FORT MYERS, Fla. — David Ortiz did more than arrive at spring training on Monday. The Red Sox slugger also arrived at a crossroads season.
More than at any other time since he first joined the Red Sox in 2003, Ortiz will be treated — fairly or not — as a question mark this spring. That status is the byproduct not only of a 2009 season that was alternately miserable and formidable, but also because it is an open question where Ortiz will be playing beyond this season.
Early in the 2006 season, Ortiz signed a four-year, $52 million extension that ran from 2007-10. At the time, coming off of a 54-homer campaign and at the height of his powers, the deal seemed to represent a coup for the Sox.
But while Ortiz more than lived up to the deal in ’07, he has been a different player in the past two years. That, in turn, has clouded the issue of whether the Sox will elect to exercise a $12.5 million option for 2011.
The questions of what Ortiz does in the coming season and what he does in future seasons are, of course, interrelated. If the designated hitter is once again a force, then he could position himself to return to Boston for next season. If not, then this could be his swan song on an illustrious and unforgettable Red Sox career.
That is the stark reality that confronts the 34-year-old, who pronounced himself in excellent shape (“You should see me naked,” he beamed at his media session) after checking into spring training. There is a different tenor to the start of a year in which the terrain of the future is unstable.
“Every single player, especially a guy like myself, I would like to not have to worry about [a contract situation],” said Ortiz. “This is a game that has a lot of opportunities. This is a ballclub that I carry with me as long as I’ve been here and I keep on telling you guys that I would like to see my career over on this ballclub.
“I know I’m an employee here. It doesn’t matter how things are going — I try my best. This is just another year, just like the others. We have an owner, we have a GM. They are the ones who decide what to do. Like I say, I’m going to try my best and move on.”
Yet based on recent market dynamics, it becomes clear that Ortiz would have to perform at a level that he hasn’t achieved in more than two years to avoid an unsettling fate.
MOVING ON FROM THE ‘NIGHTMARE’
Of course, Ortiz had a well-documented Jekyll and Hyde season. On Monday, he suggested that he “wasn’t feeling comfortable at the plate” after having the pace of his build-up to the season altered by the World Baseball Classic. Even so, it would be hard to assign sole blame to the tournament for the deep funk in which Ortiz found himself in the early stages of the season.
Through May 31, he was hitting .185 with a .284 OBP, .287 slugging mark, .570 OPS, one homer and just 18 RBI. The Sox were blindsided by the slide, having seen no evidence in spring that such a struggle was on the horizon.
Ortiz offered, in the words of manager Terry Francona, “no production.” The player didn’t hide from such characterizations.
“I had a nightmare for two months. Even after you wake up, you still feel like you’re in a nightmare,” Ortiz said. “But that’s not my point right now. My point is to move on. I guess the last four months of the season changed people’s mind and that’s all I care about.”
As Ortiz rightly points out, he was a different player down the stretch. From June through the end of the year, he hit .264/.356/.548/.904 with 27 homers and 81 RBI. His production was once again formidable during this period, once again comparable to his 2008 numbers (featuring more power but a worse on-base percentage) even if still short of the lofty standards he achieved in his early Red Sox career.
There were some red flags during this time, in particular, the fact that Ortiz walked 51 times and struck out on 86 occasions. At times, he still appeared to be either guessing or vulnerable to fastballs inside — though there were other stretches when he was able to turn on pitches inside while adjusting to drive pitches away to the opposite field.
Yet overall, he managed to re-establish himself as an important presence in the lineup, even if he was no longer the centerpiece of the Sox’ batting order. Though shifted down to the fifth or sixth spot in the batting order, Ortiz once again became a threat to opposing pitchers.
“I think people gave up on me too early too fast, started talking about age and all that kind of stuff,” said Ortiz. “It was the same people that were clapping for you a year before and saying good things about you.
“Last season was an experience for me. At the end of the season, when I sat down at my house, I was proud of myself. It was because there’s no too many people that know how to bounce back from that hole that I walked into the first two months.
“I asked myself how did I bounce back? I had an answer for that, I just stayed strong and didn’t pay attention to all the negativity that sometimes people bring around. ... I definitely know that bouncing back like I did last year gave me more confidence and makes me stronger for this year.”
