It’s the bottom of the 9th and the Sox are down one run, but they have a runner on first. David Ortiz has just called for time to adjust his batting gloves and the umpire calls out the three ball and two strike count. The fans chant Papi. “500” signs litter the stadium and 30,000 plus cling on to their final hope. Joba Chamberlain shakes off his catcher before nodding at the pitch he wants and stepping back keeping an eye on the runner. Chamberlain delivers a hard 99-mph fastball low and inside just above the knee caps that Ortiz is somehow still able to get his nearly 42-year-old self to turn on and pull deep into right field.
The ball heads toward the fence as the crowd is stunned into a momentary silence, everyone’s eyes glued directly on the baseball. The right fielder backs up to the warning track, then to the fence. He makes a last ditch effort to jump up and snag the ball but it has just wrapped itself around Peskey’s pole and now lands hard not into his glove, but the glove of a lucky and loyal Red Sox fan. The crowd erupts, flashbulbs go off throughout the entire stadium, and all of his teammates and coaches barrel out of the dugout to mob the hero at home plate.
David Ortiz has just hit his 500th career home run.
Think that is pretty far fetched? Think again. Big Papi hit his 19th home run of the season Friday Night against the Baltimore Orioles, his 368th of his career. He now has 35 since the start of the second half of last season. If he is able to maintain the pace he is on and finish with 35 this season, he would be at 384 by season’s end when he becomes a free agent. While it remains to be seen whether he will re-sign in Boston, with numbers like this, that is becoming a stronger possibility by the day and he is probably looking at something in the ballpark of three years.
I am sure Ortiz and his agent would like four or five, but the precedent set so far with other designated hitters who have hit the market isn’t good. Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez (before his retirement) just last offseason were forced to take one-year deals. However, they also didn’t have Ortiz’s type of numbers and were closer to the twilight of their careers.
On the flip side, more and more teams are starting to use the DH as a way to give a regular position players a day off from defense and cycling through. they take this route rather than dedicate the position to one player. So while there is no question Papi will get multiple years, it’s still a question of how many, so we’ll assume three.
Let’s also assume he continues on a relatively similar pace to his previous three season's home run totals over the next three. Those three totals are 35 (our simulated final number of 2011), 32 (2010) and 28 (2009) respectively. This is a fairly modest and very obtainable projection as two of those totals are two of the four lowest homer totals he’s had in his nine-year Boston career. It would also show decline as he got older and deeper into the contract.
However, he is getting older and likely more inclined to be injured, so I’ll even shave an additional 15 off his averages. That gives him a three-year total of 80, putting him at 464 home runs at the conclusion of the 2014 season and possibly hitting the free agent market again at the age of 39, just 36 long-balls away from the magic number. With the magical 500 home-run total so close and the sustained production, the Sox would likely be willing partners in continued one-year deals until David wanted to retire after he reached the milestone.
With those one-year deals, we need to find out how David will fare as he approaches 40. To do so the best barometer would have to be three of the greatest DH’s we have seen since the position was instituted in 1984. Those players are Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines and Jim Thome. Edgar Martinez played until his was 41, Baines until 42 and Thome is still playing at age 40.
David arguably has the advantage over these men because unlike them he has primarily played the DH position his whole career, rather than shifting there later on which, has surely helped save his body. That should help his post 40s total and he’s naturally more of a home-run hitter than Martinez or Baines.
Keeping that in mind, Martinez and Baines were still able to muster between 12-15 home runs even during the seasons between the ages of 39-42. Thome, who hit 16 home runs last year at age 39, has six so far this year and sits just five away from 600. He should hit that historic number and finish somewhere between 10-12 at age 40.
Using this as the standard, there is no reason David can’t hit between 14-18 over his three seasons of 39-41. If Ortiz plays until he is 41 and has average home run totals like the precedent set by these men, something along the lines of 16, 12, eight, he would hit the 36 needed to reach 500 home runs, climbing to 26th on the all-time list as it stands right now.
He’ll get there on the last day of the season in 2017, after he had announced he was retiring at season’s end once they were unfortunately eliminated from playoff contention. Ortiz, who was possibly the greatest clutch player in Red Sox history between 2003-2007, will go out the only way he knows how: in grand and clutch fashion. Hitting his walk-off home run in his final at bat for No. 500.
Make no mistake about it, I think Ortiz will reach 500, and even pass it a bit, but that doesn’t make for nearly as good of a story does it? What do you think? Will he ever reach 500? If he does at what age and for what team? Other than Ortiz, who has the best chance to reach 500?