How can something so average be so valuable?(Photo by Dennis Adair)
Some people hate when I write about Gabe Gross because it seems like I'm making a big deal over a pretty mundane player. The funny thing is I'm the first one to admit he's average. Honestly, Gross is probably the type of player I should hate. Last year, during his ‘clutch' run he got more pub than he should have. I always root for the undervalued players, so naturally the hoopla died and I found myself a permanent fan of Gross.
Lately I've been thinking more and more about the Gross trade, and how beautiful it really was. Given that two days ago was the year anniversary, I figured I'd finally put those thoughts down.
Gross was designated for assignment by the Brewers, which seems oddly appropriate, prior to the deal which sent Josh Butler to Milwaukee. Butler was hardly an impressive pitching prospect. As a former second round pick (out of San Diego State University) Butler was entering his second full season in the organization, and had struggled previously at High-A ball, posting a 5.77 FIP. Three starts into the season, Butler was doing better, a 4.02 FIP, but his strikeout numbers had again dipped.
Sure, the Rays were basically admitting they missed on an early round picks, yet unflustered by draft status and completely trusting in their talent evaluation methods, Andrew Friedman pulled the trigger. In return, the Rays would get Gabe Gross (much to Dan Johnson’s dismay), a 29-year-old corner outfielder previously drafted in the first round of the 2001 draft. Gross had played in parts of four seasons prior to 2008, but was mostly resigned to being a reserve outfielder with platoon friendly splits.
Of course, guys with career lines of .245/.343/.410 can only amass a certain level of fanfare. It probably doesn’t help that Gross went 0-3 with a walk and a strikeout in his first game. Plus, Gross just doesn’t look like much of a player. This is the same organization that has seen guys who look like ballplayers by the masses. Gross had nothing on Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, or B.J. Upton. He wasn’t overly fast, or strong, or really anything. He was Gabe Gross, and unbeknownst to most, that would be exactly what the Rays wanted.
I remember writing about how Gross had power potential, despite his average on-base percentage (thanks to a lackluster batting average). This was still when I was oblivious to defense mattering so much. I would like to think Gross is the perfect litmus test for how much I’ve learned about the game within this calendar year. (By the way, people probably take admitting you’ve gained more knowledge as a bad thing, and frankly that’s pretty stupid.)
Then something happens that nobody anticipates. Gabe Gross becomes ridiculously prone to coming up in game-altering situations and succeeding. Gross did it once. Then again. Again. Once more. There was the homerun off of Eduardo Mujica that pulled the Rays to a 7-7 tie against the Indians. Perhaps the most unlikely homerun ever; Matt Thornton, the giant flamethrowing lefty, throwing a pitch to Gross who turned on it and put it into the stands while giving the Rays a win in extras. A hit off Mariano Rivera that scored Jonny Gomes and created one of the more memorable celebrations in Rays history. And so on.
The peak of Gross’ popularity was short lived. Eventually the ‘clutch’ hits stopped coming, and in the playoffs he slumped miserably, even defensively. We all know what’s gone on since then, so instead of rehashing the present, let’s focus on the moment of the trade again.
Previous to April 24, the Rays were using the three-headed “monster” of Nathan Haynes, Jonny Gomes, and Eric Hinske in right field. With Cliff Floyd out due to an injury, this allowed two of the three to play any given time. Friedman and the rest of the front office had obviously established that while Hinske and Gomes were offensively equal or superior to Gross, neither was close to Gross defensively. So they did the only thing logical; rotated Gomes and Hinske at DH while letting Gross get most of the starts in right field.
An outfield of Carl Crawford/B.J. Upton/Gabe Gross was the finest defensive unit the Rays could produce; giving their pitchers, especially flyball types like Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine, a much needed helping hand on nights when the balls hit were more than routine flyouts.
Why was Gross the target? What made him so desirable?
The key to building a good team is to amassing as many positive contributors as possible. Unless you’re the New York Yankees, you probably can’t buy too many players who will produce four or five wins on a consistent basis. (The Yankees are getting players who are usually past their prime anyways, but nobody ever really mentions that.) Given the financial restraints of the Rays compared to other teams, the need to draft, pick through waivers, trade, and sign minor league free agents becomes more relevant to success.
Since Gross is average, he’s a positive contributor – which is a bit of a mind tease. Growing up, we’re taught that average is bad. If you have a 2.0 GPA (basically all Cs) then you aren’t qualifying for the honor roll or Ivy League schools anytime soon. Average looks and average personality? Forget about it.
But in baseball, average is good. Average means that player is one of the best at his job in the world. The numbers of great and good players are smaller than the amount of average players, which is smaller than the amount of fringe and poor players.
So here’s average Gabe Gross, making next to nothing for a salary (relative to other baseball players) being pushed off a roster. Friedman scoops in and picks him up for essentially free. Gross doesn’t exactly fit your prototypical American League corner outfielder, yet he’s still about as valuable of a player as a team would designate for assignment, and he’s the absolute perfect Friedman player.
A) Underrated by the masses for the skillset he possesses.
B) Easily attainable.
D) Fills a need
It’s simply a brilliant move. The type that goes unnoticed until you look back and realize that Gross should never have been available. Gross didn’t win us the AL East, or the AL itself, but he did play a role, and he played it about as well as you could ask someone to do it.
Really, it’s less about Gross – however talented and useful he is – and more about what Gross stands for. He’s the ultimate residue of a front office that knows how to manipulate the trade market to build a successful team. If you can’t appreciate Gabe for his play, appreciate him for the meaning.