With Ortiz, there's no easy answer
Whether option is exercised or he gets multiyear deal is a matter of pride, production
BOSTON -- David Ortiz may not realize it, but if he believes that a contract extension from the Boston Red Sox will give him peace of mind and shield him from questions and controversy, he's mistaken.
An extra year on his contract will give Ortiz additional security on paper and more guaranteed millions, but even if the Red Sox give him an extension only his performance will dictate whether he is here beyond 2011. And if his performance falters, as it has at the outset of each of the last two seasons, the questions will be back at full boil.
"I'm not comfortable coming back just for one year because it's going to be the same roller-coaster that I had this year," Ortiz recently told Rob Bradford of WEEI.com. "All the question marks. People still don't realize what you're capable of doing even after eight years. I'm the kind of guy who likes to be left alone, play my game and be the best at my position."
Ortiz is proud, and he is sensitive. He also is still a hitter whose production cannot be easily replaced by the Red Sox, which is the primary reason they are expected to pick up his $12.5 million option in 2011 and may tack on another year. I'm on record as favoring an extension, perhaps one built on a lower base salary but with makeable performance incentives that would allow Ortiz to match or exceed his salary in 2012. As with Derek Jeter, there is an intangible value in Ortiz continuing as the face of the franchise, one whose connection with the fans has remained strong, despite the controversy kicked up when the New York Times reported he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.
But for the Red Sox, neither picking up the option nor negotiating an extension is the cut-and-dry decision that Ortiz is inclined to believe it is, because the Big Papi who terrorized the American League in tandem with Manny Ramirez for 4.5 seasons (mid-2003 to 2007) is gone. A serious wrist injury, Ramirez being traded away and the slow decline that comes with aging all have taken their toll.
That's not negativity. That's simple facts. Ortiz posted an OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentage) of over 1.000 in three straight seasons (2005-07). Since then: .877 in 2008, .794 in 2009 and .899 in 2010. His struggles against lefthanders are not a myth: .741 OPS in '08, .716 in '09 and .599 in '10. A .185 batting average with one home run in the first two months of 2009 and 8 hits and one home run for the month of April this past season were not media creations.
We know the Red Sox pay attention to the sabermetric numbers, including the meaningful WAR (wins above replacement). In the glory years of '05-'07, his WAR was 5.1, 5.5, 6.0, respectively, all of which placed him in the top 10 in the league, especially impressive for a DH. His WAR the last three seasons is 1.1, 0.3, 3.3, respectively.
"I just want to cut out all the crap and go back to the guy I was before, a happy guy who doesn't have to be answering questions that have nothing to with anything but controversy,'' Ortiz told Bradford. "I just want to be able to play baseball and have fun, like I used to.
"That's where I came back to not wanting just one year, because I know it's going to be just the same thing. As soon as you struggle for a week, it's going to be the same thing. People saying you are old, saying you have no bat speed anymore. People talking all kind of crap. It's hard to avoid that because it's all over the place. You're a regular human being just like everyone else. It's not like you're in a cage, locked up and you come to the field and that's it. It's not like we don't watch TV, listen to the radio, read the newspaper. We are all connected to that stuff. Especially here."
At times, the scrutiny does reach absurd levels. Two games into April, Ortiz was already fending off questions about getting off to another slow start. And there's little doubt that Ortiz, burned by the scathing criticism he received from some quarters in the aftermath of the steroid stories, hit the dimmers on his megawatt personality.
But remember, the questions did not come just from the outside. Manager Terry Francona started sitting Ortiz against lefthanders and on a couple of occasions sent Mike Lowell to pinch-hit for Ortiz, which enraged the big man.
Ortiz turns 35 years old on Nov. 18. He is coming off a season in which he finished eighth in the league in slugging and OPS, and his 32 home runs ranked fifth in the league. The man can hit, as he likes to say, but he plays at a position in which he must continue to be dominant. A complementary piece does not cut it for a DH, who can only win a game with his bat.
We know now why Barry Bonds had his biggest seasons in the last quadrant of his career and why Sly Stallone can still play Rocky at 60. MLB prefers a world in which the natural aging process still matters. Hall of Famer Jim Rice never hit 30 home runs in a season after turning 30, and his OPS dropped over 100 points when he was 34. Mo Vaughn had a monster 1999 season when he was 30 and was out of baseball five years later. Mark McGwire, who admits he had help, hit 65 home runs when he was 35 and was out of baseball two years later. The great Carl "Yaz" Yastrzemski led the league in OPS four times by the time he was 30, and finished in the top 10 just twice thereafter.
The shelf life for sluggers is usually not a long one. There is bravado mixed in with the truth in Ortiz's words. What you don't hear from him is the slightest acknowledgment that he ain't quite what he used to be. That's probably not in a great athlete's DNA, but the Red Sox know it. And that's why there is uncertainty, as next week's deadline on picking up Ortiz's option approaches.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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