Victorino proving to be free-agent bargain

When the Boston Red Sox signed veteran outfielder Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39 million contract over the winter, the deal was mostly panned as an overpay for a 32-year-old coming off a mediocre season and potentially in steep decline from his 2011 peak. He had showed a large platoon split in 2012, doing most of his damage against left-handed pitchers, and with Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, Victorino's bat wouldn't play as well in right.

It's possible that deal will still prove to be a bit of an overpay, but here and now in 2013 the Red Sox are getting a bargain, if you can classify somebody making $13 million as a bargain.

While the Red Sox knew Victorino's offensive production was a risk, they knew a couple things as well: As a solid center fielder moving to right, his range would prove to be a positive (and he would be a viable alternative in center in case the injury-prone Ellsbury couldn't stay healthy); they were also getting a high-energy player, a needed addition after the disastrous atmosphere that sullied the 2012 season.

Those two things have proved to be true; while the Red Sox haven't needed Victorino in center, he has played a Gold Glove-caliber right field, and Baseball Info Solutions credits him with plus-20 defensive runs saved, the sixth-highest total at any position. He has been a positive clubhouse guy as expected. The surprise has been the offense and on Tuesday he had the biggest game of his career at the plate, going 3-for-3 with a walk, hit by pitch, two home runs, a double, four runs and seven RBIs as the Sox pounded the Orioles 13-2. That's filling up a box score in a pretty way.

Victorino is now hitting .292/.346/.446, with .313, six homers and 19 RBIs coming in August alone, a nice step up from the .255/.321/.383 line he put up with the Phillies and Dodgers a year ago. Throw in his usual high-percentage base stealing (17 of 20) and the overall package has been worth about 4.8 rWAR -- that's third among American League outfielders, behind Mike Trout and Ellsbury. He's also third in FanGraphs WAR among AL outfielders, so it's not just one formula giving him tons of extra value to his defense. While it does say something about the state of outfielders in the AL right now, it also speaks to Victorino's excellent all-around season.

Considering each win of value on the free-agent market was going for about $5.5 million last winter, Victorino has provided about $25 million of value this season as a five-win player. Unless he completely collapses the next two seasons, the contract should prove to be a responsible payout by the Red Sox. They learned their lessons from the big deals they gave to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez: Maybe smaller, shorter-term contracts are the wave of the future.

Why was everyone so down on Victorino? After all, in 2011 he'd hit .279/.355/.491 with the Phillies, a season valued at 5.4 WAR. For starters, that was a career year, a season bolstered by 16 triples and a career-best walk rate. But in 2012 he hit just .230 with a .295 OBP against right-handed pitching; the added fear was that removed from his comfort zone of Citizens Bank Park, a nice place to hit, his offensive stock would continue to plummet.

Those were legitimate concerns. While he's always been better from the right side, he's had years where he hit well from the left side (2009 and 2011); he's just been inconsistent. Maybe the Red Sox saw something, maybe they just figured they would get good defense and live with the offense. But he has hit .279/.333/.409 against righties, respectable enough. (He even had to hit right-handed against right-handed pitching for a spell earlier this month because of a sore hamstring and hit .293/.396/.488 in 48 plate appearances, making you wonder if he should have just hit right-handed his whole career.)

Combined with Fernando Rodney's blown save in Tampa Bay's 6-5 loss to the Angels, the Red Sox now lead the Rays in the AL East by 2.5 games. They've outscored their opponents 46-11 in their past seven games, and according to a tweet from the Red Sox, it's the first time they've allowed as few as 11 runs over seven games since 2004.

That's what pitching -- and defense -- will do. The Red Sox look like they're hot again and Victorino has been a big reason why.