There is no bigger storyline for the Red Sox as we head into the season than what the team will look like sans David Ortiz. That is a bigger deal than whether or not Mookie Betts can build upon his MVP-caliber season. It’s a bigger deal than whether or not Chris Sale can actually succeed in his first season with Boston. It’s a bigger deal than whether or not David Price can bounce back. Ortiz’ absence will be felt throughout the organization, and it goes without saying that his contributions on the field are the most important factor here.
With that being said, there’s also the more abstract concept of the “face of the franchise.” As we look ahead at the Red Sox’ upcoming season and the near-term future of the organization, who will represent the team may not seem like the biggest deal. It does matter, though, even if it’s just symbolically. For what seems like forever, this has been Ortiz’ team. This was true when Manny Ramirez was the better hitter, and it was true even when the legendary DH hit his down period in 2009. Now, with the big man gone reporters will have to find a new player at whom questions that concern the entire roster can be directed, and to whom coaches and players alike will look when problems arise. There’s going to be a new player with whom the franchise is associated, and you can expect that to be a more fluid situation than we’ve gotten used to over the next five years.
In the immediate future, the face of the franchise will not be the same as the best player in the organization. For this symbolic role that involves taking control of the clubhouse and generally being an ambassador for the team, Dustin Pedroia is the perfect fit. The biggest reason is simply that he’s been here before and has a strong history with the team that involves more than just simply being here. He’s won awards (Rookie of the Year and MVP, of course) and two titles in 2007 and 2013.
Baseball is a different beast than the other major sports, mostly thank to its everyday grind. It doesn’t have the same kind of vocal, in-your-face leadership as football and basketball, among other sports. It leans more towards leading by example and keeping the clubhouse loose. Pedroia is a perfect fit for that kind of role. As far as leading by example, nobody sets a better example of how to play on a daily basis than Boston’s second baseman. It sounds cliche, but he goes 100 percent at all times. In fact, it’s to the point that it’s almost a detriment and that John Farrell will have to sit him every once in awhile because there’s no slowing him down. That’s the kind of player you want young, potential stars to see. Pedroia can also keep the clubhouse loose, as we’ve seen the veteran at his goofiest plenty of times.
There’s also the matter of handling the media, which can be a challenge for the leader of Boston’s clubhouse. Whoever takes this mostly-made-up role will take the bulk of very real questions, and often times they will be annoying and/or obnoxious inquiries. Pedroia has shown an ability to handle that kind of stuff. Take, for example, the time he was asked if he was underpaid after Robinson Cano signed his massive deal with Seattle. The truth is, he is underpaid relative to the market, but he instead responded by bluntly pointing out that he is “rich as f**k.” So, yeah, I don’t think he’ll have problems taking the lead on major clubhouse issues.
Pedroia is also on the downside of his career, and while being the best player is certainly not a requirement for being the team’s face, it always helps to be playing at your best. Luckily, the Red Sox have a superstar ready to take the mantle in a year or two in Mookie Betts. He doesn’t quite check all the boxes yet, but he’s getting there.
As far as talent and receiving adoration from the fan base, Betts is there and then some. We all saw what he can do in 2016, and there’s little reason to think that kind of performance isn’t sustainable. Betts is a legitimate star in this league, and he is the kind that is easy to get behind. He plays an aesthetically pleasing style that depends on athleticism, instincts, power and swag. If that’s not a player who should represent the team, I don’t know who is.
It’s not just his play that makes him a fit, either. Betts seems to have the personality to be the ambassador, even if he doesn’t have the media reputation down quite yet. That’s not to say he’s bad with the media, of course, but rather that he hasn’t made the same sort of impact as Pedroia. There’s time for that. In the meantime, Betts can connect with those outside the organization in other ways. Earlier this spring, he participated in a bowling tournament that included the likes of DJ Khaled, Chris Paul and Terrell Owens, among others. Betts and his big, gold chain were among the highlights of that event, and it’s the kind of exposure you don’t see all the time from baseball players.
The most important piece of the “Replacing Ortiz” puzzle for the Red Sox obviously comes on the field. Ortiz was a monster in the middle of the lineup, and they need to find a way to make up as much of that production as possible. Eventually, though, they’ll need to find another face of the franchise. Pedroia is a good interim fit, as he has the personality to lead the team and can deflect from the media when the times call for it. Long-term, as in within the next few years, though, Betts should be the guy. There’s every reason to believe he’ll be the best player on the team, and he has the swag and personality to be a presence off the field as well. Now, the Red Sox just need to lock him up so he can be their face for a long time to come.