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Red Sox bite bullet on Ortiz

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 5, 2010 07:44 AM

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David Ortiz hit 32 home runs last season, including this two-run shot on Sept. 6 vs. the Rays. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Were this purely a baseball decision, with a less significant personality, David Ortiz would be a free agent today. That much should be clear. The Red Sox have been a true business for years now, since John Henry became owner, and these Red Sox generally are not in the business of doing favors out of the goodness of their hearts.

And so, in many ways, David Ortiz should consider himself a fortunate man today, the recipient of a $12.5 million salary at a time when he would not command nearly that much on the open market. Vladimir Guerrero had every bit the year that Ortiz did this season, and yet Guerrero is now on the street again after the Texas Rangers declined a $9 million option.

Ortiz and Guerrero are roughly the same age, even in Dominican years, and both are pure designated hitters. And you can bet your mangos that Guerrero will not end up with a $12.5 million salary next year, no matter who signs him, no matter for how many years.

Was this a special circumstance? You bet it was, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with that. But let’s be honest. The current owners and operators of the Red Sox are shrewd businessmen who have cast off valuable members of the Boston organization before. Pedro Martinez. Johnny Damon. Trot Nixon. Derek Lowe. They traded away Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez. The Red Sox believe in value almost as religiously as the Patriots do, and that approached has served them well during the greatest decade in the history of Boston sports.

But excluding that ill-advised occasion when the Red Sox prematurely picked up the $17.5 million option on Pedro during the spring of 2003, the Red Sox have never really done anything quite like this, not with one of their own. Not really. Never have they willingly overpaid someone, according to market, according to the forces that drive most every decision they make. Yesterday, general manager Theo Epstein repeatedly referred to the Ortiz agreement as a "one-year deal" while stressing "what David has done in the past" and "what he currently means to the franchise and the ownership group," all of which is indisputably true.

But here’s what Epstein didn’t say: that Ortiz the player is worth a salary of $12.5 million. That Ortiz is still a risk. That the Red Sox have so many holes they probably could not afford to create another, so they bit the bullet on a player they almost certainly would have cut ties with at a different time and under different circumstances.

At that stage, after all, don’t we all understand who Epstein is? The general manager of the Red Sox will turn 36 next month, but he has the maturity of someone twice his age. Epstein simply does not get emotional about personnel decisions. It is generally one of his strengths. Epstein makes decisions with his head, not with his heart, and knows what makes sense. He also knows what does not. Epstein is absurdly practical, perhaps to a fault, every decision explored as if it were a logic game on the LSAT.

So now ask yourself this: would Theo Epstein give a 35-year-old designated with a recent history of slow starts a one-year, $12.5 million contract? If the Red Sox were in the market for a DH, would he give such a deal to Guerrero? Of course not. No, no, no. Epstein might sign two players for $6 million to $8 million each, perhaps spending more money, but also hedging his bets. That’s how Epstein operates. He mitigates risk.

Remember: Epstein referred to what Ortiz "currently means to the franchise and the ownership group." He said nothing about the competitiveness of the baseball team. That is entirely within the character of the Red Sox GM, who always has found it somewhat uncomfortable to deceive. (Once again, we cite Epstein’s disagreement with team business officials in "Feeding the Monster," when the GM snapped at marketing personnel who suggested that the Red Sox sell their fans a bill of goods.) Epstein has as many questions as ever about Ortiz, with good reason, and you should too.

Now, if we want to examine whether Ortiz can still help the Red Sox, the obvious answer is yes. All things considered, Ortiz had a very good year. He is just no longer at a stage where we can assume that another good year is coming. Ortiz knows this as well as anyone. The end will come for Ortiz just as surely as it has come for every player ever to have worn a major league uniform, and Ortiz is now at that stage of his career where he has to prove himself again. Every month. Every year. No matter what.

Beyond the baseball, does Ortiz have value to the franchise? Absolutely. They have enough needs to begin with. If the Red Sox were to unceremoniously cut ties with him, that would hardly do much for the Red Sox’ reputation throughout baseball. Red Sox television ratings have been cut in half since the 2007 season, and the roster is undergoing major turnover. To cut loose a warm, engaging face of the franchise who happens to have been one of the great clutch performers in team history could further damage the identity of a franchise undergoing renovation.

Owner John Henry likes Ortiz and always has, once presenting Ortiz with a plaque that declared him the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history. And then there was the spring in which the Red Sox ownership group bought Ortiz a pickup truck because the club felt so guilty about fleecing Ortiz on a four-year, $52 million contract that included an option for a fifth season at $12.5 million.

Within months of that deal, Ortiz was grossly underpaid.

Yesterday, the Red Sox picked up the option.

Maybe this is all their way of trying to make David Ortiz whole.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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