David Ortiz hasn't played in a game since July 16 due to an Achilles injury. Achilles can be tricky, and Ortiz's hasn't responded to rest or treatment, as there's still pain when he runs. While he's making efforts to come back, the Red Sox are getting a glimpse of what life is like without a regular designated hitter in the lineup.
Ignore for a minute the production (or lack of it) from the DH slot over the last month. Anything is going to look paltry compared to what Ortiz has produced -- he's still leading the American League in slugging and OPS -- and it hasn't helped that Boston has been using catchers -- one of whom is a rookie that's adjusting to major-league pitching -- in the role fairly often. Focus instead, for the moment, on the idea: that there will come a time where David Ortiz isn't in the Red Sox lineup anymore.
It likely won't be next year. It might not even be the season after that. It's hard to say just when Ortiz will stop being effective and call it a career, or finally not be worth the kind of money the Red Sox are giving him to DH. But it's going to happen at some point, as it does for every player, regardless of how good they are, or for how long. Then, the Red Sox will likely be like most of the rest of the AL: without a dedicated designated hitter.
For many clubs, rich or poor, the DH slot is used to rest regulars at other positions on a rotating basis. On paper, the Yankees were supposed to platoon Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez there, two players that combined for just over $3 million, but injuries have mixed things up a bit. In addition to that planned platoon, though, the DH slot was also supposed to be a place for Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixiera, and the rest of the Yankees to get a day off from the field, while keeping their bats in the lineup. This is normal.
How many dedicated designated hitters can you name? David Ortiz, obviously. Billy Butler has been in that role since Eric Hosmer's arrival in Kansas City. Who else, though? There are just seven designated hitters among 14 AL teams that qualify for the batting title, and have played at least 50 percent of their games at DH in 2012: Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Butler, Delmon Young, Jesus Montero, Ortiz, and Kendrys Morales. Bump that to 75 percent, and it drops to four hitters -- Butler, Young, Ortiz, and Morales. Keep moving the percentage up, and eventually the numbers shrink further -- if not for interleague, Ortiz would likely never do anything but DH.
It's obviously a bonus if you can have a David Ortiz at DH. This in no way is meant to suggest that the Red Sox are somehow better off without a guy who owns a 150 OPS+ over the last three years -- hell, Albert Pujols, who was just signed roughly for life and for all the money, is at 156 over the same three-year stretch. But, as you can see, when one of the 14 (soon to be 15) AL teams is using Delmon Young as their primary DH, you don't always get a David Ortiz. There's a reason he's special, and his career is special. When Ortiz is gone from Boston, they're far more likely to be like the rest of the AL in this regard.
That's not a bad thing, though. Give it a moment, and you can think of times where it would have been helpful to have some kind of rotating DH spot. The decline of Kevin Youkilis comes to mind, especially as his defense suffered. Jacoby Ellsbury started at DH on Thursday in Baltimore in order to give his legs a night off from the outfield. It helps open up possible platoons, as it has in New York the last few years with aging, inexpensive veterans who owns splits to be exploited. Carl Crawford's elbow hampered him defensively, but not offensively -- he could have slotted in as DH for a time. Ryan Lavarnway and Jarrod Saltalamacchia can both hit, but they can't both start behind the plate on the same day.
There's always someone who could go there when they need a break, either for a day or a week, and it can help keep players rested and healthier -- that's something Boston could have used a whole lot of the last few years.
It's not ideal, in comparison to having Ortiz. But Ortiz isn't the norm, and while he's an amazing hitter, having him around is also very different in terms of roster construction and flexibility. There's no need to ever get rid of Ortiz in order to have this kind of structure -- or lack of it -- at DH, but when he does go, there's no reason to go out and directly replace him, either. Because, if we've learned anything from watching David Ortiz over the years, there aren't very many like him to begin with.