Even if the Red Sox give David Ortiz a contract similar to the "rolling contract" Tim Wakefield received in 2006, the sad truth is that David Ortiz will not be the Red Sox DH into perpetuity. While no one really knows how much longer Ortiz wants to keep playing, or even can keep playing other than Big Papi himself, it's not unreasonable to think that, come 2017 or thereabouts, the Red Sox will be looking to fill a major hole in their offensive lineup. Amazingly, it will have been a gap filled for well over a decade by one player; and while he has had his ups and downs, and his fair share of injuries, being able to pencil in David Ortiz has been an amazing luxury for the Red Sox dating all the way back to 2003.
The question becomes, though, what exactly will happen when David Ortiz puts away his bat for the last time? Do the Red Sox try to find the next big DH, or will Big Papi be the last of the career designated hitters?
Perhaps because of Ortiz's longevity, I (and perhaps many other Red Sox fans) might have the misconception that designated hitter is a fairly stable position: the guy who filled in for the pitcher, a slugger who maybe had relatively limited defensive skills and was best served by not having to use his glove.
In 2002—Ortiz's last year in Minnesota before joining the Red Sox as a free agent—there were fourteen players who spent significant time at DH while still logging at least 400 PA's. However, we can already see signs of the DH system falling apart: of those fourteen, two each played for Cleveland, Anaheim, and Texas, while three each played for Seattle and the Yankees. That left just the White Sox and the Twins as teams with one DH taking the majority of the load. Notably absent from this list: Boston. where the DH position was split among the likes of Carlos Baerga, Brian Daubach, Cliff Floyd, Jose Offerman, and most notably, Manny Ramirez. So one might argue that even before the Red Sox signed Ortiz, the full-time designated hitter was already on the endangered species list.
By 2013, the picture had clouded substantially. First, there were far fewer designated hitters in the entire American League with 400 or more PA's— just six in all (Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Billy Butler, Kendrys Morales, Albert Pujols, and Adam Dunn). Of that group, Pujols remains for now a first baseman who had to spend most of 2013 as a DH because of injuries, and Dunn probably still maintains delusions of grandeur that he can actually field. (His base running and defense was so bad that he had a negative wins above replacement rating for 2013 in spite of hitting 34 home runs.)
The other four players actually did function more or less as full-time DHs, but Butler, Morales, and Martinez have each spent only two seasons at the position (Martinez lost all of the 2012 season to a torn ACL). We will probably see some turnover in 2014, but Billy Butler's case will bear some watching. Perhaps he, not Ortiz, will be the last full-time DH; but that will also be a function of what happens next season, as Butler is scheduled to hit free agency after the season.
For the rest of the American League in 2013, the designated hitter position was used for various other purposes. Some teams treated as a sort of revolving door to help convalescent players who weren't quite ready to return to fielding (I'm looking at you, New York Yankees). Other teams treated it as a way to rotate players out of the field for a day or two at a time when they needed a bit of a break. The Oakland Athletics were the masters of this, as no fewer than fifteen players in their lineup were slotted in at designated hitter at some point during the season.
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Now, it should be pointed out that officially the Red Sox "used" twelve different players at DH this season. However, there is a major difference in usage patterns. More than half of Boston's "DH" platoon were used as either pinch runners or late-game substitutions; other than Ortiz, only the four-headed monster of Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, and Daniel Nava started games. The combined total of the latter quartet amounted to a whopping twenty-nine games, most of that coming in April when Ortiz was still rehabbing his injuries.
Contrast that with Oakland. Seth Smith started the most games of any Athletic at the position with 55—just barely more than a third of the season. Jed Lowrie, Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, John Jaso, and Nate Freiman each logged a dozen or more appearances as the DH last season, and just about every major offensive contributor made a handful of starts at the position. No single player carried the load at DH; even Smith was spending as many games out in left field as he was at DH.
Of course, unlike Boston's 2002 DH platoon, much of Oakland's decision not to keep a full-time DH is economic: Oakland's 2013 payroll was approximately $100,000,000 below the luxury tax threshold for 2013. David Ortiz's $14 million salary amounts to a fifth of Oakland's total expenditures; in their mind, that kind of budget hit is too much to absorb. It is a luxury the Red Sox can afford, on account of being able to sustain a much larger budget, but also now by virtue of being able to patch most holes in their roster with internal talent instead of being forced to turn to the free-agent market. Two years ago, with the underperforming contracts of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl "Woe is Me" Crawford on the books for the foreseeable future, the idea of giving Ortiz another contract extension seemed like an impossible proposition: the money just wouldn't have been there, especially with the paucity of talent in the upper minors.
Of course, the question remains: what do the Sox do after Ortiz? Part of the answer may depend on the personnel involved. One fairly obvious option, if he's still with the team, would be to take Daniel Nava out of the field and make him a full-time DH, maximizing the productivity of his bat and allowing him to hone his best skill full-time, much like Ortiz does now. Given the relative affordability, this would probably be the path of least resistance. And, given that of the "qualified" DH's from last year, only Ortiz had an OPS over .800, Nava's production in the mid .700's to low .800's would be an affordable reduction in output from the DH, relative to the cost.
The trickier route would be to try to import a DH; however, these routes will almost certainly lead to ridiculous contracts along the lines of a Gonzalez or Crawford. A long-term deal at high average annual value is usually required to land big bats, and with older players frequently falling off of a cliff quite rapidly in terms of performance, this may lead to the Sox spending more money for less production. Moreover, this kind of team-building approach has its Achilles heel, as we currently see with the Yankees, who would like nothing more than to be allowed to have four or five DHs per game so that they can get some competent defenders on the field instead of watching the 40-year-old Derek Jeter trying to play shortstop.
Perhaps the trickiest route, though, would be for the Sox to choose the Oakland option and forgo the full-time DH entirely. The challenge, of course, would be to figure out how to fill the DH position; the best alternative would be to have players of the Jed Lowrie, (early-career) Gabe Kapler, or (ugh) Ben Zobrist mode, who were capable of playing multiple infield or outfield positions while still swinging a solid (if not game-changing) bat. This would allow the Sox greater flexibility in roster construction, as they can have four players covering the remaining positions, instead of having to rely on just three bench players.
In any event, though, it would seem that the idea of the "full time" DH is slowly dying out, and a new regime—influenced by luxury tax and competitiveness concerns, as much as the lack of strong candidates for the DH position—will soon have to take its place. Whether or not the Red Sox will continue to buck this trend will be an important question, although for now, it's one they can afford to postpone.