Boston Red Sox's Ortiz greets crowd from dugout after hitting two-run home-run against Detroit Tigers during MLB American League Baseball game in Boston

“They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is a common refrain, one often originating from an aged member of our youth-driven society. It isn’t as though acknowledging planned obsolesce is a great or noteworthy insight, but it bears mentioning from time to time. Things aren’t built to last because it is hard to sell a new laptop or television to a person satisfied with the performance of the one they already own.

They don’t make’em like David Ortiz any more. More accurately, they never really made them like David Ortiz. He is one of the best designated hitters of all time and certainly the best DH in the game right now. David Ortiz is making noise for a new contract again. David Ortiz and the Red Sox know all the words to this three act play, having performed it in public many times before. They always manage to come together on a deal, one that seems to treat both player and team fairly. This was the story last winter when they agreed on a two-year deal worth $29 million, a deal that expires at the end of the 2014 season.

As David Ortiz gets closer to 40, the Red Sox must ask themselves the same questions over and again: is David Ortiz a luxury they can still afford?

There is a prevailing notion that the days of the full time DH are gone. Over. A relic of the past. But, as it turns out, the full time DH is a rare bird indeed. Never have more than seven full time designated hitters qualified for the batting title, to my great surprise.

So it might be too early for the first draft of the permanent DH eulogy. Perhaps teams use the role differently now compared to before. Rather than hoping an older player stays healthy long enough to make 500+ plate appearances, teams either cycle through players at the position or treat it like an afterthought. To acquire an elite-level DH you are going to pay a hefty premium, maybe just running out whoever isn’t that much worse of an idea.

This brings us back to David Ortiz and, specifically, the Red Sox. One could convincingly argue that David Ortiz gives the Sox a significant competitive advantage. Not because he’s better than the average DH (although he most certainly is, as Alex Speier lays out here) but because it allows them to cycle through players at other positions, using platoons to maximize production at other places on the diamond.

While a team like the Yankees needs an open DH spot to cycle through their seemingly endless list of aging players in need of a day’s rest, the Sox have the best in the business holding down the job. Between Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and the rest, the Yankees are going to use a wide variety of players at DH this year.

When it comes time for Boston to consider David Ortiz’s contract for the future, they will think about the high cost to replace him and the trickle down effect. If, looking at the 2013 roster, they were without Ortiz for whatever reason, the Sox then turn to Daniel Nava as their DH. Which takes him out of the mix in left field or perhaps it takes Mike Napoli‘s glove at first out of the equation.

It is easier to replace platoon outfielders than it is to find an elite DH. Which is all the Red Sox really need to know about finding an Ortiz replacement – you don’t just head on down to the corner store to do so.

WAR captures David Ortiz’s contributions to the Red Sox accurately. He doesn’t play defensively so he makes no contribution there and his base running is par for the “very large 38-year old man” course. But his 4.4 WAR from 2013 marks just the 24th time a DH contributed such value. Ortiz has four different 4 WAR seasons to his name.

The Red Sox are grading on a curve. His contributions are not as significant as a great center fielder or shortstop but the ability to claim a DH of his ilk is a rare treat indeed. There is no great hitter tree from which the Red Sox can pluck a new DH to replace David Ortiz. Any contract decisions the team makes hinges on their read on his health and bat speed. Can he remain effective at 39? 40? 41? If they think so, get his name on a deal.

Even without considering the off-field value one of the greatest players in team history represents, he helps them win ballgames here and now. They’ve done a good job of paying him what he’s worth, as he is an expensive luxury most teams simply cannot afford. What would the market for a $15MM DH even look like? What other team would pony up that kind of cash?

The Red Sox can and will afford it, keeping Papi in Boston until his playing days are through. Then Red Sox fans will join the rest of us in the real world, where “designated hitter” is more of an abstraction than a reality.

Comments (3)

  1. I think the key loss is that Ortiz can slot in against left or righthanders to relatively good success (better against righties but can hold his own against the lefties). You take that away and at the very least you’ve opened yourself up to yet another platoon situation if Ortiz’s replacement cannot hit a certain hand. That’s one more spot on the bench that cannot be filled by AAA scrubs that are defense only or are Billy Hamilton-like dedicated pinch-runners.

  2. You mentioned his WAR captures things accurately. What would be truly accurate is comparing that to the WAR of other team’s DH position (especially if Papi puts in sufficient PA’s for a reasonable comparison).

    The fact he doesn’t field doesn’t matter. Comparing him with other apples that don’t field is how to gauge how far from the tree he falls. Plus, of course, the EELH factor (pronounced “eel”… Everybody Everywhere Loves Him; it’s sort of priceless… sort of).

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