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April 12, 2006

Prospectus Today

Big Papi's Big Deal

by Joe Sheehan

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I received terrific feedback on Tuesday's column about the contract extensions given to Derrek Lee and David Ortiz. Actually, most of the e-mails were about Ortiz; no one seems to have an issue with my opinion about Lee, but many people do about Ortiz, enough to warrant some followup.

To reiterate, I think the Sox made a bad deal, spending an additional $45 million to keep Ortiz around for his age 32-34 seasons. Given that he's a DH with no speed or defensive value, that's a signing that almost requires Ortiz to not decline to be worth the money, and that's not likely. This is a fascinating decision, one that becomes more interesting to me with each passing day.

I would lump the respondents broadly into three categories: people who think Ortiz isn't going to decline, people who think this was a $45 million public relations move, and people who think that I don't like the Red Sox because I'm a Yankee fan. The latter are easily dismissed: if you've read this space for any length of time and honestly think I allow my allegiances as a fan to affect my analysis, I don't think I can help you. Moreover, I'd encourage you to read not just this space, but everything, as if the writer didn't have a bias against you, as if he perhaps really had done the research and reached his conclusion. It is possible.

As the guy who was ripped from here to Kingdom Come for picking the Yankees to go 87-75 last year, I will say it's nice to at least be getting accused of the right bias. Spending 2005 as a presumed Red Sox fan was weird.

On to some e-mails…

Regarding your strong criticism of the Red Sox signing Ortiz, I'm not even sure why you bring up Papi's list of DH "comparables" (essentially permanent DHs at age 28 and 29)--I don't see Ortiz in any of those guys, do you, honestly? If not, again, that was quite a bit of wasted ink.
--G.T.

Ortiz is a clearly superior hitter to most of the guys on that list. What the list illustrates, however, is the career path for players of his ilk, guys who have so little defensive value that they're kept off the field at a relatively young baseball age. Ortiz shares the secondary characteristics of the group, the old players' skills, the lack of athleticism and speed. I'm not saying he's going to play 121 games in his thirties; I am saying that the idea that he'll continue to produce at his 2004-05 level, or close to it, is optimistic. Being a full-time DH at 28 and 29 seems to be a powerful negative indicator, and that shouldn't be ignored.

I actually didn't expect this. I asked for a list of these guys, and it was only in researching their post-29 careers did I learn just how badly they'd played.

This is just ridiculous. You've chosen a label for David Ortiz, DH, and compared him to other DHes at the same age, basically ignoring the fact that no one else on the list even remotely compares to him as a hitter. Why not just compare Derrek Lee to other 30-year-old Cubs' first basemen, and see if it would have been worthwhile to give Mark Grace a similar deal 10 years ago? There's just no logic to your grouping these players together; Ortiz should be grouped with the comparable hitters you mentioned, like McCovey and McGriff. I doubt that all first basemen who compare to Papi were actually that much better at first than he would be if given the chance. The fact that Otiz bears a passing resemblance to Mo Vaughn and the fact that Mo fell off the face of the earth around this age seems to have clouded your vision (or maybe it's your Yankee fandom). If you're going to make these types of statistical comparisons I really think you need to be a lot more rigorous in determining exactly which players you should be comparing.
--M.P.

Get a picture in your mind of Willie McCovey and Fred McGriff in their primes, or just past. Now picture David Ortiz. Setting aside that those players had much more on their resumes, when they turned 30, than a three-year peak in a good hitters' park, do they actually seem like comps for Ortiz any more than, oh, Carlos May or Roy Howell do?

McCovey and McGriff were playing 150 games a year in the field when they were Ortiz's age. I didn't "choose" the DH label for Ortiz; he earned it by playing 10 games in the field last season for a team with a wretched defensive left fielder and no real first baseman, a team that seems determined, by all its actions, to make sure Ortiz plays in the field only when interleague play forces him to do so.

And for what it's worth, McCovey was a better hitter at a comparable age. The difference in their contexts obscures that, but from 27-29, McCovey put up EqAs of .322, .339 and .327. Papi's numbers? .315, .320, .337. McCovey was pretty good prior to that, too. There's no comparison between Willie McCovey and David Ortiz.

I can't emphasize this enough: that Ortiz isn't good enough defensively to play a position in the field is a major negative in projecting him, both from the standpoint of his expected performance and what the value of that performance will be. Stop looking at him as a first baseman who happens to be DHing. He's a DH because the Red Sox don't want him playing defense.

Joe, one thing I think about when looking at contracts like these is whether the Cubs or Red Sox could possibly replicate the value of Lee or Ortiz if they let them walk. These are 7-10 win players over the next couple of years. How many players like that are even on the free agent market or trading block? With Lee/Ortiz, you get that production from a single roster spot, even if you overpay a bit to do it.
--T.D.

