In 2009, the American League East figures to host a battle of potent opposing forces not seen since Red Sox fan Stephen King authored The Stand. The Sox, Yankees and Rays are arguably the three most complete teams in baseball, yet at least one of the clubs will be bitterly viewing October baseball from the recliner instead of experiencing it firsthand. With the gap between the trio extremely slim (BP’s PECOTA system has all three within 92-98 victories), one big performance could make all the difference. From Boston’s perspective, perhaps no one player will be more closely scrutinized than “Big Papi”, David Ortiz.
Ortiz’s career path hasn’t exactly been conventional. Signed by the Seattle Mariners back in 1992, the Dominican Republic native was shipped to Minnesota as the PTBNL in a September 1996 trade for third baseman Dave Hollins. Ortiz never cracked 500 PA’s in a season for the Twins, generally posting wOBA’s in the .350 range. Respectable for a DH, but the Twinkies decided to cut bait after a 2002 season in which the 26 year-old batted .272/.339/.500 in 466 PA. Ortiz’s tenure in Minnesota is remembered more for injuries (wirst and knee) and unfulfilled promise than anything else.
The rest, of course, is history. Signed for just one year and $1.25 million prior to the 2003 season, Ortiz exploded in Boston. From 2003-2007, “Big Papi” posted continually improved his performance, becoming a devastating hitter. His wOBA’s over that period: .400, .408, .418 and .448. He slugged .600+ from ’04 to ’07 (his .592 mark in ’03 just missed), and his Win Values were truly impressive: 3.4 in ’03, 4.7 in ’04, 5.8 in ’05, 5.9 in ’06 and 6.7 in ’07.
In 2008, however, Ortiz’s performance went from that of a super hero to the realm of mere mortals. During his age 32 season, the 6-4, 230 pound slugger dealt with a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist. Wrist injuries often sap a player’s bat control and power, and that appeared to be the case with Ortiz. He turned in a merely good .264/.369/.507 line with a .372 wOBA. His Isolated Power, which ranged from .290 to .349 during his 2003-2007 tear, checked in at .243.
One of the more interesting questions of the spring is to what extent Ortiz will bounce back: will a healed Papi resume posting the monstrous offensive levels we came to expect over his first 5 years in Boston, or has decline started to set in? Ortiz turned 33 in November, and possesses the kind of talent set that often garners the pejorative “old player’s skills” label. His wrist is said to be sound, but he is now dealing with a shoulder issue as well.
For 2009, CHONE projects Ortiz to basically split the difference between his 2003-2007 mashing and his “down” 2008 campaign, with a .284/.401/.555 line and a .413 wOBA. PECOTA is less sanguine, forecasting what amounts to a repeat ’08 performance with a .269/.375/.503 triple-slash line.
Ortiz’s most comparable players via Baseball-Reference are a mixed bag: number one comp Jason Giambi was still a productive hitter last season at 37, though he has thrown in a couple of down years (’04 and ’07) and has dealt with injuries. Carlos Delgado had many writing him off early last season, but he rebounded to turn in a 127 OPS+ in his age 36 season. Papi’s number three comp is more nefarious: Mo Vaughn, a former Sox slugger, whose career was essentially over by age 34. The list also includes Richie Sexson, whose bat shriveled up at 32. Not that these comparables offer some definitive insight into Ortiz’s future, but they are fun to consider.
The most prudent course of action for fantasy owners to take regarding David Ortiz would be to expect something closer to last year’s milder line than his leviathan .400 OBP/.600+ SLG peak seasons. Perhaps Ortiz will return to his 2003-2007 style beat down of AL hurlers. However, as a 33 year-old with some emerging health issues, Papi seems more likely to be good as opposed to the unstoppable force that teamed with Manny Ramirez to give pitchers nightmares.
What do you guys think? Will Big Papi make a triumphant return, or is Medium Papi here to stay?
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