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June 1, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Designated Hitless

by Ben Kabak

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With his Red Sox down 10-2 in the eighth inning last night, David Ortiz tried to do what he has done so many times in his Boston career: put the team on his back and slug his way to victory. He flicked his wrists and drove a Will Ohman offering over the Green Monster for a three-run shot, leaving the Red Sox down by only five.

Boston would add a pair of runs in the ninth, but Ortiz wouldn’t get another chance to bat. Already 2-for-4, he would have come up as the potential tying run, and in 2011, two years removed from a very poor season, the aging DH would have drawn lusty cheers from the Fenway Faithful. His looming free agency could create a messy contract situation in Boston come November, but for now, Ortiz is enjoying a renaissance, leading the team with 12 home runs and also boasting a .380 on-base percentage and a .563 slugging percentage.

What makes Ortiz’s early-season success particularly notable is the performance of his American League East counterparts. Ortiz isn’t the only one-time great playing out the final years of his career as a designated hitter. Joining him at the position this year are three others with strong Cooperstown cases: Jorge Posada, Vladimir Guerrero, and Johnny Damon. The Blue Jays have gone with a rotating cast of characters who have been decidedly average in their DH slot, penciling no fewer than 13 different players into the slot.

Unfortunately for their respective teams, most of these designated hitters have become overly accustomed to making outs. Here’s how the four stack up on the season.

Player

PA

Triple-Slash

HR

David Ortiz

221

.310/.380/.563

12

Johnny Damon

214

.275/.316/.425

7

Vladimir Guerrero

220

.289/.314/.403

5

Jorge Posada

158

.169/.285/.338

6

Some context would help us to assess these designated hitters. On the season, American League DHs entering Tuesday night’s games were hitting .262/.339/.406 with just 81 home runs in over 3100 plate appearances. In other words, few DHs doing a particularly good job of getting on base, and when they do get on base, the extra-base hits aren’t flying over the fence. Jorge Posada, for instance, hasn’t homered since April 23.

Of course, money enters into this equation as well. Posada earned the Yankees’ DH spot earlier in the season in part because of his contract. He is playing out the final year of a four-year, $52.4-million deal that was a year too long before the ink even dried. The Yankees aren’t getting even a fraction of that $13.1 million salary in offensive production, and Posada’s days at the spot will be numbered if the Yanks can find a suitable upgrade.

For the Orioles, Vladimir Guerrero and his 717 OPS—a mere 223 points below his career average—carries a slightly more palatable price tag. Baltimore signed Vlad to a one-year, $8-million deal in the hope that he would be a stopgap solution in a young lineup. He was supposed to provide a productive veteran presence, and the O’s hoped he would duplicate his line from last year. A 30-homer, 840 OPS season wasn’t out of the question, but at 36, he’s looking his age, and his production likely won’t outpace his salary.

The Johnny Damon story is the strangest. Signed as one half of a Scott Boras Special, Damon was to share DH duties with Manny Ramirez. Ramirez, though, retired amidst PED allegations after just one week of play, and the Rays were left with the more expensive half of the package. Damon is due to make $5.25 million this year, and despite an OBP well below his career norm, his production has him on pace to exceed that salary by a little bit more than the extra two percent the Rays require from all of their players. With a low salary and low expectations, Damon is meeting both.

Finally, then, Big Papi steps to the plate, hulking elbow pad and all. Ortiz is in the final year of a five-year, $64.5-million deal, and back in 2006, I expressed my doubts that Ortiz would live up to such a deal. Based upon a handful of valuation metrics, he hasn’t; his league-average 2009 essentially guaranteed that the Sox were going to overpay on the back end of the deal. This year, though, Ortiz is nearly half of the way to earning his salary in less than one-third of the season. Callers to WEEI can concern themselves with Ortiz’s future from now until the playoffs, but whether he has found the fountain of youth or is just playing out his contract year only to convince some other team to overpay him for what may very well be a precipitous decline, the Sox are sitting pretty in the DH slot.

For now, those in Boston will enjoy Ortiz’s season as much as the fans in the Bronx will bemoan Jorge Posada’s. Unless the long-time catcher simply hangs them up, he and the Yankees are destined for an ugly divorce. The Bombers could simply choose to release him if his hitting and attitude don’t improve, or they could bench him, as they have begun to do against left-handed pitching. Jesus Montero is knocking at the door in Triple-A Scranton, and Carlos Beltran would look oh-so-good in pinstripes. No matter the replacement, Posada’s remaining time in pinstripes is only as long as the rest of the season, if not shorter.

As the on-field dramas play out among two hired guns and two beloved franchise icons, I wonder about the current iteration of the DH spot. Right now, the top teams in the American League aren’t getting much offense out of their free roster spots. The Harold Baineses and Edgar Martinezes don’t play around here no more, as Tom Petty might say, and even Adam Dunn, that prototypical designated hitter who can’t field but mashes baseballs, hasn’t embraced the role.

For many teams, the DH slot has turned into a perennial disappointment. Some managers use it to rest their regulars while others devote it to that one extra player who doesn’t quite have a position. The hangers-on and the has-beens sputter out in the spot. Where have you gone, Chili Davis?

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