It was a day when Major League Baseball could celebrate David Ortiz as both a player and a person. The Red Sox designated hitter was recognized for what he’s meant to the game both on and off the field prior to Game 2 of the World Series, when he received the Roberto Clemente Award in honor of one of the most noteworthy humanitarians in the game’s history.
It was a moment that offered the Sox a momentary reprieve from the relentless negativity that has hovered over the club since its September collapse. For one night, the focus turned away from the season-ending failure and the black hole that has engulfed everything about the organization ever since.
Ortiz was being recognized for the work he has done to help save the lives of children in need. For a moment, the obsession about clubhouse beer-swilling could relent.
Yet there was also something slightly odd about the affair.
Ortiz has long been the public face of the Red Sox, but for the first time since 2003, his future with the club is truly uncertain. He is about to embark upon free agency for the first time since the Sox signed him to a franchise-altering one-year, $1.25 million deal after he’d been released from the Twins.
The nature of free agency -- as well as precedent with other franchise superstars -- suggests that the possibility that Ortiz has played his last game as a Red Sox is real. That notion became even more pronounced in a recent interview with ESPN, when Ortiz bemoaned the fact that there was “too much drama” around the Sox and said that signing with the Yankees was something that he would have to consider.
On Thursday in St. Louis, Ortiz did a bit of damage control.
"I never said that I would sign with the Yankees. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no," Ortiz told reporters in St. Louis. "They asked me if I would play for the Yankees. I said I would think about it. But I didn't confirm to nobody that I would play for the Yankees. I'm still a Red Sox, aren't I? ...
"Of course, I would like to come back," he added. “They have a lot of things going on right now. So once they go through all the stuff, GM and managing things, I think they’re going to start talking to the players. So, we’ll see. We’ve got time."
Ortiz has said many times that he would like to return to the Red Sox, though it remains to be seen how far the team is willing to go to retain a player who was an offensive force in 2011 but who is at an age (35) when sluggers can suffer pronounced declines.
He offers no defensive value, and thus creates some roster inflexibility. Meanwhile, insofar as he will understandably use his $12.5 million salary from 2011 as a baseline for negotiations, he will also likely be more expensive than other designated hitters on the market.
All of those factors mean that the market for Ortiz -- despite a truly fantastic season that ranked among his best ever as a member of the Red Sox -- will likely be a limited one. Instead of 30 potential suitors, he will be restricted to just 15 since he can only sign with an American League club. From there, the list quickly shrinks further given teams' competitive status, roster composition (i.e., whether they already have a DH) and financial resources.
In other words, if the Yankees or anyone else calls, it would be the height of tomfoolery for Ortiz not to listen. Here is a preliminary look at which of the 15 American League clubs might represent a good fit for Ortiz.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Yankees: You might have heard that “Jesus is loose.” Even if the Yankees ask Jesus Montero to do some catching next year, his primary role on the 2012 club likely will be as a designated hitter.
Moreover, the Yankees have made clear their interest in using the DH spot as an opportunity to give some members of their aging core (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and, assuming he is retained, Nick Swisher) a bit of a breather.
Obviously, this is a team that can bid with nearly anyone if it chooses to do so. But for the past couple seasons, indications are that the Yankees want to move away from a full-time DH model in favor of a more flexible approach. Verdict: Unlikely, but at the very least, an existential threat, much as the Sox "entered the bidding" for Mariano Rivera last year in order to drive up the price for the Yankees in their attempt to re-sign the closer.
Rays: If Ortiz wanted to take the sort of one-year, $2 million deal that landed Manny Ramirez last offseason, then the Rays would probably be in the mix. As it is, however, a pricey DH (or a pricey anything, except their eponymous starter) is a luxury that Tampa Bay simply cannot contemplate. Verdict: Not a fit.
Red Sox: Ortiz remains a franchise icon, and potentially the last tie to the two championship teams of 2004 and 2007 (both Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield are free agents whose futures are murky). In early September, Ortiz’ tremendous production coupled with his organizational standing had many expecting a return to Boston in 2012.
However, in the season’s final month, Ortiz saw opponents pitch around him. He walked 17 times, hitting .287 with a .396 OBP but with just a .372 slugging mark, one homer and eight RBI. He also endured some injuries down the stretch (most notably, the bursitis above his ankle in August) that offered a reminder that, as he enters his age 36 season, health issues are likely to cut further into his playing time.
Even so, he was the single most productive DH in the game, there is a place for him in the Red Sox lineup, he cared deeply about his team as the season was slipping away (holding a players-only meeting in September) and he holds a place of such significance in franchise history that the club might find it harder to walk away from him than it did other figures such as Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon.
His signing is not just a matter of a baseball operations decision. Team owners, who played a significant role in making the call that Ortiz’ $12.5 million option for the 2010 season should be exercised, will once again be involved in deciding whether the remarkable partnership between Ortiz and the Sox continues.
Odds are it still does, especially since the Sox could offer Ortiz arbitration and thus likely chill the market for his services by requiring another team to sacrifice a draft pick if it wanted to sign him. Verdict: The favorite.
Blue Jays: They do appear to have some money to play with, and they would love to pair right-handed lineup centerpiece Jose Bautista with a complementary slugger to create a dynamic middle of the order.
Despite featuring a player who was arguably the best pure hitter in the AL in Bautista, the Jays ranked fifth in the AL with 4.59 runs per game, more than three-quarters of a run per game below the Red Sox. Toronto received roughly average production from the DH spot, which produced a .262 average, .338 OBP, .432 slugging mark and .770 OPS.
He has hit well in the Rogers Centre, where he has gone deep 29 times, more than in any park except Fenway, and his .954 OPS is the sixth best of any park in which he’s played at least 40 games.
However, Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos suggested that his team views free agency as the right choice only as a final step of building a championship-caliber team. While Toronto has made huge strides in laying the foundation for long-term success, it might still be a year away (while waiting for some of its rich prospect crop to finalize its development) from pursuing a player like Ortiz, especially if doing so would cost a coveted draft pick. Verdict: Potential fit.
Still, there is a potentially intriguing fit for a team that has a number of interesting building blocks for the future.
Orioles: If the O's want to make a splash in free agency, they probably are better off doing so by pursuing one of this winter’s big-ticket items, someone such as Prince Fielder who is young and in his prime, around whom a winner can be built over the long haul. Entering 2011, Baltimore seemed like it was perhaps just a year or two from contending, but given the struggles of the starting pitching this past season, that is no longer the case.
In 2011, the O's invested $8 million in a 36-year-old DH, Vladimir Guerrero. That failed, with Guerrero turning in the worst season of his career, hitting .290 with just a .317 OBP and .733 OPS. It's tough to imagine the Orioles going to that well again, particularly in that it would probably take a multiyear deal to sign Ortiz away from the Sox. Verdict: Not a fit.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Tigers: Ortiz’ former teammate, Victor Martinez, has three years left on his four-year, $50 million deal to serve as Tigers DH. Martinez is viewed as a part-time catcher going forward, but he won’t see enough time behind the plate to justify the Tigers’ pursuit of a full-time DH like Ortiz. Verdict: Not a fit.
Indians: The Indians have $13 million tied up in DH Travis Hafner. When healthy, he’s been a very good hitter, with an .820 OPS and 126 OPS+ over the last three years. However, he has averaged barely 100 games during that time, and he has fallen far short of his elite production levels of 2004-06, when he was one of the best hitters in the game.
While the Tribe took steps toward contention in 2011, the team likely will build around a young core. Cleveland wants to compete for the long haul, meaning that payroll increases likely will need to go to arbitration raises and long-term deals for promising young players, rather than “win-now” moves for veteran free agents. Verdict: Not a fit.
White Sox: In an offseason when they appear to be trying to shed payroll, they are stuck with three remaining seasons of Adam Dunn’s four-year, $52 million contract. Verdict: Not happening.
Royals: Kansas City already has a DH for 2012 and beyond, with Billy Butler signed to a four-year, $30 million deal through 2014 with a team option for 2015. Verdict: Not a fit.
Twins: It would make a fascinating story if Ortiz’ career came full circle and he returned to the Twins. But it’s almost unimaginable. The Twins actually have become a team that takes on a payroll in excess of $100 million, but Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau absorb a lot of that. Moreover, the Twins have acknowledged that Morneau may have to be a DH going forward. And so, the Twins are likely to pour their offseason money in another direction, a notion underscored by the team’s admission that it was unlikely to bring back even a bargain rate DH like Jim Thome. Verdict: Not a fit.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Rangers: Michael Young emerged as one of the top designated hitters in the game for the Rangers this year, after Texas proved unsuccessful in its efforts to trade him during the offseason. He has two more years at $16 million each left on his contract. If Texas wants a high-priced DH for multiple years, they've already got him. Verdict: Not a fit.
Angels: The Halos have to find a GM to set their offseason direction before they can entertain the question of the pursuit of someone like Ortiz. That said, DH Bobby Abreu has one more year under contract at $9 million. If Kendrys Morales is able to come back healthy in 2012, the Halos would have a first base/DH logjam with Abreu, Morales and Mark Trumbo.
That said, the Angels had terrible production from the position, with a .237 average, .337 OBP, .365 slugging mark and .702 OPS (13th among the 14 AL teams) as well as just 14 homers. Ortiz would offer a sizable upgrade if they were willing to move boldly, though it remains to be seen if they’ll want to invest in a DH. Verdict: Long shot, but a possibility for a team that needs to upgrade the position.
Athletics: The A’s went the discount DH route, signing Hideki Matsui to a one-year, $4.25 million deal. They received a poor return, as the veteran hit .251/.321/.375/.696. As a team, the A’s had marks of .245/.313/.390./703 from their designated hitters.
Ortiz would represent an obvious upgrade, but the A’s rarely dive into the deep end of free agent waters. They haven’t guaranteed more than $10.5 million total to a free agent signee in the last five years. At a position where buy-low options are possible (even if less certain than a player like Ortiz), that is where the A’s will have to operate. Verdict: Not a fit.
Mariners: The Mariners signed Ortiz to his first pro contract in 1992, when he was actually 15 years old (he lied about his age). He did not develop as quickly as they expected in the lower minors, and so he was a player whom Seattle was comfortable dealing as a player to be named later to the Twins in 1996 in exchange for Dave Hollins.
Of course, had the Mariners known that Ortiz was actually nine months younger than his listed age, it would have changed their understanding of his development curve. Instead, after his age was corrected following his move to the Twins, the organization was left with some frustration about the misunderstanding.
That’s all ancient history at this point, of course. Of greater concern to the 2011 Mariners was the fact that they were far and away the worst offense in the American League, managing just 3.43 runs per game. Their DH production was likewise last in the AL in average (.225), slugging (.332) and OPS (.648).
Seattle will have money to play with this offseason. If they feel that their outstanding starting pitching could make them competitive in the AL West by 2013 with the right kinds of offensive upgrades, then Ortiz could be a target for Seattle. Certainly, he would represent major improvement over what they had at DH in 2011. Verdict: Potential fit, depending on Seattle's timeframe to win and Ortiz' willingness to play for a team that is unlikely to contend in 2012.
(Note: An earlier edition of this article explored the Astros as a potential fit, based on their likely move to the AL West. However, such a move would not occur until at least 2013, given that the MLB schedule for 2012 is already out.)