ORTIZ’ PERFORMANCE IN CONTEXT
Ortiz will have to be better and stronger than he was in 2009 or, in all likelihood, 2008 if he wants to convince the Sox to exercise his contract option for 2011.
If Ortiz more or less approximates his yearlong stat line of this past season, he would find himself in the same soup in which Vladimir Guerrero landed this past offseason. Guerrero is nine months older than Ortiz and, like his close friend, performed at or near career peaks through 2007 before some decline in 2008 and a significant tumble in 2009.
In some ways, the players have been strikingly similar over the past two years (aside from batting average).
Guerrero: .303/.365/.521/.886, 27 HR,
Ortiz: .264/.367/.507/.877, 23 HR
Guerrero: .295/.334/.460/.794, 15 HR
Ortiz: .238/.332/.462/.794, 28 HR
After the 2009 season (one in which Guerrero landed on the DL twice due to leg and chest injuries), Guerrero — whose single off Jonathan Papelbon in Game 3 of the ALDS effectively ended the Red Sox’ season — signed a one-year, $5 million deal to serve as the DH of the Rangers.
There were several other signings that bode poorly for Ortiz’ market value.
Hideki Matsui had a great 2009 season, hitting .274/.367/.509/.876 with 28 homers in 142 games. (Worth noting: the 2009 World Series MVP had better road than home numbers, so he wasn’t just a fabrication of Yankee Stadium.) That performance — very much in line with what Ortiz did in 2008 — earned him a one-year, $6.5 million deal from the Angels.
Russell Branyan hit .251/.347/.520/.867 with 31 homers as Seattle’s first baseman last year. Yet all the 34-year-old could muster was a one-year, $2 million deal from the Indians.
There were plenty of additional examples of players who had fine offensive seasons but who never saw a substantial market materialize for their services. Johnny Damon (one year, $8 million), Adam LaRoche (one year, $6 million), Nick Johnson (one year, $5.75 million) all signed for short-term deals for far less than the value of Ortiz’ contract option.
The previous offseason, then-29-year-old Adam Dunn (two years, $20 million) and 32-year-old Pat Burrell (two years, $16 million) set the market for defensively limited sluggers, at a time when both were coming off of strong seasons.
All of these signings make clear that anything short of extraordinary offensive production (more in line with what Ortiz did from 2003-07) would make it challenging if not impossible for Ortiz to be worth the value of his $12.5 million option on the open market.
ANYTHING BUT SLIM PICKINGS ON THE DH MARKET
In this context, it is worth taking stock of just how challenging it is for a DH to make big bucks as a free agent. Immediately, a player can rule out 16 of 30 teams as possible landing spots. The market competition for such jobs is also heated, since the American League clubs can draw from the entire pool of players — corner infielders, outfielders, catchers, etc. — to fill the position.
Consider, for instance, that Manny Ramirez showed up in Dodgers camp on Monday and immediately offered Los Angeles its new slogan for the 2010 season:
“I know I'm not going to be here next year.”
It seems safe to say that the Red Sox wouldn’t make a push to re-sign a player who parted on anything but the best of terms. Nonetheless, if he decides to keep playing, Ramirez will help to cloud the waters for Ortiz, since the outfielder would represent another DH option for teams in search of a bat. So, too, would Dunn, LaRoche, Burrell (if he can bounce back in 2010), Paul Konerko, Derek Lee, Carlos Pena …
The list of alternatives in the DH market is always longer than it is for any other position. As such, if Ortiz is to receive another eight-figure payday in 2011, he must roll back the calendar by a couple of years.
BACK TO THE PRESENT
All of that said, the fate of Ortiz beyond this season is not the focal point for either the player or the organization as they begin preparations for the 2010 campaign. Ortiz simply seemed excited for the prospect of a new season.
Ideally, the slugger would like to separate himself from both the previous year and the questions that lie on the horizon. He is looking less to the past and future than to the opportunity to make an impact in 2010.
“I’m very excited about this season. I’m positive. My focus right now is to do some damage,” said Ortiz. “I just turned the page and put  in the past. This is a new season. I just put that behind me.
“I believe in myself. I have done it tons of times. For me to do it and get it done once again, it’s not a surprise. All you guys know me. All you guys know what I’m capable to do.”
If Ortiz can live up to those capabilities, then the present — and future — will no doubt take care of themselves.