Mark Teixeira’s qualities as a baseball player are far-reaching, but his allure has always centered around the easiest skill to comprehend. The 28-year-old switch-hitter is, quite simply, capable of destroying a baseball.
It started when Teixeira was at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore. A stream ran behind the field where players would take batting practice. Behind the stream, roughly 450 feet from home plate, Teixeira would take aim at apartments that had no business being in harm’s way.
Games were no different. Teixeira’s high school coach, Dave Norton, recalled a game in which the precocious talent crushed a homer from the left side of the plate. The other team, hoping to stifle his strength, brought in a reliever to turn Teixeira around in his next plate appearance. The star immediately launched another longball.
“You’ve never seen anyone do it before,” said Norton. “You’d see these kinds of things and you knew you had a special talent, a gift for playing baseball.”
College continued the phenomenon. Teixeira emerged as the most feared power hitter in the country at Georgia Tech. He won the Dick Howser Award as the best college player in the country on the strength of a sophomore season when he hit 18 homers.
But for Yellow Jackets coach Danny Hall, the most memorable display came at the start of Teixeira’s junior season in 2001. In the second game of the season, Georgia Tech traveled to Houston to face Rice University and future first-rounder Kenny Baugh in front of a packed house.
In the first inning, Teixeira blasted a ball over the right-field stands and into a distant plot of trees.
“When he hit it, the whole place went silent because no one could believe how far the ball went,” said Hall. “I’ll always remember how silent the whole place got.”
That ability as an amateur has been just as apparent in the majors. A long list of big-league pitchers can attest to the might of Teixeira’s swing, as the Gold Glove first baseman has seemed capable of knocking down the ballparks that he has called home.
Teixeira has 203 career homers. He is one of just 25 hitters to have at least 30 or more homers in five seasons through his age 28 season. Fourteen of the other 24 sluggers who have done so have gone on to hit 500 or more homers in their careers. Eleven from that group are in the Hall of Fame.
Clearly, Teixeira’s power—the most prominent facet of a refined all-around game—has drawn considerable interest from the Red Sox. But there is an enormous difference between a team’s desire to add power and a desperate need to do so.
The distinction could mean everything as the high-stakes poker game of Teixeira’s free agency winds down. Despite Sox owner John Henry’s proclamation last week that “it seems clear that we are not going to be a factor” in bidding for the player, the Sox are still considered very much in the running for the first baseman’s services.
The Angels yesterday pulled their offer for the first baseman off the table, narrowing the list of remaining suitors to the Sox, Nationals and Orioles, with the Yankees monitoring from the periphery.
Henry and the Sox made known their disagreement with agent Scott Boras about the market value of the player. Ultimately, how far Boston is willing to go in negotiations will be determined by the degree to which Teixeira is viewed as a luxury versus a necessity.
THE CASE FOR NECESSITY
Early in the offseason, David Ortiz made no secret about his offseason wish list. The Sox slugger wanted another mammoth producer, someone capable of backing him with the presence of a 30-homer hitter.
The basis of Ortiz’ belief was straightforward enough. Manny Ramirez is gone, his last game with the Sox, ironically, having been played in Fenway Park on the night that Teixeira debuted with the Angels.
Ramirez’ historic pairing with David Ortiz is no more. Ortiz himself seemingly represents something of a question going forward, given the wrist injury that restricted him to 23 homers and 109 games, both the lowest marks of his exceptional career in Boston.
The questions do not merely surround Ortiz. Mike Lowell’s injury-plagued year, which featured separate trips to the disabled list for a thumb injury, an oblique strain and an excruciating torn hip labrum, cast some uncertainty about another key contributor.
In many ways, Teixeira would seem an ideal fit to address those issues. In the short-term, he would serve as the perfect lineup complement to Ortiz.
Teixeira would fill whatever void Ramirez left in his wake, and would act as the logical successor to Ortiz should the slugger should the slugger be in a state of decline. Power-hitting free agents in their twenties come along just a handful of times a decade, if that. As such, a case could be made that the Sox cannot afford to let Teixeira head elsewhere.
THE CASE FOR LUXURY
The fact that the Sox are part of the Teixeira derby—a contest that requires a willingness to commit at least $160 million over eight years—suggests how much the team values his potential contributions. Yet it might be flawed to say that the team’s success is at the mercy of the slugger.
“What’d we finish, second in the (American) League in runs scored?” Sox G.M. Theo Epstein noted earlier this month, accurately assessing a club that crossed the plate 845 times. “We’re not really a home run driven offense. We haven’t been for some time. We have an offense built on on-base percentage, depth of the lineup and doubles, more than anything else.”
Case in point: while Ortiz was sidelined with the torn tendon sheath in his wrist in June, the Sox were fifth in the majors in runs per game.
After the Red Sox traded Ramirez, they went on to lead the majors in runs (307, in 53 games) scored over the final two months of the season. That was during a period in which the club was largely without the services of Lowell and J.D. Drew, and during which Ortiz was still trying to regain his stroke.
Though the Sox, as a team, have seen their power decline in recent seasons, they have remained one of the top run-scoring offenses in baseball. Even in the absence of massive power, the team’s ability to score runs remains strong thanks to the near constant presence of baserunners.
Because the team has so many runners on base, however, it is easy to see how more power would help to change the offense from very good to frightening.
Yet even that notion doesn’t necessarily create a mandate for the Sox to acquire more sluggers. The loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in seven games in the ALCS—a series in which Tampa’s Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena seemed to hit about 800 homers a night—created a perception that the Sox needed more power to keep up with the upstart Rays. But the notion might have been exaggerated in the short-series format.
“I think the way you end up sticks with people a lot. We were not hitting on all cylinders at the end,” Sox manager Terry Francona said at the Winter Meetings. I don't know. “If we got four more 30-home run guys it would probably help us. But I'm not overly concerned about sitting here thinking we have to have this or we have to have that. I think we are good enough as is, where if we play good baseball and stay healthy, we are a pretty good team.”
In fact, though the Sox were ranked 12th in the majors with 173 homers last year (and, notably, finished 5th in road homers with 94), their lineup may feature more power threats than any other in baseball.
The Sox have four players under contract (Kevin Youkilis, Bay, Drew and Ortiz) who finished last year with at least 400 plate appearances and a .500 slugging percentage. No other team in baseball had more than three.
“We have some power,” said Epstein. “(Bay) impacted us. You saw how he impacted us in August and September and into the postseason. He’s got legitimate power.”
The Sox have never put themselves in a position where they had to get something done. The alternative of walking away from a deal has been a constant of the team’s baseball operations under Henry and Epstein.
That being the case, the team is unlikely to behave as if Teixeira is a necessity. All the same, with the team still in the running to give the 28-year-old one of the richest contracts in baseball history, it is clear that he represents a luxury that the team would really, really like to have. The coming days will reveal just how great that desire is.
Alex Speier is a senior writer for WEEI.com.