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David Ortiz’s Contract Complaints

I came across this blurb a couple days ago over at HardBall Talk (originally from ESPN Boston):

“David [Ortiz] is (too) proud and respectful to say how he feels in public, but the guy feels hurt, upset by the way that he is being ignored by the Red Sox,” said the unnamed source. “After all he’s done here and having a good season, he was at least hoping to be approached by the team to talk about his future.”

On one hand, David Ortiz has a point. He’s in the midst of his best season since 2007 — his .390 wOBA is impressive — and as one of the most-loved players on the Red Sox, it would seem like a common courtesy that the team would reach out to him about a new contract. If you can help it, you certainly don’t want to annoy one of your star players during the stretch run.

But as weird as it may sound, I think the Red Sox are actually doing Ortiz a favor. He might not realize it now, but if the Sox had reached out to him, he might not have liked what he heard. I’m certain Ortiz will end up back in Boston, but much like Jeter’s situation this past offseason, things could get messy before the end.

First, the facts: Ortiz is having his best season in four years. While he had a great 2010 — posting a .380 wOBA in over 600 plate appearances — Ortiz has gone one step further this season. He’s hitting .288/.377/.534 — good for a .390 wOBA; he has dropped his strikeout rate the lowest of his career (13%); and he’s still among the most powerful hitters in the majors (.246 ISO, seventh in the American League). He’s 35-years-old, and though he’s not as powerful as he once was during his peak, reports of his demise have been largely exaggerated, not to mention premature. Simply put, Ortiz can still rake.

Because he’s having such a great season, Ortiz is going to want to get paid. Assuming he doesn’t slump, this will be the second consecutive season he’s finished with around 30 home runs and .380+ wOBA. Due to his age, this should be his last chance to make a massive salary through baseball, so it’s in his best interest to negotiate for the best deal.

But will he get a big deal? Probably not. When Ortiz negotiated his current deal with the Red Sox, he was coming off an insane stretch in which he’d posted a .400+ wOBA  four seasons in row. He’d just hit 54 home runs in one year, and he was obviously one of the best home run hitters in the majors. And yet, the Red Sox only guaranteed to pay him $12.5 million per season for the next four years (there was an option for 2011). As a designated hitter on the far side of 30, Ortiz had much less value than his home run numbers suggested.

Ortiz has arguably been worth his contract, contributing $57 million of production while being paid $64 million. But most of that production came during the first year of his contract (6.7 WAR in 2007). Even if you give him a boost for being the “face of the franchise,” it’s still difficult to imagine a scenario where the Red Sox would be willing to pay Ortiz as much as he’s making right now.

Just look at this offseason’s class of free agents. If you’re a team looking for an aging slugger to provide you some power at DH, you have a list of options. Along with Ortiz, there’s Jim Thome, Hideki Matsui, Lance Berkman, Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Pena — the list goes on and on. While Ortiz in undeniably the best hitter of the lot, the point is that the Red Sox have leverage. The team doesn’t need to bring Ortiz back, and there are many other DH options available.

So what would a new contract for David Ortiz look like? It depends how you project him going forward. Over the past four seasons, Ortiz has averaged just over 2.0 WAR per year (assuming he finished 2011 with around 3.5 WAR). Even if you are bullish on him and think he can average 2.0 WAR per year going forward, Ortiz would be worth at max $10 million per year. And if I’m the Red Sox, I wouldn’t want to commit to a contract any longer than three years.

More than likely, Ortiz isn’t going to be happy to hear this sort of offer, which is why I think the Red Sox have the right idea in remaining silent during the season about contract discussions. Which would you prefer: a star player that’s mildly hurt you won’t talk about a new contract with him, or one that feels unappreciated and lowballed? It’s lose-lose either way, but the Red Sox are making a good call here.