There are certain subjects you just don't talk about. For a long time, the end of David Ortiz' career has been one of those subjects. Ortiz marks an "era" in Red Sox baseball as sure as Jim Rice or Ted Williams or any of the biggest names that have passed through Fenway Park.
No, David Ortiz is not Ted Williams, but he was here in 2004 when the Red Sox finally ended the drought, playing one of the biggest roles, and has stayed all the way through their most recent success in 2013. Three World Series wins, and in each one, there was no one you'd rather have at the plate with the game on the line. Unless Dustin Pedroia leads the team to a bunch of championships without him, David Ortiz is how we will remember the most successful era in Red Sox baseball since the 1910s (and even then, he'd be a close second).
We hope that these figures end their careers on their own terms. But it's pretty hard to have everything line up just right. The player has to be productive enough to avoid becoming a burden while still deciding on their own that it's time to call it quits. Far more often, the player ends up either being forced out, or being bad for long enough that fans come to bemoan their presence. That's just how baseball careers and players work. They do not get better with age--at least not the ages we're talking about. Derek Jeter's last two years saw him post a -0.5 rWAR for nearly $30 million.
This brings me back to David Ortiz. Nobody can deny that, taken as a whole, this season suggests the end is near. He's hitting just .228/.321/.423 as of this writing. That looks just fine for a shortstop or center fielder these days, but for a guy whose only job is to hit? Not so much. Depending on who you ask, Ortiz has been worth 0.1 fWAR or 0.3 rWAR. That's not worth the $16 million the Red Sox are paying him.
But that's a sunk cost and doesn't matter in the least. What does matter is the $10 million he's set to make in 2016 if he can rack up even just 100 more plate appearances over the course of the season.
Honestly, $10 million for Ortiz' bat isn't really the worst deal in the world. The Red Sox are hurting a bit on contracts after this year gone by, but it's still not a huge amount of money for them, and overpaying a bit to ensure that they at least have a positive bat at DH--especially if you limit his plate appearances against left-handed pitchers--is just not a big deal. No, a platoon DH is generally not a thing, but in a vacuum an exception could be made for a team legend.
The problem lies in how Ortiz' presence restricts the Red Sox. Let's not forget that Hanley Ramirez has played a lot of left field this year, and has done it very badly. Even if he seems to have improved from what had to be a historically terrible performance in April, Ramirez has still been a remarkable negative in the field. Over the last 30 days, he ranks as the fifth most detrimental fielder in all of baseball, ahead of only Chris Colabello, Gerardo Parra, Matt Kemp, and Nelson Cruz. Barring a dramatic change, the Hanley Ramirez experiment has failed in left field, and they need to get him out of there as soon as possible.
That problem could certainly be solved by sticking Ramirez at DH. His is the kind of bat that's actually worth installing at DH rather than using the position as a spot to rotate starters through for rest, much as Ortiz' was for so many years. And importantly, the Red Sox are committed to him over the next few years, whereas they are not committed to Ortiz unless they let his option vest. They can have Ramirez without committing $10 million to Ortiz. But they can't have Ortiz without the $22 million committed to Ramirez.
Photo credit: Peter G. Aiken
To keep that option from vesting, though, the Red Sox would have to basically cut ties with Ortiz, which is a massive bridge to burn and, unless Ortiz agrees (hard to imagine), has the potential to be one of the ugliest sagas in recent memory.
The good news is that there's plenty of ways to avoid this scenario! If the big argument for Ortiz not being worth $10 million hinges on Hanley not being viable in the field, they can just find another place to put Hanley. While the move to left has been a disaster, it's far easier to move from one infield spot to another than from the infield to the outfield, and it's entirely possible that he'd be fine at first, or even third if the Red Sox really don't think Pablo Sandoval's defense is going to rebound. Ideally the Red Sox would figure out whether Hanley can make that transition over the next few months rather than in 2016, lest they set themselves up for the same fall next year.
(Is this just another "get Hanley out of left field immediately" article in disguise? You be the judge!)
(Yes, it is.)
The other way is for Ortiz to just keep hitting the way he has in recent weeks. While Ortiz is only hitting .230/.322/.428 on the year, over his last ~100 plate appearances, that line is .256/.373/.547. Another 100 plate appearances like that will see Ortiz breeze past the all-important 425 number without ever giving the Red Sox a chance to think about stopping him short, and make it a lot easier to believe his bat will still be worth devoting the DH spot to in 2016.
And, if those far more desirable outcomes don't materialize, the Sox will have the option of having a quiet talk behind closed doors with David Ortiz about his plans for retirement, and seeing if something can't be worked out there before push comes to shove.
But if these next few weeks go poorly. If Ortiz looks done, but doesn't think he is...the Red Sox are going to have to strongly consider making the hard choice here. A big part of why, even with the Sox looking like a semi-competent baseball team right now, contention in 2015 seems out of reach. It's because they've let Justin Masterson and Mike Napoli start games in July. It's because Hanley Ramirez is still considered an outfielder (I told you it was). It's because they came into this season expecting to see some of their question marks come up as busts and have for some reason still been slow to react. They've dug the hole deep, and seem to be in no rush to stop some elements of the team from digging even as the rest scramble skywards. They have to be trying to sort out the potential problems of 2016 now rather than next April, lest they find themselves facing the same problems and digging that same hole.