FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There is a shelf life to the conversation about David Ortiz's contract status, which is just as well. The subject is one that can prove divisive, to the point that Ortiz himself decried the "haters" who question the merits of tacking on another year to his current two-year, $30 million contract and said that he's become tired of answering questions about his future employment.
That being the case, it's likely a relief for many (Ortiz and the Red Sox included) to know that there is a good chance that his financial future will have some clarity within the coming days. Red Sox principal owner John Henry said that, with team ownership, members of the front office, Ortiz and agent Fern Cuza all in Fort Myers, this time represents a sensible one for all parties to sit down and assess whether there's common ground for another deal.
"I don't know that it will get done, but I think it's good to have the conversation at the beginning of spring training. We're all here, or we'll all be here by tomorrow at least. The sooner it's resolved one way or another, the better it is for everyone," said Henry. "He's meant so much to this franchise, to New England for so long now. He's helped carry us to three world championships. I know where he's coming from. He wants to finish his career here. We should try to make that happen."
Why would the Sox entertain an extension right now for a 38-year-old who remains under contract to the team for next season?
YES, HE'S OFFERING A DISCOUNT FROM HIS MARKET VALUE
Jon Lester was lauded for his public stance that he wants to take a hometown discount to remain with the Red Sox rather than testing free agent waters. Ortiz is getting hammered for doing the same.
It may be a matter of semantics -- Lester having framed his openness to leave dollars on the table in no uncertain terms, while Ortiz spoke of the fact that a contract extension represents a demonstration of "respect." Nonetheless, in a way, the two players have been offering the Sox the same thing.
Ortiz said that he wants the Sox to add one year onto his two-year deal, committing to him for the 2015 season at roughly the same money as the $15 million he's set to earn for the coming year. The idea of being able to keep him away from the open market on a one-year deal actually does represent a meaningful market discount for a team that has embraced a model of giving out dollars at or even above their market competitors while doing everything in its power to limit the length of contracts.
Know why the Red Sox went to two years with Ortiz's last deal? The team did so in no small part because it had to, because other teams were prepared to make multi-year offers to the slugger coming off of his elite production in 2011-12. Yes, Ortiz will be older -- going on 39 -- than he was when he signed his last contract with the Red Sox as an almost-37-year-old following a 2012 campaign that ended with injury, but his production hasn't slipped.
Here are a few things to consider about the dynamics of the marketplace:
1. Across baseball, evaluators spend a lot of time talking about how difficult it's become to acquire power. Ortiz would provide an avenue to do so. In 2013, Ortiz was one of just 13 players with 30 or more homers -- marking the fewest players to reach that plateau in a year since 1992.
2. Elite production often requires elite commitments in the open market. This was an offseason that featured seven-year deals for Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo and a five-year deal for Brian McCann (who likely projects to finish his deal as a DH), not to mention a three-year deal for outfielder Carlos Beltran, who turns 37 in April and whose secondary skills (baserunning, defense) are in decline. Prince Fielder was viewed as a DH who happened to wear a glove and stand at first base when he signed his nine-year, $214 million deal.
3. Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales are both DH-types who have found market interest to be extremely limited because they've been attached to qualifying offers. That, some suggest, points to the idea of the limited market value of DHs.
Of course, both players have delivered shadows of Ortiz's production. Morales is considered a solid bat -- whose last two years yielded a line of .275/.329/.457 with 23 homers per year. Even ignoring that Cruz was ensnared in the Biogenesis suspensions, his line over the last three years was of the .263/.319/.489 variety with an average of 27 homers a year. They have been solid producers; Ortiz has been a superstar, with a .311/.401/.571 line over the last three years. This is an apples-to-steak comparison.
In short, what Ortiz is offering now is a different sort of framework for a deal than he would be offering after the season if he performs to anything approximating his career standard.
"Will it be any different if I come in and do what I normally do?" said Ortiz. "Then we'll be talking about real contract afterwards."
THE SOX BELIEVE THAT ORTIZ IS CAPABLE OF SUSTAINING ELITE PRODUCTION
When does midnight arrive? It's a fair question to ask as Ortiz continues to defy traditional aging curves to perform at a level that is as impactful as at any point in his career.
Of course, such questions surround any player to a degree: How do you know that a player is going to avoid precipitous decline? For answers, the team typically focuses on makeup and process in order to decide whether a player is a good long-term bet. How well does he take care of himself? How much of a priority is baseball? How well-defined is his commitment to a routine in order to be able to maximize his results?
Sometimes the Sox miss badly in that calculation, as they did with Carl Crawford. But the misses are fewer with players who are known, helping to explain the Sox' comfort level in extending Dustin Pedroia -- a player whose ferocious style of play suggests a likelihood of future injuries but a determination to play through them and a process to maximize his abilities whether healthy or not -- into next decade.
And in the case of Ortiz, the Sox suggest that there's reason to believe that he can remain a middle-of-the-order force, the cornerstone of the lineup for some time based on the answers to those questions.
"You can’t take away the production because of the work ethic," said Sox manager John Farrell. "He comes into camp in great shape, he maintains that throughout the course of the year with the routine that he has, the time that he spends preparing for a given pitcher on a nightly basis -- those are the things that we see. So when people question how does he keep doing this at the age that he is, there are tangible reasons that we see every day in the clubhouse, and that’s work."
