NEW YORK — His numbers this season — 21 home runs, 66 RBIs entering the All-Star break — are impressive, and one can just imagine how they would look in the middle of the Phillies' oft-punchless lineup.
Some believe that were it not for Ruben Amaro Jr.'s short-sightedness, the Phillies would indeed be the team benefiting from those numbers.
However, the person responsible for that production, Oakland A's outfielder/first baseman Brandon Moss, maintains that's an unfair criticism.
Three summers ago, Moss was a 28-year-old minor league veteran enjoying a productive Triple-A season with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs. However, in late August when Amaro sought a left-handed hitter to replace the injured Ross Gload off the bench, he bypassed his own system and instead reached into Pittsburgh's, making a deal for Indianapolis outfielder John Bowker.
Bowker wound up going 0-for-13 in a Phillies uniform and left for Japan over the winter. Moss, who received a cursory September call-up in 2011 after hitting .275 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs in Allentown, signed with Oakland that winter and quickly evolved into a classic late-bloomer, emerging as one of the American League's top power hitters.
In his 13th professional season, the now 30-year-old is also in Minneapolis this week as a first-time All-Star.
Some say allowing Moss — as well as pitcher Jason Grilli, another veteran minor leaguer who became an All-Star closer with the Pirates after the Phillies didn't give him a chance that same summer of 2011 — to slip through Amaro's fingers ranks as one of the biggest blunders of his tenure as the Phillies general manager.
That, Moss argues, is a bit harsh.
"Fans might point a finger at the front office and say, 'How did you not see that? How did you not evaluate that?'" Moss said last month at Citi Field in New York. "But it's like, hey, here's a 28-year-old guy at Triple-A [and] he's doing pretty good, but so what? He's not tearing it up, [and] it's not the big leagues.
"You can't fall in love with a 28-year-old guy that you had for depth," he continued. "I was there for depth, and I knew that. I wasn't going to be a first baseman up there or a right fielder … they had [Raul] Ibanez, they had [Hunter] Pence, they had Dominic Brown coming up, they had [Ryan] Howard. And that's a time when they were trying to win a World Series. That's not a time to experiment with a guy and see what he can do. You're trying to win games, and you can't afford to do that. So I don't think it's very fair to put that on anyone."
Moss' metamorphosis from minor league journeyman (he has cleaned litter boxes in a veterinarian's office, worked in the kitchen at a Sonic, and handled the register at a mini-mart in the offseason over his career to make ends meet) to major league All-Star has been one of the feel-good stories in baseball over the past three years.
Prior to signing a minor league contract with Oakland in December 2011, Moss had played 250 big-league games with Boston, Pittsburgh and the Phillies, hitting .238 with 15 home runs and a .685 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). He averaged a home run every 49.9 plate appearances and earned a "Four-A Player" label as a Triple-A star who couldn't succeed in the majors.
Since June 6, 2012, when he was promoted from Triple-A Sacramento, Moss is hitting .269 with 72 home runs (sixth in the majors) and 205 RBIs in 317 games. His OPS has jumped to .893, including .a .547 slugging percentage, and he's averaging a home run every 16.2 plate appearances.
Since last year's All-Star game, Moss, who avoided arbitration last winter by agreeing to a $4.1-million one-year contract, only Edwin Encarnacion has hit more home runs (37) among major leaguers than Moss (35), and only Miguel Cabrera (117) and Mike Trout (111) have more than Moss' 109 RBIs. He's hitting .278 over those 147 games with a .914 OPS (.568 slugging, .358 on-base).
"This has been a great landing spot for him," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "Maybe it is rare when you see a guy his age finally getting an opportunity like this, but he's absolutely created the opportunity for himself here based on his production."
Moss, Boston's eighth-round pick in 2002, traces his resurrection to the 2010 season at Indianapolis. In 2009 he got 385 at-bats with the Pirates but hit only .236 with seven home runs in 133 games. Back at Triple-A the next season, Moss worked with Indians hitting coach Jeff Branson, who had found some video of Moss in his early years in the Boston organization. Using that as a base, Moss reinvented himself, opening his stance to drive the ball better and accepting his natural impulse as a pull hitter — as well as the strikeouts that would come with that.
