Monday, August 22, 2011

Cody Ross, Padres, Giants

A year ago today, with the Padres first in the National League West and five games ahead of the Giants, a small news item trucked across the sports tickers and into the tiny print of newspapers.

Perhaps you recall it:

Marlins OF Cody Ross awarded to Giants through waiver claim.

As inconsequential as the move may have appeared, it generated a lot of buzz among people within major league baseball.

What were the Giants thinking, these folks asked, when they entered a claim on Ross?

The curiosity had less to do with Ross than the circumstances surrounding the Giants and Padres. Ross was a bona fide big leaguer even if he wasn't a star. Several clubs liked the 30-year-old, who was batting .265 and on-basing .316 to go with his 11 home runs and 58 RBI for the Marlins in 452 plate appearances. A good defender in both left field and right field, Ross was a fair center fielder as well. His cold spells as a hitter could be frightful, but he could slam a good fastball if it was below his belt and not outside. Such a fast bat can take on extra value for teams embroiled in a playoff race. By August many hitters are exhausted. And if one believed the old scouts, it was getting harder to find a good fastball hitter in the wake of baseball's crackdown on the use of steroids and amphetamines. Ross also was known as a sturdy teammate and a sound player fundamentally.

The raft of outfielders on the Giants' roster made the move seem odd at first glance. Five other outfielders were on the active roster and four of them, like Ross, were right-handed hitters: Pat Burrell, a left fielder enjoying a stunning renaissance after the Giants signed him off the scrap heap in May; Aaron Rowand, a center fielder/left fielder having a bad year; Jose Guillen, a slow-footed corner outfielder obtained in a trade with the Royals nine days earlier; and Andres Torres, a center fielder and switch-hitter.

Six outfielders is one too many, but the situation wasn't unworkable. The active roster could expand in nine days. And the team's manager, Bruce Bochy, knew how to keep his reserves involved and play to their strengths. Bochy excelled also at smoothing over the frustrations of veteran players when their playing time dipped, such as when he juggled newcomer Greg Vaughn and starting left fielder Rickey Henderson for San Diego during the 1996 playoff race.

If one looked hard enough, as West Coast Bias did last August, the logic for claiming Ross was there despite the seeming glut of outfielders and the $1 million in salary he was owed.

None of that, however, was the driving force behind the Giants' decision to enter a claim on Ross ,who was put on waivers three days earlier.

The Giants wanted to block Ross from going to the Padres. Absent the jousting between the two teams, the claim likely wouldn't have happened. San Francisco's thrilling ride to come that captivated one of baseball's larger fan bases? Probably wouldn't have happened, either.

The Padres had lost their best outfield defender, center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr., to a broken hand on Aug. 18. The scouting consensus was that the Padres didn't have another outfielder as good defensively as Ross, although Chris Denorfia was faster than Ross.

The Padres, in fact, had discussed whether to put in a claim on Ross but decided against it.

"Right after Tony went down," general manager Jed Hoyer told this blog last month, "we would have loved to have acquired a center fielder. But we were looking for someone who was more of a left-handed bat and more a defender. Cody is a really good player. We didn't look at it as a fit at that point, given some of the things we wanted to do."

The Marlins could've chosen to keep Ross, even after the Giants won the claim. But the Marlins, wanting to free up playing time for prospect Cameron Maybin, had dangled Ross in trades talks to several teams, including the Padres, before putting Ross him on waivers.

"Frankly, we knew (the Marlins) were going to let Cody go," Hoyer said. "They were going to try to get rid of his salary."

As it turned out, the Padres wouldn't have landed Ross even if they entered a claim.

The Giants had first claim rights to him because the Padres had the better win-loss record at the time.

For his part, Ross expected to spend the rest of the season in Marlins teal, even after learning that a mystery team in the National League had entered a claim on him.

"Never did I feel that somebody was going to claim me and I actually was going to be let go," Ross said last month from the visiting clubhouse at Petco Park. "When I heard the rumor that a team claimed me, I didn't know who it was. Nor did it cross my mind that I actually was going to be gone."

Looking to boost their offense, the Padres had considered trading for Ross before Gwynn was hurt, and the price likely wouldn't have been great given that the Marlins, who were on the fringe of wild-card contention, would send him to the Giants for only the $1 million.

But to go with lefties Gwynn and Will Venable, the Padres had three outfielders who hit right-handed -- Denorfia, who played three outfield spots; Ryan Ludwick, a corner outfielder acquired in the three-team trade on July 31; and Scott Hairston, whose "Petco power" inflated his value to San Diego. A fourth righty, Aaron Cunningham could play all three outfield spots and was on the 40-man roster.

"We would have wanted a left-handed hitter at that point," Hoyer said. "Cody Ross was a really good hitter against left-handed pitching, not as strong against right-handed pitching."

Whatever concerns the Giants may have had about the $1 million, they weren't enough to stop them from entering the claim.

