In 2013, the Boston Red Sox rode the momentum, talent and will of David Ortiz to a World Series championship. In 2014, they'll ask the soon-to-be 38-year-old designated hitter to carry them to and through October once again.
At some point, Ortiz will stop hitting. That's an indisputable fact of every baseball life.
Yet, thus far, Ortiz has defied all logic of age, attrition and decline. For that reason, the Red Sox are poised to enter the 2014 season, as defending champions, relying on Ortiz to anchor their lineup. In their eyes, they have one of the best hitters in baseball over the last four years.
The numbers back them up.
As the following chart illustrates, Ortiz hasn't simply been a good hitter since 2010; he's been a dominant, game-changing force for the middle of Boston's attack.
|Defying the Odds: David Ortiz 2010-2013|
Since 2010, only three hitters in the sport have topped Ortiz's 154 OPS+ mark: Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Jose Bautista.
Over that same period, Ortiz's 114 home runs place him 13th in the sport, ahead of younger, star-level hitters like Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Holliday and Ryan Braun.
The potential future Hall of Fame inductee is one of five players to own a slash line of at least .300/.375/.500 since the start of 2010.
Due to Ortiz's position and style, simply using WAR to evaluate his impact on Boston's lineup is foolhardy and less than thorough. As a designated hitter, Ortiz provides zero value to the Red Sox defense and can't be counted on to run the bases with any kind of speed or authority. Everything Ortiz brings to the table is with his bat.
With a 125 Rbat (defined here) rating since 2010, Ortiz is 10th in all of baseball when measuring the damage he inflicts at the dish. Remove the other facets of the game, and Boston is staring at a more valuable player than Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo and Matt Kemp.
Age aside, there's no legitimate reason to believe David Ortiz will do anything but rake in 2014 and beyond. With that in mind, the Red Sox and their star are discussing a contract extension that will keep the three-time World Series champion in tow for beyond just this coming year, per Comcast SportsNet New England.
Of course, age can't just be cast aside. It's part of the story of Ortiz and the story of the 2014 Red Sox.
Despite having one of baseball's best sluggers, the Red Sox are teetering down a scary path. If this is the year that age finally catches up to Ortiz, the team could be in grave trouble in the AL East. As Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com points out in this 2014 Red Sox primer, Ortiz is attempting to defy history and join a select group of older star hitters that includes Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Edgar Martinez.
Years from now, a column may be written about the six best 38-or-older hitters ever. If Ortiz joins those famous five sluggers, the 2014 Red Sox are likely headed back to October.
That projection was made more difficult when the team refused to overspend on their own free agents, weakening their offense and title defense in the process.
One year after leading the majors in runs (853), the Red Sox allowed Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to depart via free agency. If current free agent Stephen Drew doesn't return on a short-term deal, Boston will have said goodbye to more than 30 home runs, 200 runs scored, 150 extra-base hits and 600 total bases.
Even after re-signing Mike Napoli, the offense will need extra production from many sources in order to sustain an 800-run pace during the 2014 season. As usual, Boston will look to Ortiz for major production. This time, he'll be fighting age and lineup holes.
Before excusing Boston's team-building strategy and assuming that Ortiz will put up major numbers again in 2014, consider this: The Red Sox didn't have to put together a lineup that featured Ortiz in such a vital role.
By staying away from big ticket free-agent names, like, say, Brian McCann or Carlos Beltran, the Red Sox chose to keep their payroll from reaching the $200 million level, ink long-term deals or overpay for players they didn't believe in. That strategy worked in 2013, but there's no guarantee it will again in the future.
While the numbers and Ortiz's track record of recent dominance might suggest that Boston is wise to save their pennies, build with a combination of veteran arms and rising flame-throwers, per Alex Speier of WEEI.com, the reality of baseball history tells a different story.
The Red Sox are asking too much of Ortiz in 2014. He's poised to make them look prescient, but if he fails, it wouldn't be fair to blame offensive struggles on a 38-year-old heading into his 18th season in the big leagues.
A case could have been made that the Red Sox were relying too much on Ortiz in 2013. That clearly was a good gamble. After winning the World Series, the Red Sox are generally immune from criticism, employ one of the best hitters in the sport and shouldn't take a big step back despite their subtractions.
However, if they do, asking too much from their best player could be a major talking point next winter.