“You’re going to see Ortiz play less,” ESPN analyst Keith Law said on the Mike and Mike radio show, “and you’re going to see the Red Sox probably end up releasing him whenever they do acquire someone from outside the organization.”
Ortiz had finished the month of April batting a miserable .143 with a single home run and four RBI.
“You saw last year that his bat speed was starting to slip,” Law added of Big Papi’s struggles. “And now it looks at this point it’s all but gone.”
As the story goes, Papi obliterated opposing pitchers in May with 10 long balls and a .363 average, then keeping a respectable pace for the remainder of 2010. He finished with 32 homers and 102 RBI, and his most productive season statistically since 2007.
Fast-forward to the final stretch of the 2011 season, where Boston is neck-and-neck with the Yankees for the American League East crown with less than 50 games to play.
Intermingled with the questions surrounding rotation depth and Josh Reddick’s reliability come the postseason, is a major sore spot among the Beantown faithful; a debate that likely won’t dissipate until the winter months when the World Series has long been decided.
The question is the impending free agency of the only major league hitter with at least 50 extra-base hits in each of the past 10 seasons.
Ortiz has voiced his displeasure with the lack of progress on a new deal, but has kept his emotions relatively in check, not wanting his personal matters to attract the always-calamitous distraction-status label.
Slowly the murmurs are rising to the surface, and the fact that Ortiz is merely months away from becoming a free agent is only going to grow in popularity as a conversation piece for the Boston media as the playoffs grow near.
Should GM Theo Epstein attempt to hammer out a contract before the season closes? Or wait until the offseason when the staffs’ full attention can be harnessed to find an arrangement that appeases both player and team?
It’s funny how perceptions can swing in an instant, and the Ortiz conundrum is the perfect example of why rash decisions often backfire for professional sports teams. Could you imagine if the Sox had actually cut him loose last year?
Currently the fourth-highest paid player on the club at $12.5 million, Papi has become somewhat of a New England institution. Bad mouthing the gregarious slugger is verboten around Fenway Park, and the idea of Ortiz wearing anything but a Red Sox uniform has become unfathomable.
But what kind of contract fits the current scenario Boston faces with Ortiz? He’s still mashing at a consistent pace; he has clubbed 21 homers to go along with his highest OPS since 2007.
That .911 OPS ranks sixth in the American League, and so does his .534 SLG. His .377 OBP is good for 10th-best among all AL hitters.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Ortiz is turning 36 in November, and has the kind of physical frame that makes you wonder how many more productive seasons can possibly be left in the tank.
Scouts are quick to circle a rotting carcass when they see one, as was evident when the Red Sox veteran got off to a tortoise-paced start in 2010. But Ortiz was resilient, and proved the naysayers wrong.
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. At 36, Vladimir Guerrero appears to have finally hit a wall, having the worst season of his highly successful career. The days of Vladi catching up to anything within his reach are ostensibly over, and retirement might be just a few months off.
The same sentiments targeted towards Guerrero today, were being directed at Ortiz in April of 2010. Logic and history shows that it will only be a matter of time until Papi can no longer catch up to the blistering fastballs of Justin Verlander or the mind-bending nosedive of a Stephen Strasburg curve.
A fair and seemingly risk-free offer from the Sox would be two-years at $16 million-per, and a team option for a third at the same price.
Some might argue this is a low-ball deal, seeing as how Papi would make less than a rapidly deteriorating Derek Jeter over the life of the contract, but it certainly isn’t chump change.
Keep in mind that as much as the Sox want and need Ortiz, he is bountifully better off playing half his games at Fenway than any other park. His home-road splits are drastic (his average dips by .89 away from Boston and his OPS is .177 lower), and that has historically always been the case.
This is a pure pull hitter, benefiting from a short porch in right field, who is also as comfortable in Boston as a pro athlete can be anywhere. He adores his fans, and they cherish him right back. There is always a palpable tension that differs from any other Red Sox player when he steps to the dish. There is no doubt that Ortiz wants to and will stay in Boston, it is merely a matter of how down and dirty both sides are willing to get to iron out a deal.
Boston isn’t a cash-strapped club that dithers over minute details when inking their stars, but this contract will take some extra care on the part of Epstein and his helpers. The only thing worse than seeing Ortiz on the visitor’s bench in three years would be having him eat up $20 million of team payroll while struggling to make consistent contact.
A case can be made for more or less, but two-to-three more productive seasons from the big fellow seems to be a reasonable expectation. Anything longer will likely become a galling eyesore on the Red Sox payroll.