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December 8, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Boston Brings Back Ortiz

by Ben Lindbergh

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BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

DH-L David Ortiz accepted an offer of arbitration. [12/6]

When David Ortiz and his old-player skills struggled to a .273 TAv in 2009, his chances of sticking with the Sox through 2012 seemed slim. During an impotent first half, he looked old, his bat seemed to have slowed, and scouts and statheads alike could be heard muttering that at age 33, the end was approaching. His post-break performance was an improvement, but still a pale shadow of prime Ortiz. Yet, with his age-35 season now behind him, Ortiz is not only returning to the Sox for at least another year—he’s also in line for a raise.

It always made sense for Ortiz to return to the Red Sox, though it wasn’t always clear that it would play out that way. His .322 TAv in 2011 was a perfect match for his mark during the team’s 2004 championship season, so he’s still plenty productive enough to DH for a perennial contender; in fact, he would have been a clear upgrade over any other team’s DH last season. He put his stat line together somewhat differently than he has in the past; Ortiz recorded a career-low strikeout rate, a relatively rare accomplishment for a player at his age, which helped boost his average back over .300 after a few seasons well below that nice round number. Even aside from his successful history with the team and his privileged status among Sox fans—with Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield likely on their way out, Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis will be the only remaining links to that ’04 team—Boston was still the best fit, since any other team that signed him would have had to surrender a first-round pick, something most clubs would have been loath to do for a player of his relatively limited major-league life expectancy. Bobby Valentine's recent trip to the Dominican Republic for Ortiz's charity golf tournament, which reportedly flattered Big Papi, speaks to the depth of Boston's desire to have him back.

 As BP alum Marc Normandin observed elsewhere, even the most productive designated hitters in their mid-to-late 30s haven’t proven to be safe bets, which makes all the sense in the world given typical aging curves and the general lack of athleticism among players deemed unfit to play the field. That said, Ortiz would still like to work out a deal that would take him up to his 38th birthday. The two sides have until February to avoid arbitration and hammer out a multi-year deal. Ortiz reportedly wants $25 million, essentially an extension at his most recent annual rate, while the Red Sox would predictably prefer to give him substantially less—$18 million, to be exact. That’s a fairly large gap to bridge, but the Sox haven’t gone to arbitration since Theo Epstein took over in 2002. Granted, Epstein is no longer in charge, but it’s unlikely that his protégé Ben Cherington will break the streak with one of the team’s most popular players.

Ortiz made $12.5 million last season, so if his case were to be presented to a panel, he’d likely end up with something close to an even $15 million. That would be a high price to pay for a one-dimensional player, but the Sox would count themselves lucky to secure his services for another season without exposing themselves to any long-term risk; though Ortiz seems to have temporarily arrested his decline, the battle with advancing age isn’t one he’s going to win. If they end up having to make a two-year commitment at a lower AAV, they can console themselves by thinking about the reduced luxury tax penalties they’ll have to pay. Either way, this one should work out for both parties.


Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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