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Granting Big Papi His Wish

Last week, David Ortiz expressed his desire for a multi-year extension from the Red Sox. After a down season in 2009 and a dreadful start to 2010, Ortiz’s bat has come around, and he is currently hitting .256/.376/.538 (.384 wOBA) on the season. Ortiz says he doesn’t want to deal with the uncertainty of a one-year deal, a clear reference to his current situation, as the Red Sox hold a $12.5 million dollar club option for 2011 with no buyout. It might annoy some people for Ortiz to complain not-so-subtly about a contract to which he himself agreed, but that’s the nature of these things. To invoke the inevitable cliché: it’s a business.

Putting aside the notion of a multi-year deal, what about that club option? Let’s begin with one reminder: while Ortiz is in his mid-thirties and in 2009 (particularly the first half) performed abysmally, Marcel and the other projection system rightly see one year as a relatively limited sample. Prior to the start of 2010 only ZiPS saw Ortiz comeing close to his current production (projecting a .380 2010 wOBA), but neither Marcels nor CHONE saw Ortiz’s bat as dead, both projecting him for the mid-.360s — not his usual standard, but still useful even at DH. Where does Ortiz’s projected true talent stand now? ZiPS updated RoS projections see him as a .383 wOBA hitter, or about +25 runs over a full season. CHONE’s July 1 Update has him as a +23 hitter at the moment. once adjusting for position and replacement level, 2.5 WAR a season seems to be the appropriate estimate for his likely true talent — a very good hitter with no position; a bit above average as a player overall.

But what about 2011? Ortiz turns 35 in the off-season, and is carrying a piano on his back, as Bill James once wrote of Mo Vaughn. Nonetheless, let’s simply attribute to him the standard 0.5 win-a-season decline due to injury risk and skill attrition, making 2 WAR is a fair estimate of his projected 2011 value. If each marginal win is worth 4 million dollars on the open market this season, and we assume a 10% inflation, then he’s likely worth about nine million on the open market next season — more than three million dollars less than his club option. Even if one assumes that the cost of a marginal win will inflate by 25% next season (to five million dollars), he still would be overpaid. If one assumes the 25% inflation and no decline from the massive slugger in his mid-30s, $12.5 million would be a market-value deal, but that’s not the kind of thinking that made Boston’s front office one of the best in baseball.

Now, if Ortiz were to agree to a multi-year contract at a lower annual salary, that might work out for the Red Sox. That doesn’t seem like a likely scenario, however, given that players rarely go for pay cuts. Boston does have the second-largest payroll in baseball, but they they don’t usually fill it with excessive or sentimental contracts. They might want to pursue Prince Fielder in the off-season (assuming he’s available from the Brewers or whichever team he’s on at that point) or perhaps they can revisit their seemingly never-ending (and long-rumored) quest for Adrian Gonzalez. Whatever the case may be, in the wake of the glory he brought to the franchise through his Home Run Derby victory, the Red Sox should plan on honoring at least the first part of Big Papi’s wish during the coming off-season by freeing him from his 2011 club option.