Over the period of the last 18 or so months, Gabe Gross has been one of my favorite players.
I feel no shame in typing that sentence and I would hope you feel no shame for me. It wasn't a tools thing - although Gross' power, plate discipline, range, and arm rate out well - or a white thing. No, it was part indie rock syndrome and part appreciation for the average things in life. Mostly, the Gross fandom was a personal mark of maturation and sophistication as a baseball fan.
My old self would've hated Gross. Despite placing highly on prospect lists of days gone by, he didn't bleed athleticism. He hit home runs and got on base, but not enough. And defense? Who cares? He's a corner outfielder; if they ain't hitting bombs then they need to be gone. I was dumb, no question. I grew up watching a lot of Sammy Sosa and everyone loved him.
Over time, specifically the last two and a half years, my appreciation and understanding of what defense means to winning ballgames has changed. When the Rays acquired Gross, I had no defensive metric to turn to. UZR wasn't public - remember those days? - no Bill James Online account to check, little knowledge of PMR, and if I knew about the Fans Scouting Report, I wasn't smart enough to look for it. The Rays were only months removed from Delmon Young in right field who threw out a ton of baserunners. Even Ichiro going to third. Vladimir Guerrero also threw out runners and he was highly praised, so after Gross threw a few out, I was stoked. Gross' range quickly eclipsed either of those, and the disparity between Jonny Gomes and Gross was stunning.
Gross won some general fans over too. I promise you that 90% of them won't remember him in three years time, but he did it with well-timed home runs. He then lost many a fan with his playoff defense, specifically in Fenway - most of them forget the home run he robbed early in the third game of the American League Divisional Series - which lead to Boston forcing a game six.
Many won't remember how well Gross hit for the majority of this season. A scorching June, where Gross got on base at a 44.1% clip lead to consecutive sub-.700 OPS months, then, in his final 44 plate appearances, an embarrassing .075/.116/.100 line saw his seasonal work flushed down the drain. I'm sure it's not the way he wanted to go out, and hell, it's not how I wanted him to go out either.
Matt Joyce is going to be a thrill to watch. He's probably a better overall player than Gross, definitely a better power hitter. He'll do well for himself with fan base popularity off that and his local roots. You won't see FanPosts on this site calling for his release after a bad month, or people making wisecracks about how awful he is following a strikeout. No, I think Matt Joyce is going to be just fine. And so will Gross. He's a worthwhile player and he's going to land on someone's roster between now and spring.
Maybe one day, Gross will be appreciated for his value to the Rays these past two seasons. Even if he's not, I hope he realizes that there is no shame in being a league average player. I also hope he cherishes that home run he hit off Matt Thornton, or the long fly against Eduardo Mujica. Or maybe, that game in Oakland earlier this year where he threw a runner out at home then hit a bomb shortly thereafter. Hopefully he remembers all those times he chased down a ball in the gap, almost colliding with the intruding B.J. Upton, or that time he camped under a ball at the warning track that others would've caught in more spectacular fashion, or when he drew a walk against a rolling pitcher. That's the quintessential Gabe Gross: silently valuable
Thanks for the memories and lessons, Gabe, come visit some time soon.
Update: Per RotoWorld, Cormier gets $1.2M next year, and apparently Navarro is back for $2.1M. Yay?