Yes, I dropped that stupid pun. Unapologetically, I might add.
With that plate appearance in the books, Big Papi’s vesting option for the 2016 season went into effect. The language of his contract extension — signed early in Spring Training 2014 — dictated that Ortiz had to amass 425 plate appearances for the option to kick in, which has a base salary of $11 million. For every 50 additional PAs Papi compiles the rest of this season, he receives another guaranteed $1 million, which is capped at 600 PAs, or $16 milly. After the 2016 season, the Sox have a club option they can choose to exercise for 2017, which is structured almost as a carbon copy of the 2016 base and bonus schematic. My question is, moving forward, as Ortiz will turn 40 this Novemeber, what will the landscape of the 2016 season and management’s approach to their ’17 option look like due to the easily projected decline in performance for a slugger in his forties?
Before the All-Star Break this season, Ortiz was looking like the baseball equivalent of a teddy bear that had been burned and then lost at sea in the demise of the Titanic. In those 80 games, he produced a slash line only Dustin Ackley could proudly boast to his parents about: .231/.326/.435. His traditional power numbers still looked okay, with 15 bombs and 43 batted in, but it seemed the once ageless Large Father had begun to show his age. Rapidly and suddenly.
Then, that teddy bear washed ashore Cape Cod and was something to be cherished again. In his last 25 games (prior to Saturday’s dismantling of the Seattle Mariners), Ortiz has mashed to the tune of .340/.421/.723 with 10 homers and 26 RBIs. Granted, this is a late-season surge for a guy playing meaningless games for an underachieving team. Yet, it puts to bed some of the doubts about his ability to produce going forward into his fifth decade of terrestrial existence. This was the first true ‘slow start’ to a season for Ortiz in his thirties, aside from an overall rough and tumble 2009. Why point this out? Well, it illustrates that this is not a normal pattern for Ortiz, which could be a red flag dependent upon his performance in 2016 (particularly in the early months).
If Ortiz merely trots out of the starting gate next season, that could possibly force the hand of Sox management. Would he see his plate appearances dwindle to make way for a younger and/or more effective bat? Would his overall playing time wither in the face of poor performance? If that happens, then he will further struggle to produce. As the adage goes, even top-tier major leaguers struggle to produce without consistent playing time or, in the case of his contractual language, plate appearances.
So, for a slugger with barely any defensive utility, three months shy of his 40th birthday, we can unfortunately only expect a decline in skillset, which directly correlates to shrinking offensive numbers. Ortiz’s OPS+ has been in a steady four-year decline going from 173 in 2012 to 159, 142, and 132 the next three seasons. While Ortiz’s strikeout rates in these last four seasons have all been below his career level of 17.6%, he is also drawing less walks, which will effectively shrink his strike zone. If that continues – which it almost surely will – then that could be a negative influence upon his performance early on in 2016. That returns me to the postulation that a slow start would only minimize the chances that management would decide to pick up their 2017 option.
The biggest problem I see there would be akin to the New York Yankees letting Derek Jeter walk in a similar situation. There is no loyalty in the business of baseball, but for a guy who is the face of the franchise, a team leader, and pillar of championship success returning to New England, the Red Sox brass might be forced to err on the side of caution. That caution could most likely be the fear that if they don’t keep Big Papi in a Sox uniform until he retires, there would be rioting in the Fens. The Cask ‘n’ Flagon would be ablaze and Ben Affleck would suddenly be seen at Dodger Stadium with a Dodger cap on every night.
The next quandary they face would be to wonder how many more years of club options they’d be forced into picking up. After all, Ortiz was recently quoted as saying, “You can play at the age of 50. Just ask Julio Franco.” Sorry Papi, but Franco only made it a few weeks after his 49th birthday before the game was done with him. And he was in way better shape.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Ortiz and everything he’s done for Red Sox Nation. He’s certainly still got it…
…and I’d love nothing more than to see him retire in Boston and head to the Hall of Fame. I just hope that pride doesn’t push him to play into those years where you cringe at watching the shadow of the great player you fell in love with years before.