In spring training, the Red Sox envisioned an outfield patrolled by Carl Crawford in left, Jacoby Ellsbury in center and a platoon arrangement of right-handed hitting Cody Ross and left-handed hitting Ryan Sweeney in right.
Injuries squashed that scenario before opening day, as Crawford landed on the DL. Ellsbury joined him in April with a separated shoulder. During a year that has seen 26 Red Sox players occupy the DL, and several regulars on the roster underperform, Ross has been one of the few consistent bats in the lineup.
First-year general manager Ben Cherington has been criticized for his trades for relievers Andrew Bailey (which cost the team Josh Reddick) and Mark Melancon (whose ERA is north of 7), but he did complete free agents signings that generated little fanfare, like bringing in Ross on a one-year, $3 million deal.
The 31-year-old Ross, who can play all three outfield spots, has a .276 average with 18 home runs, 60 RBI, a .523 slugging percentage and a .864 OPS in 323 at-bats this season.
Including Ross, here are seven of the best free agent bargains in 2012:
A post-season hero in the 2010 National League Championship Series and World Series for San Francisco, Ross is known as a popular teammate and a positive clubhouse presence.
He won the Marlins Charlie Hough Good Guy Award when he was with that team in 2009 and was named Most Valuable Player of the 2010 NLCS with the Giants, so Ross can deliver on and off the field.
The Red Sox will likely do their best to bring him back, even on a two-year contract since the team is lacking in right-handed power. Ross will have to ask himself if the drama and dysfunction that has surrounded the team this year is worth whatever he is offered.
Wanting to upgrade left-handed power in their lineup, the Diamondbacks inked the 30-year-old Kubel to a two-year, $16 million deal that pays him $7.5 million in 2012 and 2013, plus a mutual $7.5 million 2014 option or a $1 million buyout.
In response, Kubel has slugged 25 home runs (third in the National League) with 77 RBI (fifth in the NL to accompany a .276 average, .541 slugging percentage and .887 OPS.
The outfielder spend seven seasons with the Twins, including a 2009 campaign that saw him hit 28 home runs, knock in 103 and bat .300.
Though they have one of the most anemic lineups in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays are somehow 65-54 and leading the American League wild card race.
Sure, one of the best starting rotations in the game has propelled them, but they need to scratch together enough runs to win. If not for the 32-year-old veteran of eight Major League seasons, the Rays would be out of contention.
Signed to a one-year, $1.525 million deal in the off-season, Keppinger has hit .320 with five home runs, 27 RBI and a .816 OPS while playing third base, second base, first base and DH.
Third baseman Evan Longoria missed a chunk of the season with a hamstring injury, making Keppinger’s contributions especially valuable.
A leading candidate for National League Comeback Player of the Year, the 34-year-old Ludwick is a key reason why the Reds have a comfortable lead atop the National League Central, even though slugging first baseman Joey Votto has been sidelined for an extended stretch.
After hitting .237 with 13 home runs and 75 RBI with San Diego and Pittsburgh last season, Ludwick has a .271 average, a .568 slugging percentage, 23 home runs, 23 doubles and 66 RBI for Cincinnati. He was signed to a one-year, $2 million deal this season with a mutual $5 million option and a $500,000 buyout for 2013.
A second round pick of the A’s in 1999, Ludwick never materialized into a perennial All-Star. In fact, his lone All-Star appearance was in 2008 when he belted 37 home runs with 113 RBI and a .299 average in St. Louis.
This season, though, he is one of Cincinnati MVPs.
It seems like every summer around the trade deadline, there is an annual tradition to bring up Willingham’s name as a player who could be on the move.
The interest in Willingham is understandable.
He has quietly become one of the most productive bats in baseball.
After ripping 29 home runs and 98 RBI in Oakland last year, the 33-year-old outfielder signed a three-year, $21 million contract with Minnesota, which needed a bat to help replace Kubel and Michael Cuddyer.
Though the Twins have struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, Willingham is third in the AL with 31 home runs and 89 RBI.
A first round pick by Toronto out of USA in 2003, Hill appeared to be settling into a long career with the Blue Jays.
He spent seven seasons in Toronto, highlighted by an All-Star Game appearance and a Silver Slugger Award in 2009 when he had 36 home runs, 108 RBI and a .286 average.
The second baseman saw a steep decline in his average the next season (.205), though he did belt 26 home runs.
Last year, he hit just .225 for the Blue Jays and then he was traded to Arizona for Kelly Johnson last August.
The 30-year-old Hill has experienced a rebirth with the Diamondbacks, recording a .315 average in 124 at-bats in 2011 and a .292 average with 14 home runs, 49 RBI and a .823 OPS this year.
Hill signed a two-year, $11 million contract with the team last off-season.
Sure, signing a free agent to a four-year, $36 million deal before he has recorded an at-bat in the majors is risky, and it might not seem like a bargain, but consider that the physically gifted, 26-year-old Cespedes has a high ceiling that he has not remotely reached.
For the surprising A’s, the Cuban phenom is batting .304 with 15 home runs, 57 RBI, 11 stolen bases and a .874 OPS in his first professional season.
He was 3-for-9 at Triple-A Sacramento earlier in the year, but center field with the A’s is his job description for the long term.