Linking Lee and Ortiz together as players is a mistake. Lee is a good defensive first baseman with a broad set of baseball players' skills. Ortiz is a DH. Take a look at their five-year PECOTA projections:

               Ortiz                   Lee
Year     Off    Def    WARP     Off    Def    WARP
2006     5.5   -0.2     5.3     5.2    1.7     6.9
2007     5.6    0.0     5.6     4.3    1.7     6.0
2008     4.7   -0.3     4.4     4.3    1.5     5.7
2009     3.7    0.0     3.6     3.2    1.4     4.6
2010     3.4   -0.6     2.8     2.7    1.0     3.8
I would never suggest that PECOTA projections are the final word in a case like this. However, the above serves to illustrate the point: Lee is going to retain more of his current value than Ortiz is. Moreover, Ortiz isn't going to be a "7-10 win player" over the life of the contract, and he could be pretty pedestrian in the last couple years of this deal. That doesn't sound bad right now, because no one ever thinks about the back end, but think about a player hitting .272/.377/.519 with no defensive value and negative speed, making $12.5 million and killing the team's flexibility by locking up the DH spot. And mind you, that could be a generous projection when you consider how bad things look for--and I keep coming back to this--guys who are full-time DHs at 29.

A common problem in baseball is underestimating the speed with which players--especially players on the corners--can decline. Sammy Sosa went from a star to out of baseball in three years. Jeff Bagwell was productive as recently as 2004; now, he can't swing a bat. Contracts that get signed when a corner player is having strong peak or post-peak seasons more often than not turn into major problems for the team as that player ages. It's just that much more obvious when the player in question is a DH.

I think you are wrong in terms of the hit the Red Sox would take by not signing Ortiz to an extension. It would have been a devastating blow to 'Red Sox Nation' who have already seen Pedro, Damon et al disappear. … The Red Sox are at the point where if they keep getting rid of stars and more importantly key personalities, the fans, especially those of the new post '03/'04 explosion. There is a tipping point where people will get angry/frustrated and we know how much the Sox care about PR. However, there is some truth that in the end, they'll all come crawling back with or without Big Papi. The more marginal fans who buy their Red Sox Nation membership cards and the large national fan base though might not return, easily changing the colors of their sox.
--D.T.

The front office has built up a lot of goodwill over the last couple of years by exceeding expectations (2003) and the World Series. This has given them the leverage to do things based exactly on the kind of analysis you just presented. They let Pedro go, the shipped Nomar out of town, and the let Damon go to the Yankees. These would be big blows to the relationship with the fans...if not for Big Papi. This is a signing KNOWING Papi will probably not be great in the final year of that contract, but you know what, they need it. Manny isn't in a position to be the face of this franchise, they don't have any big boppers coming down the farm pipe, and he makes them millions in merchandising, so you give him a little more to pay him back for being underpaid, playing the good soldier and winning them a World Series.
--Alex Campbell

Listening to some of the interviews, I get the strong impression that the Ortiz deal was made for other reasons. They already controlled him for 2006 and 2007 at a bargain price, and cannot seriously expect to get $45M of offensive value in 2008-2010. Of course they would have really pissed off a lot of Boston fans (who see him as a key part of the 2004 and 2005 success) if they had played hardball with their icon.
So in some sense this contract is a 'make up' for the previous deal. A total of $65M for 2005-2010 is a very reasonable price, especially for a team like the Red Sox with plenty of payroll to spare. It will furthermore ensure that Ortiz retires in a Boston uniform, with all the concommitant long-term benefits to the franchise.
--T.F.

I think the last of these is most interesting. Is it actually plausible that a team would spend $45 million out of the goodness of its heart, because it felt bad that the previous contract had been such a bargain?

It's possible, and it's certainly the spin that the Sox front office would like, but I'm looking at 30 years of post-Messersmith decision-making and thinking that's an awfully generous interpretation.

As far as the idea that allowing Ortiz to play out his existing contract and leave would have somehow damaged the Red Sox…look, if 2004 had never happened, if you could actually buy a Red Sox ticket for face value, if the team wasn't at the center of an ungodly media contingent feeding Sawx news 24/7/365 to a region that has to know, right now, if Coco Crisp is out for a week, a month or a year…I might actually buy this. But the demand for the Red Sox is so large that the team is essentially incapable of meeting it. What, demand drops 15% and they might have to nix plans for another row of death seats along the lines? They postpone the addition of a "booth box" that squeezes in two seats between Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo? They decline to annex another city block outside the ballpark?

Even if we concede that the Red Sox might have taken some kind of PR hit for losing Ortiz, they were 18 months away from that point when they reached this agreement. Two full seasons. Given what we know about Ortiz, isn't it worth waiting to see if he does begin to decline? The arguments I've made the last few days might not ring true when Ortiz is coming off of two MVP-caliber seasons, but will certainly look different as the 2007 season closes.

I agree that there were non-baseball factors that weighed heavily in this process. I strongly disagree as to the legitimacy of those factors, especially given that the Red Sox are in a position where they don't really have to make public-relations moves to offset a possible problem two years out.

Winning sells. Spending $45 million on the decline phase of a DH doesn't contribute to winning.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Red Sox,  Dh,  The Who,  David Ortiz,  Big Papi,  Red Sox Nation

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