BOSTON (CBS) — A week ago, a new contract between the Boston Red Sox and David Ortiz appeared to be inevitable. Several reports said the two sides had agreed on a two-year pact, with just a little bit of work to be done to hammer out the exact dollar amount.
Apparently though, what was once reported to be a mere formality could be far from happening, and with the deadline rapidly approaching for the Sox to keep Ortiz away from free agency, it becomes more and more likely that Ortiz will be available to the highest bidder. Reports differ as to the various levels of optimism the Red Sox have regarding a new deal with Ortiz, but with each passing minute, it becomes more realistic that the soon-to-be-37-year-old will hit the open market as the biggest name at DH available.
But is that really bad news for the Red Sox?
There should be no argument that the Red Sox need Ortiz in the lineup. Already with major roster holes in the outfield, at first base and shortstop, the Red Sox do desperately need power from their DH. Assuming Ortiz recovers fully from the Achilles injury that essentially cut his season in half last year, he’s the perfect man to provide it. He was on pace to top 40 homers and 100 RBIs last year, showing no signs of slowing down at 36 years old. He batted .318, which is better than all but one full season of his career and is 33 points higher than his career average of .285, and his 1.026 OPS was his best since 2007. Had he remained healthy and continued on such a pace, he would have perhaps become a valuable commodity on the open market, even if the Red Sox remained his ideal place.
Still, if Ortiz is to become available as a free agent, he has several factors working against him in terms of earning a two-year deal in the $25 million range that was reported last week.
For one, he’s only a designated hitter. That cuts 15 teams out of the running immediately. In the AL, the Yankees, baseball’s highest-spending team, do not have any need or space for him on their roster. The Angels likely hit their spending limit last season with the additions of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Tigers won’t have room for him if Victor Martinez returns at full strength after missing the 2012 season. The Rangers could be a possibility, as could the Astros, who will need a DH as they enter the American League next year, but there’s still no team that needs Ortiz quite like the Red Sox do. And would the rebuilding of the 107-loss Astros really begin by throwing $30 million at a designated hitter? Unlikely.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, actually need him so badly that they were willing to overpay and give an extra year. A designated hitter just isn’t valued in baseball, and for the best example of that reality, Ortiz can look to countryman Vladimir Guerrero.
Guerrero is a future Hall of Famer who carved out a tremendous career as an outfielder from 1997-2008. In 2009, at 34 years old and in the final year of his contract, he began transitioning into more of a DH, a move that likely cost him millions. He played just 100 games that season, and he hit .295 with a .794 OPS, just 15 home runs and 50 RBIs. It was no doubt a major down season for Guerrero, and he was only able to get a one-year, $5.5 million contract from the Rangers as a free agent.
He proved himself that year, though, as he hit .300 with an .841 OPS, 29 home runs and 115 RBIs. It was his highest home run total since 2006 and his highest RBI total since ’07. He hit the open market that winter at 36 years old, coming off a highly productive season, and what did he get? A one-year deal from the Orioles worth less than $8 million.
This November, Ortiz will turn 37, one year older than Guerrero was in the winter of 2010/’11. Ortiz played in 62 fewer games heading into this offseason than Guerrero did that year. Had Ortiz been healthy enough to play the whole season last year, he may have been able to surpass Guerrero’s 2010 statistics. But the thing with guys in their mid-30s is they often get injured, and MLB teams are fully aware of that.
So if Vlad Guerrero can’t get anything better than a one-year, $8 million deal after finishing the 2010 season with the fourth-most RBIs in the AL, why would Ortiz do much better after spending half of the ’12 season on the disabled list? And in case Ortiz wasn’t paying attention, after Guerrero signed that one-year deal, he put together a mediocre campaign, signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays the following year and was out of baseball entirely after eight Triple-A games.
Really, unless a team has tampered and told Ortiz it’s willing to go higher than two years for $25 million, he’d have to be crazy to think that such a team exists. And if he doesn’t sign with the Red Sox by Saturday, he’s going to learn that the hard way.