THE SOX HAVE THE FINANCIAL FREEDOM TO DO THIS
The upside to an extension is that the Sox end up paying something below full-market value for Ortiz, committing to him for 2015 right now as opposed to having to wait until after the season and perhaps having to sign him for both 2015 and 2016 for more dollars than they might have to put on the table right now.
But what's the downside?
That's pretty obvious: If Ortiz has a poor season, the Sox may find themselves in the position of paying for past performance as opposed to for future production. If Ortiz suffers a significant injury, then he would represent an overpay for the 2015 season.
But the impact would be contained. Ortiz would represent bad money for one year -- and, it is worth noting, one year when the Sox will have a ton of financial flexibility thanks to the expiring contracts of Jake Peavy ($16.5 million as calculated for luxury tax purposes), John Lackey (who will go from a $16.5 million luxury tax figure to the league minimum of roughly $500,000), A.J. Pierzynski ($8.25 million), Jonny Gomes ($5 million), Koji Uehara ($4.25 million) and David Ross ($3.1 million). Even assuming that Lester gets re-signed, roughly doubling his average annual value (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) from the $9 million to $10 million range to over $20 million, the Sox appear unlikely to be trapped if Ortiz's contract ends up being a bad one.
This is not Carl Crawford -- a player who was unable to contribute at a cost of $20 million a year, at a time when the team didn't have the available budget to pursue anyone else. Even if Ortiz ends up representing a bad deal for 2015, Sox officials acknowledged that they can live with that -- there is a big difference between a bad one-year extension and a bad seven-year contract on the open market.
THERE'S NOT A LOT OF SAVINGS TO BE CAPTURED
Derek Jeter is coming off a year in which he played just 17 games, hitting .190 with a .288 OBP and .254 slugging mark. He received a one-year, $12 million contract to play out his final year. That precedent highlights the predicament that the Sox face with their own franchise icon: The desire and compulsion to re-sign a player who is central to the history of the organization means that there's not a meaningful discount to be had even if the player's production doesn't merit it. If the Sox wait to re-sign Ortiz, then perhaps they might be able to shave a couple million bucks off of whatever guarantee they might confer upon him now. But the Jeter precedent suggests they would reap a huge windfall even if his production does plummet.
WHAT ELSE WOULD THEY SPEND IT ON?
Let's say that an Ortiz deal represents a golden parachute, a very nice parting gift for a man whose collection of audaciously blinged-out watches means that a more standard retirement gift wouldn't work. (Though given that the Sox, somewhat inexplicably, gave Rickey Henderson a red Thunderbird on the final day of the 2002 season, there is a high bar to be set for career-concluding goodies.) What would be the opportunity cost of signing Ortiz?
That's a difficult question to answer, since it's becoming increasingly difficult to use money to meaningful effect in baseball. The number of top talents reaching free agency is dwindling as a result of long-term extensions being signed early in careers. Penalties for exceeding recommended bonus pools in both the draft and international amateur market have made it difficult to direct resources at prospects. There's more and more money in the game, but fewer and fewer places where it might be spent, a notion acknowledged by Henry.
"It's a question we've been talking about and discussing internally over the last couple years. It has gotten harder to spend your money in ways we normally were doing it," said Henry. "We spent a lot of money in the amateur draft and got tremendous results from that. It's an issue and something that we've talked a lot about. It is more difficult. How we're going to address that and deal with that is, because you always focus on payroll in the media. There are a lot of external dollars that don’t head up there. Those avenues have been closed off."
Assuming that Max Scherzer re-signs with the Tigers and Lester is re-upped by the Sox, the remaining possibilities for the free agent class of 2014-15 are hardly captivating. True stars (aside from Hanley Ramirez, who is a strong candidate to be re-signed by the Dodgers) are in relatively short supply, with the position class being headed by players like Brett Gardner, J.J. Hardy, Jed Lowrie and Russell Martin.
Again, that appears to be a formula in which Ortiz could garner the kind of interest that would elevate his market value a less certain place for the Sox after the season -- and where the Sox might not have very desirable places to invest whatever savings (a couple million? five? ten?) captured by taking Ortiz to next offseason.
THERE IS A PRECEDENT FOR A FRAMEWORK TO USE
In early 2005, 38-year-old Tim Wakefield was amidst the final year of a three-year, $13 million deal. He instructed his agent, Barry Meister, to explore a deal that essentially gave the Red Sox an option in perpetuity. The result was a one-year, $4 million deal for the 2006 campaign that included a recurring $4 million team option that the team exercised for the 2008 and 2009 seasons before signing the pitcher to a restructured two-year contract for 2010 and 2011.
One major league source said that he expected the Sox to explore the possibility of pursuing a similar strategy with Ortiz, their longtime franchise icon. Doing so would define the shared interest of both sides in seeing Ortiz finish his career with the Red Sox while also simplifying future negotiations and potentially giving the Sox cost certainty on the slugger going forward.
Ultimately, that's what Ortiz wants and that's what the Red Sox want. The partnership of the player and team has yielded historic accomplishments to the point where continuing the relationship does have a whiff of inevitability. Right now, even though the Sox are not under an obligation to resolve the designated hitter's future beyond the coming season, they appear willing to see if there's a sensible way of defining a way forward, as they did with Wakefield, for the rest of the slugger's career.