left side could be permanently disadvantaged against southpaws.
Peralta had a chunk of this season to prove that he didn’t need a platoon partner, but I don’t think anyone has been convinced. He needs a backup playing consistently. Inciarte could do it, because even though he also hits from the left side, he doesn’t have a real platoon split. Still…
Ross should be that guy. A perfect platoon splitting plate appearances is not possible, but think of the ceiling. Despite being just above average overall, Ross has a career 141 wRC+ against lefties. Combine that with Peralta’s 130 wRC+ against righties, and even if you discount for lack of perfection (they’ll be left in to face same-handed pitchers sometimes), you could end up with well above average production from right field.
What to Do with Ross
Ross’s contract was backloaded a bit, and while that doesn’t really affect whether or not it was a good deal when it was signed, it does matter in terms of how marketable it is via trade. Maybe there’s a team this offseason that has their own David Peralta in need of a platoon mate, but if so, I don’t see any fits. I highly doubt any team will look to acquire Ross this offseason. I highly doubt any team will be willing to take Ross this offseason, even if the D-backs offer to eat half of his remaining $8.5M salary for 2015 and his $1M option buyout.
If Ross is who we think he is, he’s not the type of player that a team adds over the winter, at least not by trade. He’s the type of player you add in February for small dollars on a one-year deal, or he’s the type of player that you discover you need over the course of the season, and then pick up if you have the roster space and the trade partner. If the D-backs are sellers at midseason in 2015, there is actually a very decent chance that Ross could get moved, even if he’s only been used as a short-side platoon player. Whether the D-backs are willing to carry him all year just for that possibility is a legitimate question.
As much as I’d like to see a Ross/Peralta platoon in 2015 and as much as I like Ross as a player and (especially) as a person, I don’t see him surviving this offseason. The new front office will enjoy a honeymoon period in which they can move around cutting losses, and the Ross contract seems like the most likely thing to get dumped. Basically, they can release Ross and blame the payroll hit on the previous administration, and work within the payroll confines that are left over.
And while the new front office may not be as active as the Towers version, they will do something this offseason. The $100M payroll limitation recently mentioned by CEO Derrick Hall limits the free agent possibilities open to the D-backs, but it doesn’t eliminate them entirely. Ross just happens to be the roster part that is most likely to be stripped away in favor of someone new.
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