Aging designated hitters haven’t been striking it rich (relatively speaking, of course) in the free agent market over the last few years. Last offseason, Vladimir Guerrero, who had hit .300/.345/.496 with 29 home runs that summer, could not find a team willing to give him a multi-year deal and settled on one year for eight million. David Ortiz is less than a year younger than Guerrero, who will turn 37 in February.
That being said, Ortiz is a much different hitter than Guererro in terms of plate discipline and walk rate. Apparently, some teams see a big difference between Vlad’s 2010 season and Ortiz’s 2011 season, as Ortiz reportedly has numerous teams interested and is seeking a three-year deal, which would cover his age 36, 37 and 38 seasons.
If that’s what it is going to take to bring Ortiz back, then he has played his last game as a member of the Red Sox.
There is no denying what Papi did at the plate last season. It’s not easy to post a four-plus WAR (wins above replacement) as a DH, but Ortiz managed to do so. His .321 BABIP is likely to regress a bit in 2012, but given that he held an above average 21.4 percent line-drive rate, I don’t think it was incredibly flukish.
One thing Ortiz did a terrific job of was increasing his contact rate and drastically lowering his strikeout rate from over 20 percent in both 2009 and 2010 to a career low 13.7 percent in 2011. Perhaps more importantly, Ortiz righted his struggles against left-handed pitching, hitting .298 against them in this past summer. One could argue, however, that his .371 BABIP against lefties is something that is almost certain to never occur again, especially as his bat speed declines as he heads into his upper 30s.
Thinking about Ortiz’s next contract isn’t about what he did in 2011, however, it’s about what he will do going forward. Let’s assume that Ortiz does not hold such a high BABIP against lefties in 2012 (very likely). His AVG should easily fall below .300 and could dip back into the .270-.280 range with an rise in strikeout rate, which is to be expected. Given his good walk rate, Ortiz should still be able to post a very solid OBP, which is more important than AVG anyway. Ortiz has held a SLG under .500 only once (2009) since 2001, so we can still expect him to provide a good amount of home runs and extra base hits. With an above average OBP and 25-30 home runs a very realistic possibility, for next season at least, bringing back Ortiz on a one-year deal wouldn’t be as risky. Ortiz still has the option of accepting arbitration from the Sox and getting a raise over the $12.5 million that he made last season.
I highly doubt that Ortiz actually gets a three-year deal. He’s a type-A free agent, so only team’s that think they can realistically compete in 2012 should be calling. Plus, teams really should know by now the risk involved in giving aging, bat-only players a multi-year deal.
If Ortiz should seek more than the Sox are willing to give, it wouldn’t be a killer blow to the lineup. The Sox already have a great offense and freeing up the DH spot to keep Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez fresh would be a good thing.
Watching a Red Sox legend leave town is never easy, but if the cost is isn’t worth the risk, the Sox should let Ortiz walk.