Teams seek the glue that holds them together
Players with solid character, intangible qualities can be winning free-agent additions
As next week's Winter Meetings loom, observers of Major League Baseball are reminded yet again of an axiom that is sometimes mistrusted but keeps occasionally, and with the best of timing, proving why it's an axiom in the first place.
More often than not, some good old-fashioned glue can fix something broken.
Last offseason's Boston Red Sox signings of veteran players Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million), Jonny Gomes (two years, $10 million) and David Ross (two years, $6.2 million) were buried beneath the headlines generated by Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke and largely viewed as inconsequential, if not odd, maneuverings by a club that should have been doing a lot more after finishing in last place in the American League East.
Of course, there were other moves made by Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, such as the signing of the higher-profile Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster, but Victorino hit a grand slam that won the 2013 AL Championship Series, Gomes hit a huge World Series home run, Ross was a tough-minded, backbone backup catcher throughout, and the Red Sox won it all.
But aside from their traits on the field -- Victorino, when healthy, was an All-Star outfielder and offensive force at the top of a lineup and Gomes has always mashed left-handed pitching -- the players fit in as "glue" guys, with clubhouse credibility and the ability and willingness to have their voices heard and to forge chemistry onto a ballclub that had lost it.
Suddenly, those types of acquisitions don't look so bad, and guess who was among the first to make such a move this offseason?
Yes, the Red Sox.
Boston signed catcher A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal this week, and while it's a sensible baseball move because it makes up for the impending loss of free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the Marlins and holds down home plate until prospects arrive, it's also another transaction that will help in the chemistry department.
Anyone who's followed Pierzynski knows he's a good hitter and pitch-caller, a decent receiver and a big-time character. In today's game, he defines the guy you love to have on your team and hate to play against. And he welcomes that tag.
"I go out there to win and do everything I can to win," Pierzynski said last year after signing with the Rangers. "What has been said or written, I can't control. All I can do is go out there and play as hard as I can to win. I take pride in the fact that I give everything I have on the field and do everything I can to help my team win."
So there's one glue guy. How many more are available?
Raul Ibanez is one. The 41-year-old signed with Seattle for 2013 and it was more about lending his experience and leadership skills to a very young roster while hopefully providing some occasional left-handed pop off the bench. He ended up having to play more than the club expected because the team needed his bat more than was expected, and he delivered, leading the Mariners with 29 home runs.
A team with a lot of winning pieces in place looking to add a bench bat and clubhouse value, Boston-style, might find a perfect match in Ibanez.
"He's a caretaker for the game of baseball," former Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. "That's the best compliment I can give him. We had high expectations for him as a teammate and player and person, but he's probably surpassed that, if it's even possible."
Lance Berkman has struggled to stay healthy lately, but if he can scratch out 450 or 250 or even 100 injury-free at-bats, his career resume says he'll hit, and if he's in a clubhouse, the veteran of 15 Major League seasons will help.
The same goes for Nate McLouth, who fought his way out of baseball purgatory to emerge as a useful piece in Baltimore the past two seasons. Mark Ellis has played the game the right way in Oakland, Colorado and Los Angeles over 11 seasons and has been revered by teammates for it. He's available as well.
So are Juan Pierre, Jerry Hairston Jr., Placido Polanco, Eric Chavez, Michael Young, Kevin Youkilis, Andres Torres and Reed Johnson.
None are in their primes. Plenty are injury risks. Most are not going to start a lot of games for contending clubs. But all are primed to contribute as integral parts of 25-man rosters, whether or not their on-field numbers reflect it.
"To come in and see the energy and the commitment that they had, the buying into a team concept every single day ... the one thing that really stands out more than anything is just their overall will to win," Boston manager John Farrell said after winning the 2013 World Series with Victorino, Gomes and Ross helping in that very regard every cleat-mark of the way.
"That was no more evident than in this entire postseason."
Expect the Winter Meetings to feature a few more of these signings as the value of chemistry continues to grow.