Hoyer had absorbed close to $2 million for Ludwick and although he still had spending money, he had decided it would go to a starting pitcher if he could get one. (The Padres would try to acquire Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda through waivers, to no avail).

Hoyer was in the habit of being right by then. Since becoming GM in November 2009, he had made several sharp moves. On the day that Ross joined the Giants, the Padres led not only their division but the league with a 73-49 record, and Hoyer's low-budget acquisitions such as Yorvit Torrealba, Jon Garland and Jerry Hairston Jr. were part of the success.

Hoyer's trade for Ludwick on the same day as the non-waiver deadline had drawn praise from Padres fans and both the local and national media, not to mention a mostly positive take from WCB.

What remained to be seen was how Ludwick would respond to Petco National Park, NL West pitching and not having Albert Pujols behind him in the lineup. Unfortunately for the Padres and Ludwick, it didn't work out. Ludwick would say he allowed Petco to foul his swing. Call it the NL Central Syndrome. In the Petco era, three other players from the hitter friendly Central bombed after coming to the Padres in a trade -- Jim Edmonds, Joe Randa and Michael Barrett.

Ross had played in the NL West as a Dodger and for two other clubs whose ballparks favored pitchers, the Marlins and Tigers.

It would be unfair to say now the Padres should've gone for Ross instead of Ludwick. If, however, the Padres decided not to trade for Ross because they deemed him an insignificant upgrade over Scott Hairston -- and the sense here is that was what their power brokers believed -- they may want to revisit their thinking in anticipation of being in a similar spot some other summer.

Ross's ability to play three outfield spots was no small asset in the NL West, where the outfields run large, or in a pennant race, when the September roster expansion leads to more double switching.

Hairston was a liability in right field, Padres manager Bud Black refusing to play him there for that reason. (During San Diego's recent home stand, Mets manager Terry Colllins chanced one start on Hairston in right and soon regretted it.)

The rare Padre with Petco power, Hairston hit several crucial home runs for other Padres teams and was part of the 2010 team's impressive chemistry. A trade or a demotion wouldn't have been popular with Padres players, among them Hairston's brother.

Like Ross, Hairston was streaky as a hitter, but unlike Ross, he lacked a reliable "load" to his swing, making it harder for him to time pitches with consistency.

Unfortunately for Hairston, the 2010 pennant race coincided with one of the worst cold spells of his career, from which he never thawed out. He went 1-for-27 in August and 3-for-48 over the final two months of the '10 season with no home runs and three RBI.

Ross, meanwhile, began with the Giants as an afterthought. His playing time went up only after Guillen lost his starting role.

But Ross provided vital help to the Giants down the stretch. He appeared in 33 games over the final seven weeks and batted .288 with three home runs and four doubles for a team desperate for offense. His defensive prowess played out as well.

Sounding envious of the Giants in September, Garland, a starter for the World Series champion White Sox in 2005, noted that the Giants kept "stacking and stacking" their team with new players. Yet when the Giants won the NL West title by beating the Padres in the 162nd game, Hoyer wasn't lamenting a non-trade for Ross, or that the Giants had claimed and rented him to good effect.

"It was a weird one," Hoyer said. "To be candid, it wasn't one that we sort of looked back and regretted -- it really wasn't until the playoffs that Cody went off."

The Phillies wished that the Marlins had held on to Ross, for against them in the National League Championship Series he hit three home runs, all off low, inside fastballs warned against by the scouting reports. The barrage, which included three doubles, helped the upstart Giants to deny Philadelphia a third consecutive league pennant. San Francisco went on to win its first World Series, Ross on-basing .381 in his five games and hitting a home run and a double.

As stunning as Ross's postseason was, it was Burrell, another transfer from South Florida, who caused the Padres to wonder whether Giants GM Brian Sabean had magical powers last year.

The Padres did extra research on Burrell once the Rays released him, consulting, among others, Black's good friend Joe Maddon, the Rays manager, about the slugger, who used to be a client of Padres CEO Jeff Moorad. The Padres determined that Burrell's bat had slowed beyond the point of reasonable hope.

Whatever the reason for his revival in the National League -- perhaps it was his joy over no longer being a DH, or San Francisco's cool air, or a penchant for reading pitchers -- Burrell gave much-needed thump to the Giants and even appeared to intimidate Phillies tri-ace Cole Hamels in the critical third game of the NLCS.

Today, Ross could retire and know that he'll be a hero in San Francisco for the rest of his life. The MVP award he won in the 2010 NLCS should ensure he'll never have to buy another beverage in the Bay Area.

The Giants, who will open a series against the Padres on Tuesday in San Francisco, brought Ross back for this season on a one-year deal for $6.3 million.

"I'm really happy for him," Hoyer said. "Everyone says he is a good guy. He had a good career, and he went off in the postseason, and now he's continued it this year."

If the Padres decided he wasn't a fit for them, Ross understands.

"Good for me," he said, smiling. "I came over here and won a championship."

No comments:

Post a Comment