By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports hub
BOSTON (CBS) — Pitchers and catchers have assembled in Fort Myers, position players are trickling in, and for the first time since 2002, the Boston Red Sox face the onset of a season without David Ortiz, their 10-time All-Star designated hitter who just happened to lead the majors in OPS and slugging percentage last year before retiring at the age of 40.
Some Red Sox fans are confident that the acquisition of Chris Sale and the overall depth of the lineup will keep the team afloat, perhaps even propel it to the World Series. Others are freaking out.
The absence of Big Papi is at least a question mark the size of his listed 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame. It stands to reason that any team’s performance should dip with the loss of a major offensive piece, particularly as Dave Dombrowski has replaced his key run producer with Mitch Moreland.
Ortiz’s retirement on the heels of such offensive dominance is unprecedented. Players who compiled similar numbers in the past often found themselves due for a raise, sometimes courtesy of a new team. Since 1980, seven players led their league in OPS before suiting up for a different club the following year.
Milton Bradley, 2008
Jim Thome, 2002
Jason Giambi, 2001
Manny Ramirez, 2000
Albert Belle, 1998
Barry Bonds, 1992
Jack Clark, 1987
One player led his league in slugging — Danny Tartabull in 1991 — before switching teams.
Big Papi-sized lineup gaps don’t always come as a result of free agency. Two additional players led the league in OPS (Ryan Braun in 2012, Bonds in 2004) and one in slugging (Giancarlo Stanton in 2014) who missed significant time to injury or suspension the next season.
Context is important here. The teams who lost star sluggers to injury or suspension tumbled a combined 31 games in the standings, but likely weren’t prepared to fill the holes. Those who lost significant free agents perhaps had a bit more time to address the situation, but the results weren’t particularly encouraging.
We’ll start with a nightmare scenario: The 1993 Pirates (75-87). The defending NL East champs lost the reigning MVP (Bonds) and former Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek on the heels of surrendering All-Star Bobby Bonilla to the Mets the previous offseason. Al Martin took over in left, and the Bucs dropped 21 games in the standings.
The 1988 Cardinals (76-86) had made the World Series the previous year as Jack Clark launched 37 percent of the team’s home runs. While Clark collected $3.5 million in free agency from the Yankees, the Cards imported former Braves slugger Bob Horner, who had spent ’87 with the Yakult Swallows in Japan. Horner injured his shoulder, and the August acquisition of Pedro Guerrero was far too late to keep St. Louis from bottoming out.
George Costanza and the Yankees poached Tartabull (.316/.397/.593 in ’91) from the 1992 Royals (72-90). Longtime ace Bret Saberhagen also defected to the crosstown Mets, leaving 39-year old George Brett to shoulder the load for a team that tumbled 10 games from their modest ’91 pace.
Albert Belle had a clause in his contract that stated he would remain among the three highest paid players in baseball or have the option to file for free agency. That’s just what he did to the 1999 White Sox (75-86), taking his talents (and bad hip) to Baltimore. The ChiSox brought up Carlos Lee to replace Belle, and while “El Caballo” would eventually hit 358 career home runs, he managed just 16 in his rookie campaign.
Thome joined the Phillies after clubbing a Herculean 52 homers for the Tribe in ’02. The 2003 Indians (68-94) plugged in Ben Broussard, who hit .249 with 16 dingers and 55 RBI in 386 at-bats. An unheralded Travis Hafner also saw 40 starts at first. The departure of Thome followed the trade of Bartolo Colon to Montreal, signaling Cleveland’s mid-decade youth movement that eventually resulted in a trip to the 2007 ALCS.
The aforementioned five teams lost a combined 61 games in the standings. While Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Cleveland were forced to launch lengthy rebuilds, the Cardinals and White Sox probably saw themselves as contenders. Whitey Herzog’s St. Louis model stressed line-drive hitting and speed on the basepaths, but they were lost without a middle-of-the-order masher. Meanwhile, the White Sox had Frank Thomas in his prime, plus Lee, Paul Konerko and Magglio Ordonez all under the age of 25. But Thomas was hampered by injuries and the offense was unable to account for a rancid pitching staff.
The three other clubs that lost an OPS leader didn’t miss a step. In fact, they improved. The 2002 Athletics (103-59) were one of the best teams in baseball. The 2001 Indians (91-71) grabbed a game in the standings following the exit of Manny Ramirez. And the 2009 Rangers (87-75) improved by eight games when Milton Bradley (the human powder keg, not the board game magnate) left Texas for a three-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs.
Cleveland brought in two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez (coming off a disastrous 2000 campaign in Detroit) on a one-year, $10 million deal to cover for Ramirez. Juan Gone responded by hitting .325 with 35 homers and 140 RBI and got more money from the Rangers the following year. Rookie starter CC Sabathia also emerged to post 17 wins as the Tribe took the AL Central.
The A’s are perhaps a best-case scenario for the Red Sox. They lost Giambi and Johnny Damon and shook up their entire team philosophy as a result. Sure, Scott Hatteberg had a career year (.280/.374/.433) as the nominal replacement for Giambi, but they had the MVP in Miguel Tejada, the Cy Young winner in Barry Zito, and a heap of talent. They went on a 20-game winning streak, for God’s sake.
Oakland boasted some young players with room to grow (in the Steroid Era, perhaps that had more than one meaning), but you might say the same for the 2017 Red Sox. Xander Bogaerts is just 24 and hasn’t yet put it together for a full season, and who knows what Andrew Benintendi is capable of? Mookie Betts has the talent to pull a Tejada and win the MVP. And just as the ’01 Indians thrived with Sabathia as their new ace, Dombrowski unloaded the cupboard to unite Sale with Rick Porcello and David Price.
Can Porcello replicate his 2016 success? Can Hanley Ramirez be counted on? For that matter, what about Pablo Sandoval? Without Ortiz, the Sox are more sensitive to downside scenarios, as were previous teams following the departure of a top gun.
Thirty-three-year-old Dustin Pedroia is the obvious choice to fill Boston’s massive leadership void. The second baseman is the lone starter remaining from the 2013 World Series champions (Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley and Brock Holt were part-time contributors) and has a track record of being as demonstrative as he is diminutive. He won’t crush 38 home runs, but he, and Red Sox fans, can take comfort in knowing there’s at least a blueprint for life after Big Papi.
Sean Sylver is a contributor to CBSBostonSports.com who can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @sylverfox25.