After a lengthy contract negotiation, which ended merely days before a likely arbitration hearing, David Ortiz is back with the Boston Red Sox for 2012.
Boston appeared set to go before a panel of arbiters for the first time in a decade, as the two sides were still almost $4 million apart. In the end, they did the sensible thing and split the difference. Big Papi signed a one-year, $14.57 million contract. It is the largest single-season salary of his career and a raise of more than $2 million from 2011. For a 36-year-old designated hitter, that's a big investment. At that age, is he worth it, and what can he bring to the team in 2012?
Ortiz showed no signs of slowing down in 2011, batting .309 with 29 home runs and putting to bed the early-season demons that had haunted him in recent years. However, Major League power can disappear almost overnight. When age finally catches up to a player, there's nothing he can do, and it can happen quickly. It's easy to make the case that $15 million is too much for a DH, especially one at 36 years old.
He was without question the best DH in the league last year but that can count for naught in the free-agent market. Vladimir Guererro and Hideki Matsui were aging DHs, but in the last few years they could not find a bidder willing to go over $7 million. This is in spite of the fact that they—especially Guerrero—were still reasonably productive.
It could be argued, then, that there's no market for free-agent DHs, that most teams are using their DH spot to give veteran players a break from fielding whilst keeping their bats in the game, and that offering Ortiz an eight-figure salary is short-sighted.
John Henry and the rest of the Red Sox front office staff would have loved for that to have been the case. Unfortunately for them, the arbitration panel would not have seen it that way.
The arbiters would have had to award Papi either his bid of $16.5 million or the $12.65 million Boston offered. When his agent stood up and explained that the DH market is thriving, they would have given Ortiz the higher number in a heartbeat.
This is because, while there are cases like Guerrero and Matsui—players who were still good but had to take huge pay cuts just to land contracts—there are players like Adam Dunn and Victor Martinez.
The latter signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Detroit Tigers last winter and, before he tore his ACL, looked like great value for money. He was 16th in MVP voting in 2011.
The former might go down in history as one of the worst free agent signings of all time. Before the 2011 season, he inked a four-year, $56 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. By the end of the season, he was just 10 plate appearances short of qualifying for the worst batting average in 102 years.
Dunn hit .159 with 11 home runs and 42 driven in. Against lefties, he had an .064 average and an .074 slugging percentage. He was truly, catastrophically, dire.
Yes, Papi is older. At 36, he is five years Dunn's senior and has four years on Martinez. But if they are worth $14 million and $12.5 million respectively, Ortiz is easily worth $16.5 million.
There is the question of whether he will actually contribute at a level worthy of his salary in 2012, but it is not really important. He will almost certainly not earn every penny, but that doesn't mean the Sox don't need him.
If he hits anywhere close to .300, drives in 90-odd runs and is in the high 20s in home runs, the investment will have been worth it. Boston don't have another option at DH, and we all saw in interleague play just how much his absence affected the team.
Boston needed Ortiz at any price. Going to arbitration would have cost them another $2 million. When the trading deadline rolls around in July, that money could be very useful indeed.