Seriously, ten years ago, would've thunk? - Jared Wickerham
Holy hell, it's been ten years since they signed him. I'm going to go feel old.
Ten years and about six weeks ago, the Red Sox, under the leadership of new GM Theo Epstein, announced that they had signed an additional bat to toss on the pile. Epstein had made offensive depth and on-base skills the focus of his offseason spending, acquiring Bill Mueller, Todd Walker, and Jeremy Giambi. He'd risked an international incident to extract Kevin Millar from his contract with a Japanese ballclub. And in late January, he offered a one-year, $1.25 million deal to recently-released Twins first baseman David Ortiz. Epstein was looking for depth, Ortiz another shot at a starting job. They wound up changing the face of the franchise.
In his time with Minnesota, Ortiz had displayed two main traits: flashes of power, and an inability to stay on the field. Power, remarkably, was not something the Twins of that era seemed to have much interest in, to the point where they tried to get Ortiz to cut down his swing and focus more on base-hit contact than home runs. As for health, the main issue was Ortiz's knees, which didn't get along with the turf at the Twins' vice-presidentially named home. The Twins released Ortiz, and a month later Boston grabbed him.
It's easy to forget at this stage of his career that Ortiz didn't dominate right away once he joined the Sox. And, in fact, for the first few months of the season, he shuffled between first base and DH, and didn't do much to distinguish himself, hitting only four home runs from April through June. June did see an uptick in his playing time, though, since at the beginning of the month the Sox traded away Shea Hillenbrand to acquire closer Byung-Hyun Kim from Arizona. This cleared some room at DH and rid the Sox of OBP-sinkhole (and, as it turns out, other form of hole) Hillenbrand. The question was simply when the power would truly show up.
The answer, as it turned out, was July. In an Independence Day weekend series against the Yankees, Ortiz was the star in the first two games, clubbing four home runs in two days as the Sox trounced the Yanks by a combined 20-5. (The Yanks would come away with a series split, because Andy Pettitte. Damn him.) Ortiz wound up hitting 27 home runs from July 1st on, and two more in the seven-game ALCS loss to New York. Boston had found their DH.
Ortiz followed up on his 2003 breakout with a brilliant 2004, culminating, of course, in his legend-making performance in the 2004 playoffs, in which he hit three walkoff hits. From 2004-2007, Ortiz was arguably the dominant hitter in the American league, slugging over .600 every year, hitting 177 home runs, and finishing in the top four of the MVP vote each year. His 54 home runs in 2006 broke a nearly 70-year-old franchise record. Following that '06 campaign, Boston finally signed Ortiz long-term, giving him a four-year deal worth $52 million.
The big DH saw his offensive production slip in 2008 and 2009, and fans began to worry that we were seeing the decline of the most potent bat on the roster. However, he rebounded a bit in 2010, and truly regained his stroke in 2011, as his strikeouts dropped dramatically (from 145 to 83) and his batting average and on-base jumped back up. Papi hit over .300 for the first time since 2007 as he started to make more solid contact. Generally this has been attributed to the influence of Adrian Gonzalez, who hopefully can leave at least that legacy here in town. Ortiz's late-career resurgence continued last year, the first since 2007 in which he slugged over .600 and had more walks than strikeouts.
Unfortunately, that 2012 season was cut short by a heel injury which left Ortiz on the bench for most of August and September (not that it would have saved the team). Ortiz signed a two-year extension with Boston this winter in the hopes that he would recover and continue his recent levels of production. The news on that recovery has not been good so far, and it now seems likely that Ortiz won't play on Opening Day. How soon he'll be available is a bit up in the air, but obviously the Red Sox were counting on a healthy Ortiz anchoring the lineup. His absence complicates things more than a bit.
It's also prompted the standard garment-rending "shouldn't've given him two years" complaints around town, which is always fun. Of particular note was Eric Wilbur's cri de coeur over at not-actually-the-Globe-but-on-their-website.com, eviscerating the Red Sox for giving $26 million to a guy who might be hurt because he's the face of the franchise. I'm having a bit of trouble getting riled up about it, frankly, and even moreso having just looked over the last decade of Papi's career with Boston. In his first four years with this team, Ortiz made $18 million combined, which is kind of a terrifying underpay. A late overpay for services rendered hardly seems worth getting bent out of shape over, especially given that it's not killing the Sox' payroll flexibility.
With any luck the current situation with Ortiz's heel is nothing to worry about long-term, simply the result of taking it easy in the offseason in an effort to not strain anything. Having the big fella's bat in the lineup as quickly as possible will make us all feel a lot better about Boston's chances this year. Partly, of course, because the alternatives at DH (Lyle Overbay? Mauro Gomez or Ryan Lavarnway, maybe?) are hardly appealing. Mostly, though, because 2004 turned Papi into a region-spanning security blanket.
It's remarkable to think how much things have changed in this last decade. Ten years ago, almost no one in Boston had heard of a slugging DH named David Ortiz. Now it's almost impossible to imagine the Red Sox without him. Here's hoping we won't have to worry about that anytime soon.