Adam Kaufman

Red Sox’ extension with David Ortiz validated by options

David Ortiz flexing.jpg

Even amidst the Bruins’ 13-game points-streak and the Patriots’ ongoing saga with Vince Wilfork, David Ortiz’s desired-to-completed contract extension is as polarizing as any other topic on the Boston sports scene.

That’s either a credit to the three-time World Series champ and face of the Red Sox, or an indictment of the media covering it. Either way, Theo Epstein could count me among those guilty of feeding this particular monster.

As I wrote back in January, I wouldn’t have chosen to extend the should-be Hall of Famer, and my opinion hasn’t changed. With one year left on his deal, Ortiz had no leverage against the Sox to force a new contract but, after much griping and moaning, ownership openly opted to make an exception for one of its group’s most important figures.

However, if the Boston’s brass felt so compelled to give into the player and get a deal done, it did so the right away: with options.

While battling through a meaningless 2-for-35 spring training slump, Ortiz was awarded a $16 million extension for 2015, followed by a vesting option for 2016 and a club option in 2017. If you missed the specifics, the latter two seasons each have $10 million base salaries that can be enhanced by as much as $6 million apiece based on the designated hitter’s number of plate appearances (ranging from 425 to 600).

Some have called it a hometown discount. For a 38-year-old who is already and will continue to be the highest-paid DH in the game, that seems a stretch. A better term might be “affordable” for a sport with no salary cap and a team that prints money.

The dollar-figure really isn’t all that important in this case. The Red Sox have plenty of financial flexibility in years to come and this agreement will in no way, shape, or form hinder their ability to field a competitive club.

What is important – and I’d argue the most significant fact – is that Ortiz’s previous offseason complaints over his future will be removed so long as he stays healthy. To his benefit, the only clause for those options to kick in involves the veteran being well enough to step up to the plate with some regularity. No performance benchmarks are required. Whether he sends a ball into the bullpen catcher’s mitt or the first baseman’s glove, he’ll still be a step closer to getting paid. Ultimately, at least as Ortiz has indicated it over the last few months, that means he’ll be a step closer to being respected. In an ironic twist, he doesn’t so much have to earn the deal as be present for it.

You might argue this is as much peace of mind for the team as it is its cleanup hitter.

Like the card-carrying members of Red Sox Nation, I respect Ortiz’s place in the New England community as I do his spot in the dugout, clubhouse, or lineup. He’s a larger-than-life figure with a larger-than-reasonable desire to have his ego stroked. It’s why he felt the need to tell all of us he’s “one of the greatest players to ever wear this uniform” when no one would argue otherwise.

The numbers don’t lie.

In 11 seasons in Boston, Ortiz has finished in the top-five in the American League MVP voting five times. He’s a nine-time All-Star and a six-time Silver Slugger. Since joining the Sox from a relatively anonymous start with the Twins, he’s swatted 373 of his 431 career home runs, driven in 1,191 runs of his 1,429 lifetime RBI, batted .292 and compiled a .962 OPS. None of that accounts for some of the biggest postseason hits in team history.

Over the last three seasons, Ortiz has averaged 124 games played, 27 long-balls, 86 RBI, batted .311, and had a .972 OPS. You may also remember that MVP-worthy .688 average and 1.948 OPS in the World Series.

Unfortunately, though, the man hasn’t been nearly as consistent as his stats.

There was an agreement in place when Ortiz was handed a new two-year contract after an Achilles injury cost him half of an otherwise productive season in 2012. The belief was the slugger would play out his deal before addressing a new one. A uniquely impressive .309-average, 30-homer, 103-RBI season altered the conversation.

Maybe I’m naïve to his value on the open market – though I really don’t believe that to be the case – but I’ve never for one moment worried Ortiz would depart in free agency following a productive 2014 campaign. No matter, that concern is gone. The dynamic middle-of-the-order bat will all but certainly retire in a Red Sox uniform, whether that’s at age 39, 41, or 57 if he’s still producing.

What I can’t help but wonder is this:

If Ortiz suffers some sort of devastating injury and doesn’t reach the plate appearances total required to implement his option (he’s failed to reach 400 plate appearances only twice since 2000), or his performance at the plate didn’t warrant such regular duty, what happens then if he still wants to play going forward? Would he complain once again about being disrespected, or threaten to move on?

The answer is all too familiar for the man who quipped, “I guess you guys get tired of me talking about contracts all the time.”

It would start with whispers, continue with interviews with media at his annual winter golf tournament and, if it got that far, reach its breaking point of frustration just prior to spring training. In the end, those complaints would be answered with a new contract because David Ortiz never wearing another uniform is worth at least $10 million to the men writing the checks. The business of baseball extends well beyond the field, and Big Papi is great for business. It’s his bleeping city, after all.

Hopefully a natural ending precedes an ugly one. As Ortiz told reporters on Monday, “There’s going to be that day when I’m not going to feel like doing what I normally do. When that happens, everybody is going to know it.”

We’ve always known what Ortiz is thinking, for better or worse. Why would his pending retirement be any different?

In the meantime, as he noted, he’s hungry and eager to prove his “media haters” wrong. In the past, those accused haters have always driven the star to succeed. Fleeting steroid speculation early in 2013 fueled an MVP-caliber season and an otherworldly playoff run, and don't you forget it. Ortiz hasn't.

So long as the 18th-year vet can stay on the field, the yearly questions over whether he should be paid, how much, for how long, and by whom are gone, and so too are the distractions.

As a result of a couple option years, Ben Cherington, John Farrell, Ortiz’s teammates, and the burly basher are all breathing a sigh of relief today. Now we can take advantage of our option to change the conversation.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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