"I learned what it was that I did well," Moss said. "I stopped worrying about hitting for batting average. I started trying to work a count, to get into a count where I could drive the ball or get walks. I knew I would get my hits, but at the same time I stopped trying to force things and allowed myself to be what I am — a pull hitter that hits the ball in the air."
Moss hit a career-high 22 homers and led the International League with 96 RBIs that summer, hitting a respectable .266, and followed with a similar season in 2011 with the IronPigs.
"It was like, 'Now I know what I am," Moss said. "I honestly felt like if I got another opportunity in the big leagues, I would succeed. But you know, at that age it was like, 'I'm not going to get another opportunity.' "
The A's gave him that opportunity, basically at the 11th hour. In the winter of 2011-12, Moss' choice came down to returning to the Phillies, who had already shown that he didn't figure into their plans, or sign with the A's. Moss knew what the A's, run by general manager Billy Beane and his "Moneyball" philosophy, valued what he did well — work counts and provide power — but his decision ultimately came down to that Moss felt northern California — or, more precisely, Oakland's Triple-A Sacramento affiliate — was the gateway to Japan.
"I honestly thought if I got another opportunity in the major leagues, it would be as a fifth outfielder and a pinch-hitter," he said. "That would've been fine, but at the same time, it would be hard to make a career out of something like that, and let's be honest — baseball's a fun sport, but it's a job. So I was trying to get to Japan."
Accepting that he was going to Triple-A in 2012, Moss choose the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League over the IL, looking to "inflate his numbers.
"That's all [Japanese teams] look at," he said. "They don't necessarily pay attention to the difference between the IL and the PCL; they may not even know there is a huge difference. But I know that, we all know that. And so I took my opportunity [with the A's] with the sole intention of going overseas."
Moss, who had a June 15 out-clause in his contract, caught the attention of Japanese scouts by hitting .286 with 15 homers in 51 games for Sacramento. They asked teammates and other observers whether Moss would be interested; Moss sent word back that he was.
Just nine days before his out-date, however, Moss got called up to the A's, who were looking to add some punch at first base. His first hit in an Oakland uniform was a home run, but after his first four starts he was just 2-for-12, and he thought his chance had slipped away.
However, when he arrived at Coors Field for a game with Denver on June 12, Moss was still in the lineup. He hit two home runs that night and one in each of his next three games. He's been a fixture in the middle of Melvin's lineup ever since.
"When I saw my name in the lineup in Denver, that's when it honestly dawned on me that I was going to get an opportunity to play," Moss said. "Usually if you're called up like that, you'll get a few games and if you don't do well, you'll get in every now and then. But they were actually giving me a chance to see what I can do, and once I saw I was going to get an opportunity to play every day no matter what, it relaxed me a lot. Because you don't live and die by every single at-bat, or worry about going 0-for-3 with two punch-outs."
"He knew he was going to have an opportunity, which was obviously very important to him, and he's put up strong numbers," Melvin said.
Speaking last month in New York, Moss — who has helped the A's win back-to-back AL Western Division titles and compile the major's best record heading into the all-star break — brushed off the thought that he might be an All-Star. He called it a "life-long dream" but added there were too many "great players" in his own locker room as well as in the American League for him to make it.
Yet 12 days later, Moss was at an Oakland doctor's office getting an MRI on a sprained ankle when Melvin called to tell him he was one of six A's going to Minneapolis. Moss' jaw dropped, and his wife, Allison, immediately thought it was bad news.
"[Melvin's] telling me, and I'm speechless," Moss, who won the Bill Rigney "Good Guy Award" for his dealings with the local media last year, told the Sacramento Bee.
Moss is hitting .268 and is tied for fifth in the AL in homers and is sixth in RBIs. He is eighth in slugging (..530), 11th in OPS (.878) and among the top 25 in on-base percentage (.350).
"You know, with all the guys that got in, in my opinion, he's probably the most deserving candidate of all," teammate and fellow all-star Derek Norris told the Bee. "I think if you strictly look at what he's done this year — he's definitely overlooked by some of the names in baseball, but as far as our team, I think Moss is the most deserving candidate of all, just as far as production."
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