David Ortiz has been suffering through an achilles injury since last July, and it still hasn't fully healed. Now, it looks like there's a chance he'll miss Opening Day. How do they replace him if the injury keeps him out an extended period of time?
Think back to where you were in life eleven years ago at this time, in 2002. Personally, I was in the home stretch of my fifth grade year, way too excited to start my middle school career in the coming fall. I was eleven years old, and watching the Red Sox was just a fun hobby that I didn't really care too much about. We were still just months removed from 9/11, and the War in Iraq was a brand-new thing. Hell, Myspace hadn't even been invented yet. Without a doubt, 2002 was a long, long time ago.
I bring this up because that was the last season the Red Sox couldn't just plug David Ortiz into the DH slot in the middle of the lineup and wait for elite production from him. That season, according to Baseball-Reference, the great Carlos Baerga was the team's number-one designated hitter. For about a ten-year stretch, Ortiz was guaranteed to play at least 100 games, and it was typically more than that. It was a luxury that many of us have probably taken for granted, but many other teams have not been this fortunate.
Unfortunately for Boston fans, it's looking like that time may be coming to a close soon. Last season, in mid-July, Ortiz hurt his achilles tendon rounding the bases on a home-run from Adrian Gonzalez. Initially, the reports were that he'd only miss a few games, but the injury ultimately kept him out for the rest of the season. (He did come back for one game in August, but then returned to the DL for the rest of the year.) Now, it seems the achilles is still a bit tender, and it's coming into question whether or not the face of the team will be ready for Opening Day.
It's a humbling experience for Red Sox fans who have been so used to Ortiz being in the heart of this lineup. However, the team obviously needs to move on if he is indeed forced to miss some time this year. The way I see it, an Ortiz-injury could go one of two ways. First, it could just be something minor, and the team will have to plug the hole with internal options. In the worse case, the injury could be a lot worse than we thought, and the front office would have to decide whether or not they need to bring in a new piece to fill Ortiz's shoes.
We'll start with the internal options, since at this point in time it seems to be the more likely path that Boston would take. Looking at the roster, the team has the right kind of depth to rotate guys in and out of the DH hole, a plan-of-action that would enable players to stay in the lineup while still being able to rest their bodies by not playing in the field.
The Red Sox have a plethora of players for just a couple positions, and while Ortiz being injured would be far from ideal, it also wouldn't be the end of the world. After the long saga leading up to his eventual signing, Mike Napoli's injury concerns are no secret. Though first base doesn't jump out as a position that lends itself to injuries, it's a fairly new position for him, and a bad hip could always use a night off. If he were to be the DH, the team could slide either Mike Carp or Daniel Nava to first. The former has some experience there, and the latter has been working to learn the position this spring.
Another guy who could have his spot filled by Carp or Nava would be Jonny Gomes. The newly-signed left fielder is much better suited to hit against lefties, so this option is really only applicable when a southpaw is on the mound. Gomes, as we are sure to find out once the season gets rolling, is somewhat of an adventure in the outfield. This would allow the team to rid themselves of his defensive shortcomings, while still being able to use his bat in the lineup. Neither Carp nor Nava are stellar in left themselves, but they're most likely a better defensive option than Gomes.
Also internally, this could give the team a chance to carry three catchers on their roster, not including Napoli. David Ross is the defensive wiz of the group, so he would probably be behind the plate the majority of the time he's in the lineup. However, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway, this team has two guys who may not be all-world defensive catchers, but they potentially have the bats to justify being in the lineup.
If the Ortiz injury is minor, then the current group of players can most likely be juggled around in a way where his absence wouldn't be too glaring. If it's more serious, though, the team may decide to look elsewhere. One option would be Justin Morneau, who has been injured the past few years, but in 2012 showed he can still swing the stick. He's due to make $14 million this coming season, so the cost may not be too high if Boston took on a lot of that contract.
While Morneau is probably the sexiest external option should Ortiz receive some bad news regarding his ankle, but there are other, more low-key players available. One is Carlos Lee, who remains a free agent. He struggled a bit last year, with a 90 OPS+, but it was only two years ago when he posted a 117 OPS+ in 155 games with Houston, when he had to play the field too. Elsewhere, Carlos Pena may be available for a trade. His power and patience are still intriguing, but it seems to me that the internal options are likely to be at least as good, if not better than Pena.
Obviously, the hope around town is that Ortiz will be fine and all of this will be moot. It's important to remember, however, that Ortiz is entering his age-37 season, and bodies of professional athletes break down much more easily at his age. In the case that he does go down early, Ben Cherington and company could probably be fine by standing pat and letting their internal options take care of the situation. John Farrell would have his hands full trying to juggle the lineup day in and day out, but he's the manager and that's kinda his job. If the injury turns out to be a bit more serious, the front office could take a long, hard look at guys like Morneau and Lee to fill the DH-role for the season. It's been spectacular having Ortiz in the lineup for the past eleven years, but at some point - possibly sooner rather than later - we'll be back in our pre-2003 position.