Should the Red Sox give David Ortiz the contract he wants for 2015?
David Ortiz isn't one to suffer the indignity of having only one year remaining on his contract in silence. Last week, the 38-year-old slugger told a Boston radio station that while he'd like to finish his career with the Red Sox, it would be "time to move on" if he didn't receive another long-term deal. He later clarified that it's only a one-year extension that he seeks; if that's the case, the team may as well head the issue off at the pass by locking him up for 2015.
As bothersome as it may be to hear someone slated to make $15 million in 2014 fret over his future, Ortiz has maximum leverage right now. He's coming off his strongest year at the plate since 2007, one in which he rebounded from an Achilles injury that cost him nearly half of 2012, claimed the all-time hits record for designated hitters and capped the year by earning MVP honors as the Red Sox won their third World Series in the past 10 seasons. Beyond his offensive production, Ortiz solidified his place in the pantheon of Boston sports by emerging as an emotional leader of the city in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Limited to 90 games in Boston's dismal 69-93 campaign in 2012 — just one after July 16 — Ortiz began the 2013 season on the disabled list due to lingering inflammation in both Achilles tendons. He didn't make his season debut until April 20, the Red Sox' first home game after the bombings that killed three and injured 264 others. After the Fenway Park crowd paid tribute to the victims and the first responders, he provided some catharsis with his rousing "this is our f——ing city" speech, then went 2-for-4 with a game-tying single in a 4-3 win.
Ortiz went on to hit .309/.395/.564 with 30 homers and 103 RBIs, a season worth 4.4 Wins Above Replacement. He added five more home runs in the postseason, including two off the Rays' David Price in Game 2 of the Division Series, a comeback-capping grand slam in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Tigers and then a shot over the Green Monster off the Cardinals' Michael Wacha in Game 2 of the World Series. In all, he hit .353/.500/.706 in 68 postseason plate appearances, and an unreal .688/.760/1.188 in the World Series.
Ortiz signed a two-year, $26 million extension with the Red Sox in November 2012, shortly after fired manager Bobby Valentine accused him of quitting on the team; obviously, the Sox sided with their iconic designated hitter instead of the man who piloted a contention-ready squad to its worst season since 1965, alienating the entire region of New England in the process. Because he spent just 15 days on the DL after the start of the season, Ortiz's 2014 salary increased from $11 million to $15 million, the same amount he made in 2013. Agent Fern Cuza asked the Sox for an extension back in December, but nothing has come of it yet, and as has been the case so many times in the past, Ortiz hasn't kept quiet. As Boston radio station WEEI put it in October 2012, "Like the leaves falling, David Ortiz b------- about his contract has become an annual tradition."
To be fair, that's in large part because Ortiz hasn't signed anything longer than a two-year deal since the expiration of his four-year, $52 million contract at the end of 2010. Since then, he has defied age and injury, remaking himself as a hitter by dramatically cutting down his strikeout rate. After whiffing in 22.6 percent of his plate appearances while hitting .254/.350/.495 combined in 2009 and '10, he's cut it to 14.0 percent over the past three seasons while rebounding to .311/.401/.571, and averaging 3.8 WAR in that span. It's likely that he and his agent could have worked out a longer deal with the Red Sox at some point during that span, but that probably would have cost him top dollar, and Ortiz has long conflated dollar signs with "respect".
Ortiz's agitation comes at a time when full-time designated hitters have largely become obsolete; whereas nine players exceeded 400 plate appearances in the role a total of 13 times in 2010 and '11 combined, those numbers have dropped to six players doing so a total of seven times over the past two seasons. Granted, injuries to Ortiz and Victor Martinez helped to hold down those totals, but teams are paying DHs less as well. Ortiz, Martinez ($12.5 million per year) and Adam Dunn ($14 million per year) are the only ones making more than $10 million per year; the White Sox actually used the latter in the field about half the time last year, and if Jerry Reinsdorf had a time machine, he'd almost certainly undo the four-year, $56 million he gave to Dunn, who has hit .197/.317/.405 en route to −1.7 WAR through the first three years of his deal.
Ortiz is several cuts above Dunn and Martinez in terms of both performance and stature, and the Sox' payroll is in good shape; they have just $62.6 million committed for 2015. If all Ortiz is truly seeking is a one-year extension to his current deal, general manager Ben Cherington would be better off forgoing the hardball negotiations and taking care of business now rather than letting the issue linger, to say nothing of allowing him to depart to finish his career elsewhere — say, in pinstripes, taking aim at the short porch in Yankee Stadium's rightfield. Even at another $15 million annual salary, Ortiz's track record suggests he'll be worth the money. Even is the team has to overpay him by a few million, if anyone has earned the right to finish his career with the Red Sox, it's the linchpin of their three titles.