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For David Ortiz, patient approach is right

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 12, 2013 06:00 AM

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I don't think it requires high levels of cynicism in the bloodstream to have heard the Red Sox' recent explanation for sore-heeled David Ortiz's scheduled five-to-seven-day hiatus and immediately mutter: ''Right. More like five to seven weeks."

I suppose any time the Red Sox' medical team concludes a diagnosis without alienating a player is a victory nowadays. But let's just say Monday's acknowledgement that Ortiz, who was limited to just 90 games last season after suffering a slight tear in his right Achilles' tendon, will probably begin the season on the disabled list hardly comes as a surprise.

Ortiz has had exactly four plate-appearances since last July 16. He arrived, understandably if not justifiably, in a condition that suggested there were more limits put on cardio than on calories. Every time he has tried to get rolling, his heels have barked that they're not ready for this.

It's baseball purgatory, Big Papi's personal Groundhog Day, and considering that he was ticked off when they put him on the disabled list roughly seven months ago, his unusually glum mood is confirmation that it is incredibly frustrating to still not be quite right.

There seems to be confidence that the week of rest will result in the pain going away, but even should that happen, they should not rush to make sure he's anchoring the lineup on April 1 in the Bronx. In fact, if there's a positive to take from this, it's that the Red Sox appear to be on the verge of doing the right thing and shutting down Ortiz, with no intention of playing him until they are certain he is healthy enough to help in the required, major way.

Of course, some fans have already grown impatient waiting for him to make his spring debut, and a common question aimed this way recently has been some version of this: "Why did they even bring him back in the first place?"

Now, I understand why there might be a skeptical undertone to such a question -- part of his appeal is his marketability, given that the franchise doesn't exactly have a lot of marquee names to appease NESN right now, though Mike Carp seems a natural for a Charlie Moore appearance. Synergy, you know.

But the very real baseball reasons for Ortiz's return on a two-year, $26 million deal should be plainly obvious:

He was a remarkably productive hitter last season.

And the Red Sox need him.

It's lost in the aftermath of the Red Sox' miserable season, but when healthy, Ortiz was practically as good as he has ever been last year. His 1.026 OPS was the third-best of his career, behind his 2006 (1.049) and 2007 (1.066) seasons and ahead of his fairly memorable ....

... 2003 (.961) and 2004 (.983) seasons. His 171 adjusted OPS tied the best of his career (2007), and even with his abbreviated season (not to mention that he has no value other than as a batter), Fangraphs put his value at $13.3 million.

This is not the equivalent of throwing five years at John Lackey or seven at Carl Crawford. It's a two-year deal for reasonable money. Is there risk? Obviously, and perhaps we are headed for a worst-case scenario. But at just two years, the Sox will survive just fine. This isn't Bobby Jenks. It's a risk they were right to take.

His importance was painfully apparent when he was out last year -- they were over .500 when he went down, and 23-49 thereafter -- and there surely will be reminders of how essential he remains to this lineup in his early-season absence.

The Red Sox' lineup this season will be better than than the current conventional wisdom. They were fifth in the American League in runs last year -- one spot ahead of potent Detroit -- despite all that went wrong. They have greater lineup depth than they had a season ago, and with the presumed return to health of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Will Middlebrooks, they'll score enough runs to win on most nights.

But they need Ortiz as that anchor. Mike Napoli and Middlebrooks are perfectly reasonable Nos. 5 and 6 hitters at this stage, but penciling either into the cleanup spot makes you want to lunge for the eraser.

davisalvinpatriotsfinn.jpgOrtiz has a rather fascinating list of career comps -- Juan Gonzalez, Lance Berkman, Jason Giambi, Albert Belle, Carlos Delgado -- and there is certainly nothing approaching their prime-of-career ilk on the roster at the moment to fill the void. As much as Red Sox fans have fallen for Jackie Bradley Jr. -- and it was inevitable -- it would be foolish to punt away a year of service time in order to keep him on the Opening Day roster, even with Ortiz's injury.

The best path during Papi's absence? Rotate the likes of Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia at designated hitter while hoping one of the Replacement-Level Three -- Carp, Daniel Nava, and Lyle Overbay -- somehow begins the season on a hot streak. The most useful of the three may be the defensively proficient Overbay (.776 career OPS in April), though to be honest, I'd almost rather have his top career comp, 52-year-old Alvin Davis.

The Red Sox need Ortiz, which is why they need to be patient -- losing him for, oh, even a month beyond Opening Day is a far more palatable option then watching him limp away at midseason again.

I have to admit, it's a bit disconcerting, even disappointing, to hear such quick dismissals of him, not just because of all that he's done, but because of what he still may be capable of doing.

David Ortiz deserves a good ending to his time with the Red Sox. Let's hope it's not already in motion.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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