Cliff Corcoran takes a look at whether or not the Red Sox made the right decision in re-upping their beloved DH
The Red Sox re-signed David Ortiz over the weekend because of course they did. He's David Ortiz. They're the Red Sox. That's how this works. If you look at the details of Ortiz's new two-year deal on Cot's Baseball Contracts, it says that he was re-signed on November 2. If you look at the Red Sox's transactions on MLB.com, Ortiz didn't officially become a free agent until November 3. Ortiz re-signed with the Red Sox so fast it warped the space-time continuum.
Re-signing Ortiz wasn't just a given for the Red Sox. General Manager Ben Cherington said at the press conference announcing Ortiz's contract on Monday that it was one of the team's two most pressing concerns along with hiring a new manager -- not first base, not the outfield corners, not shortstop, not the bullpen, or rotation depth, but re-signing a 37-year-old designated hitter who played just five games in the second half of the last season due to a strained Achilles tendon.
If David Ortiz had spent the last 10 seasons with the Cubs rather than the Red Sox, do you think signing him would have been one of the Red Sox' most pressing concerns this offseason? Let me answer that: it wouldn't have. David Ortiz will be a Red Sock next year because he was one last year and the year before and will go down in history as one of the franchise's signature players. His signing had far less to do with what he's likely to do in the two seasons covered by his new contract than with what he has done in the last 10.
That's not to say that Ortiz won't be a productive player for the Red Sox over the next two years. He was having a monster season before his Achilles acted up, hitting .318/.415/.611 and matching his career-best OPS+, and has, remarkably, improved his performance at the plate in each of the last three seasons, hitting .296/.391/.558 with an average of 28 home runs per season over that span despite the missed time in 2012. It's just that his value to a Red Sox team looking to recover from a 93-loss season is more emotional than practical.
Ortiz has proven over the last three years that he can still be a difference-maker on a contending team, but just how likely are the Red Sox to contend in 2013? Third-order wins take some of the sting out of those 93 loses by suggesting that the Sox actually played well enough to lose just 85, but Boston hasn't finished above third place in the last three years, just stripped its roster down to the bones, and those bones aren't all that sturdy. Dustin Pedroia led the Red Sox in Baseball-Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement last year with a 4.7 bWAR. That was the second-lowest team-leading total for a Red Sox player since 1961.
Cherington might deny it, but the Red Sox are rebuilding. It might be a short-term rebuild, a retooling -- heck, the Red Sox could be 2013's Baltimore Orioles (there's a head-spinner for you) -- but the through-line from the 2007 world champions has been broken. Barring that rapid turnaround, Ortiz's return isn't a central part of that, and for Cherington to present it as one of his two most pressing concerns is either further condemnation of his performance or an attempt to placate the fan base, not unlike a parent making a big show of packing a child's security blanket for a trip.
If you think I'm coming down heavy on the Red Sox here, one could make similar accusations about the Yankees and Mariano Rivera's seemingly inevitable return to the closer role at the age of 43 after a season lost to an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee. Coming off their third American League Championship Series appearance in the last four years, the Yankees have greater justification for short-sighted, win-now decisions, but they also have more to lose if it turns out that Rivera's body has finally given out on him. They'll have their security blanket back next year, but that's no guarantee of actual safety.
The Red Sox won't suffer nearly as much as the Yankees if their security blanket fails to perform. In addition to their slimmer chance of contention, the Sox have money to burn after dumping three of their biggest contracts on the Dodgers and reaching the end of their commitment to Daisuke Matsuzaka. Still, it's hard to see spending $31 million, which is what Ortiz will make over the next two years if he stays healthy, on Ortiz's age-37 and -38 seasons as the best investment for a team that needs to build a new foundation. For Cherington to try to sell re-signing Ortiz as a top concern without acknowledging the degree to which that decision hinged on providing a salve to the fanbase is either disingenuous or further indication that Cherington may not be the best man for his job.