In Sunday’s Boston Globe, Bob Ryan wrote about some of the dynamics surrounding David Ortiz’s future as a member of the Boston Red Sox. Ryan accurately covers how Papi was once as productive as all but a few hitters in Red Sox history, then struggled a bit, only to regain much of his star form this season. He then concludes that once you balance Ortiz’s age and this latest surge suggesting Papi can still offer big-time production, two more years and $25 million, with a club option, should do the trick. There’s no way to know whether or not those figures sound acceptable to Ortiz or Boston’s brass, but at first glance they appear look like they ought to be reasonable for all parties. The only question is how much leverage will Ortiz choose to exert.
Ortiz’s luster has worn a bit around Fenway. Since 2008, he’s hit .266/.363/.511, respectable numbers by any measure but well off the .302/.402/.612 clip he managed in the 2003-2007 go-go days. What’s more, Ortiz slots in comfortably behind Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis as Red Sox position players go. Faced with the task of projecting future performance, is it even a given that Ortiz will outperform in the near term players like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carl Crawford or Josh Reddick?
Every now and then reports bubble up of Ortiz’s unhappiness with his current contract status. He’s human and considering the talent surrounding him on this Red Sox juggernaut, it’s understandable that he might feel underappreciated. Entering the season, it seemed he was just happy to have his club option picked up for 2011, since even that was at one time up in the air. You might even remember this gem courtesy of Peter Abraham from May of 2010:
If the Red Sox drift further out of contention, the temptation will be great to start preparations for 2011 and that would mean getting rid of players like David Ortiz in favor of seeing what younger players can do.
Let's be honest, the Red Sox will not be picking up their $12.5 million option on Ortiz for 2011 and there is little chance they would bring him back at even a cut-rate price.
But now, putting up his best numbers since 2007, he has every right to try to capitalize on his resurgence.
What is Boston’s pitch to Ortiz? Probably something that touches on the chance to close out his career with a winner, with the franchise he helped elevate, in the city whose baseball fans adore him, and how all of this should amount to enough for him to consider taking a hometown discount. It’s compelling, and something Ortiz would likely consider as he weighed offers. But why can’t the Yankees offer a similarly exhilarating career-capping experience for Ortiz? Maybe he wouldn’t finish his career in a Red Sox uniform, but I have to think for a big media personality like Ortiz that playing in New York wouldn’t be such a bad alternative. If reports are to be believed that Mariano Rivera was *thisclose* to signing with the Red Sox, then why wouldn’t Ortiz mull the same type of move to the Yankees?
Consider the PR leverage Ortiz has. The Red Sox can let him go, and maybe it’s the right move if Ortiz’s asking price is too high, but imagine Ortiz returning to Boston in a Yanks uniform? Imagine him delivering in a big spot for a Yankees team that currently employs an Eric Chavez / Andruw Jones platoon at the DH position. If New York’s DH incumbency alone doesn’t persuade that they would be involved on Ortiz, consider the paucity of suitors. Only AL teams will vie for Ortiz’s services, and only teams with the scratch to take on a player of his quality and marketability. The Bombers will be in on Ortiz.
In theory, the Designated Hitter position offers teams a chance to ignore altogether half of its player evaluation responsibilities. All one needs to be able to do in order to play DH is hit. Think of the luxury from the team’s vantage point. So much of determining how a player projects is tied up in his defense. If he can play shortstop and become an average Major League hitter, he might make $100 million in his career. If he can’t play shortstop or second, doesn’t have the arm for third and ends up having to play a corner outfield or first base, he might make just $15 or $20 million. When it comes to DH, this type of painstaking calculus goes out the window. Find a hitter in your organization and plug him in.
If only it were that simple. Whether it’s because players aren’t accustomed as they come up through the ranks to participating without playing a position, or that teams just stink at finding these guys, or there happens to be a shortage of very good one-dimensional players kicking around professional baseball, the DH position is proving to be more difficult to fill than one might think. Just two clubs – Boston and Texas – have a team OPS of greater than .802 out of the DH position. For context, the Red Sox as a team this season are at .810.
This phenomenon represents the other key leverage point Ortiz has over the Red Sox. For whatever reason, teams are having a tougher time finding a good Designated Hitter these days. Ortiz may only be the fifth or sixth or seventh best position player on the Red Sox, but he’s the best Designated Hitter in baseball, especially so with Jim Thome seemingly on his last legs. Jorge Posada (.237/.314/.387), Johnny Damon (.261/.315/.395), Magglio Ordonez (.223/.280/.295), Vladimir Guerrero (.276/.311/.392) and Adam Dunn (.161/.294/.296) have combined for 352 starts at DH this season. Mark Kotsay played 47 games at DH for the White Sox in 2010.
Because the Yankees loom and the DH slot seems somehow to have slid to the right on the "defensive" spectrum, Ortiz will be in the driver’s seat when it comes time to negotiate. It’s not like the Red Sox haven’t been in this position before, though. While they have demonstrated they have the stomach to make the tough choices (Nomar, Pedro and Manny all come to mind), they have also recognized when there were greater forces at play than on-field value. As one example, do you really think Theo felt good about granting Mike Lowell's extension after the 2007 season? And so it will likely go for Ortiz. The Red Sox brass may just have to swallow hard and hope Big Papi can be Big Papi for just a few more seasons.