In April it seemed like a long shot — perhaps an impossibility. A month later it was a near certainty. For nearly the entire season we’ve known that the Red Sox would exercise David Ortiz‘s $12.5 million option for 2011. Today they did. Ortiz might not be happy about it, since he expressed his discontent with the option on multiple occasions. But for the Red Sox it was clearly the smart move.
By exercising Ortiz’s option, rather than working out a long-term deal, the Red Sox limit their risk exposure. In each of the last three seasons Ortiz has produced a wOBA under .300 in the season’s first month. While he has recovered each time, there is going to be a time, as The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham says, that he doesn’t turn it around. If that happens in 2011, Ortiz’s age-35 season, the Red Sox are out $12.5 million. If they sign him to an extension and it happens in 2011, or even in 2012, they would be out quite a bit more.
Still, despite the early season slumps, it’s tough to envision Ortiz collapsing in 2011. Last year he surged back in May with a .501 wOBA, and then produced excellent offensive numbers through the end of the season. His .380 wOBA for the season ranked second among DHs, just .007 behind Luke Scott. He also hit for more power than he has in three years, a .259 ISO. It’s not quite to the level of his .349 ISO in 2006, but it was still tops among DHs.
History is on Ortiz’s side, too. There are 52 instances of a player age 35 or older taking more than 90 percent of his PA as a DH and qualifying for the batting title. Of those, 43 have produced an OPS+ of 100 or better — 25 have been 120 or better. Atop the list are two players who regularly come to mind when thinking of older DHs, Edgar Martinez and Jim Thome. This isn’t to say that Ortiz will follow in their footsteps, but rather to point out the precedent. In other words, it’s not a foregone conclusion that his production will decline immediately. The Red Sox, though, are smart for hedging against it.
What the Red Sox might prefer to do next year is put Ortiz in a platoon situation. He was horrible against left-handed pitching in 2010, a .268 wOBA in 200 PA. This marked the third consecutive year in which his production against lefties dipped. Pairing Ortiz with a lefty masher, preferably one who can play the field as to preserve roster flexibility, would help the Red Sox considerably. It could perhaps resemble the situation the Twins had in 2010 with Thome at DH against right-handed pitching.
For the Red Sox, the move made all the sense in the world. They get back a player who has produced excellent numbers in the past, and who, despite poor starts in each of the last three years, has recovered well. They might find themselves in a difficult position next year should Ortiz again produce at a high level, but that’s a risk I’m sure they’re willing to take. Ortiz might not like it, but he really has no say in the matter. The Red Sox can now focus on finding players to fill other positions in their lineup.
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