Two years for a soon-to-be 37-year-old? Giving $13 million a year to a designated hitter? Incentives that could push the money up to $15 million a year — for a slugger who only played 90 games last season due to an Achilles injury that just wouldn’t heal?
All of those complaints are ludicrous. If anything, Boston underpaid.
On Friday, the Red Sox weren’t re-signing a designated hitter, a 36-year-old slugger or a cleanup man. They were taking care of the heart of their franchise — the one player who links past success to future hope, who carried the team through its worst season in recent memory, and whose leadership and spirit are far beyond anything this team could hope to buy with its millions in new spending money.
For anyone who doubts the great move the Red Sox made Friday night, look back to the winter of 2010, when Yankees management jerked the chain of arguably the most respected player in baseball, Derek Jeter. The captain — a rarity in the sport, not to mention New York — wanted to continue playing. The man who had been the face of the franchise for decades, who had set new benchmarks at his position, who had won five World Series, wanted another go.
And what did the Yankees do? They toyed with him. They told Jeter he wasn’t as good of a player anymore. They let details leak to the press and insulted Jeter’s production — and, even worse, implied that his production was secondary to everything else he had done for the team as a leader and teammate.
Lurking in the spurious negotiations was the fact that New York had unwisely dumped 10 years and $275 million on a whining, fading slugger who was everything Jeter was not (Alex Rodriguez, for those living under a rock).
Jeter wanted a few years and the money he was due. The Yankees wanted to fight over pennies and justify hurting their star by saying they had overspent on someone else.
Now, the Red Sox have made their share of mistakes since this point last year, the hiring of manager Bobby Valentine and holding still on acquiring new talent among them. But on Friday night, the Sox made a great move by doing exactly what the Yankees would not: They paid a player for value beyond his latest line, and they honored a player for his intangibles as well as his production.
Ortiz was the glue of the 2012 Red Sox. Without him, the Sox wouldn’t have been near .500 for most of the season. The team scored 1.1 less runs per game without him, and the Boston designated hitter spot tapped out a .238 average after he was gone. A team that was 46-44 before Ortiz left with injury slid to the bottom of the American League East, with 93 losses to boot, after he departed.
Add to that Ortiz’s reach in the community and his presence on the team, where he’s vocal in his leadership and also a key piece in the good parts of the clubhouse, and it would have been treacherous for Boston not to bring him back. Furthermore, Ortiz is the final link to when the Red Sox really knew how to win — and he was the one powering the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles with his clutch hits.
Just bringing Ortiz back was a smart enough decision, but the Red Sox also did one better by paying him premium money and doing it at his rate (a request for a two-year contract). While many will dispute whether Ortiz will produce for the rest of the deal, paying him his requested amount goes great lengths in keeping Ortiz, and consequently the Red Sox clubhouse, happy.
Finally, finding a way to keep Ortiz without contention is a big gesture to a fan base that has not been happy with where this team has been headed. Boston fans know how good Ortiz has been and how much he means to this team, and finding a way to keep him without any of the squabbling that could have happened is another feather in the cap of a management group that is trying to turn this franchise around for good, starting with this offseason.
But the Ortiz deal wasn’t just good for nostalgia, legacy or clubhouse leadership. The Red Sox also paid a reasonable market price to fill their designated hitter spot. Ortiz may have injury or age concerns for the future, but he’s been no slouch in recent years.
Ortiz deserves every bit of the money he’ll make in this deal based on past production. While he’s no longer the MVP-caliber player who inspired more fear than perhaps any other batter in his stretch of dominance from 2002 to 2007, he’s never faded like critics feared or predicted. While he’s had slumps and slow starts, he consistently leads the league in major hitting categories. Last year, his .318/.415/.611 line had him on top of the American League in on-base percentage and slugging (minimum 300 plate appearances). He’s easily the most productive designated hitter out there and would have been snapped up by plenty of teams had the Red Sox dragged their feet, much less tried to lowball him.
Bad contracts happen all the time in baseball, but they don’t happen when a team is giving a franchise legend the money he’s earned through years of loyalty and steady production. New York fans grit their teeth every time the $29 million A-Rod struggles to collect 18 home runs while the underpaid Jeter, who has rejuvenated his career in a huge way, swings easy to 15 home runs (those are their 2012 totals).
Red Sox fans can be spared the displeasure of seeing multi-year, $200 million-plus men striking out while a year-to-year Big Papi keeps producing, hoping a better contract comes his way. That happened last year, but it won’t happen this season, because the Red Sox have done their job and paid the perfect price to bring a great player — and a greater presence — back into the fold.
Ortiz wasn’t asking for a huge deal. He just wanted a couple of years, decent money and a nod of the head that he’s as important to this Boston club as everyone knows he is.
The Red Sox gave him that in a move that builds for their future while showing clearly that they’ve hurdled some of their mistakes from the past.
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