NASHVILLE -- Don't look now, but the Red Sox are making their way back. With the signings of David Ross, Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli, and while staying away from deals longer than three years, Boston has made an aggressive, smart start toward addressing two fixes: a more dynamic offense and a more responsible clubhouse.
Ross, Gomes and Napoli all fit the same profile: professional hitters who grind out at-bats and also have extroverted personalities that take well to accountability, a basic job requirement in East Coast baseball, especially Boston. Ross (4.26 pitches per plate appearance), Gomes (4.03) and Napoli (4.41) all rank well above the major league average of 3.82.
The 2012 Red Sox were still better than average at seeing pitches, but their rate (3.89) was the lowest for the team in four years and the closest to league average it has been than in any other season in the past decade. The table at right shows how Boston ranks in pitches per plate appearance and how it measured against league average:
Boston still has work to do. It needs another bat, for instance. The best fits would be Cody Ross (4.12 P/PA) and Nick Swisher (4.26), both of whom also have dynamic personalities. Players who don't take well to the fishbowl existence or resent the close quarters with the media at Fenway Park are red flags.
What about Josh Hamilton? His bat fits anywhere, though he doesn't exactly grind out at-bats (3.69). Hamilton does plenty of damage without seeing a lot of pitches, but the contract length is a bigger obstacle for Boston. The Red Sox are gun shy about mega-long deals after dumping what was left of three of them (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford) on the Dodgers just last season. Boston can dream about Hamilton under a four-year deal, but it's a dream that has almost little shot of coming true given Hamilton's value.
Timing is everything. A year ago at this time, nobody thought Angel Pagan was anything close to a $10 million a year player. The Mets traded him for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez.
Even just four months ago, deep into last season, nobody thought Pagan, 31, was anything close to a $10 million a year player. On Aug. 2, his slash line for the Giants was .272/.317/.389. He was almost exactly the same player through Aug. 2 as he had been throughout his career. For a frame of reference, here are Pagan's career numbers on Aug. 2 compared to those of Coco Crisp when Crisp, also 31 then, hit the free agent market last year. Pay special attention to the contracts they received:
What happened? Pagan suddenly got hot after Aug. 2: .313/.372/.524 in the final 56 games. The Giants went on to win the world championship with Pagan in centerfield and at the top of the lineup.
Pagan will go right back to being a .742 OPS player. He is not an .896 OPS baseball player. But he was for two months that led to the postseason and free agency. (He hit .188 in the postseason.) Getting hot for 56 games, not to mention the halo effect of playing for a world champion, was worth about $36 million.
Is he a good buy at four years and $40 million? Put it this way: he will be 34 in the last year of his contract. Over the past five seasons, only two centerfielders age 34 or older have played 140 games (Torii Hunter and Mike Cameron).
• The Blue Jays should package catcher J.P. Arencibia and outfielder Anthony Gose for R.A. Dickey of the Mets -- two reserves for a Cy Young Award winner -- but Toronto is not one of about seven teams pursuing the Mets' knuckeball pitcher, who might be a better option for some clubs against the price tags of free agents Zack Greinke, Kyle Lohse and Anibal Sanchez.
• Change is in the air, if not in the rule book just yet. The MLB Rules Committee meets tomorrow and commissioner Bud Selig's on-field committee meets next month. Selig has given them something of a mandate: find a structure for expanded instant replay in time for the 2013 season. Once thought to be a narrow expansion to fair/foul calls and trapped balls, the scope of replay that will be considered looks to be much wider. Rays manager Joe Maddon, who is not part of the committees, said he favors replay for "everything except balls and strikes."
• James Loney, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Rays, has no power but at 28, "he's in the sweet spot of his career," as Maddon calls the late 20s, and that could mean more power from the newest Tampa Bay first baseman. Anyway, he doesn't have to be great to be an upgrade for the Rays. Last season Tampa Bay first basemen (i.e., Carlos Peña) ranked 29th in RBIs and 30th in hits.
• Free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynksi hit 27 homers last season and has played 120 games in 11 straight seasons. Why wouldn't the Yankees just throw $11 million at him for one year, buying time for prospect Austin Romine, feeding their lust for lefthanded power and keeping true to the $189 million self-imposed cap for 2014?
• Brad Lidge, who is retiring, was a workhorse of a closer who averaged 78 games over a five-year period (2003-09). Of course, he always will have the 2008 season, when he went a perfect 48-for-48 (postseason included) on save chances and recorded and that iconic last out of a Phillies world championship.
More esoterically, he nearly retired with the greatest strikeout rate of any pitcher in history with 400 games. Indeed, Lidge held the record on April 17 with a rate of 11.94 strikeouts per nine innings. He pitched in only five more games. With three strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings, his career strikeout rate dropped to 11.918 -- just .002 behind Billy Wagner's record of 11.920.
• Nice to see David Wright step up again to play in the World Baseball Classic. But keep this in mind, Mets fans, now that Wright is wrapped up for the next eight seasons: At age 29, Wright is about the same player Scott Rolen was at the same age. But here is Rolen's average season for the next eight years: .273, 11 home runs, 57 RBIs, 105 games. That's not $138 million of value.