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By the time the Red Sox were swept by the Tampa Bay Rays Monday afternoon, David Ortiz’s hollow promise was all but forgotten. After Friday night’s suspended game, Ortiz expressed distress. With 15 strikeouts in 38 at-bats, Ortiz has plenty of reason to be upset. Surprisingly, his struggles were not on his mind. The game was called following a 63-minute rain delay, and Ortiz was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the ninth.
“I got sad,” Ortiz told The Boston Globe. “I was ready to hit a walkoff.”
Like a former heavyweight champion entrenched in the twilight of his career, Ortiz believed his statement. He was the only one.
Baseball history is forever ingrained with images of past Ortiz heroics. He would own the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim just as he’d own the greatest closer in league history, Mariano Rivera. The opponent never mattered, nor did the pressure; if David Ortiz was to hit with the game on the line, the contest terminated with a certain Red Sox victory. These days it is he who is being terminated, time after time, a virtual pink slip standing in the batter’s box. Now it is time for the Red Sox to give him his.
Loyalists will argue that it wouldn’t be fair to release Ortiz. He has single-handedly won several of the most important games in the history of Boston’s ancient and storied franchise. Owner John Henry awarded him a plaque that read “The Best Clutch Hitter in the History of the Boston Red Sox.” They’ll point to his sluggish start and hopeful turnaround of last season, urging naysayers to give him more time. His turnaround was encouraging, sure, but only from where he started in 2009. Measured against the rest of his career, and the drop-off is a steady one. Had Ortiz not temporarily caught fire last June (he hit .320 with an OPS of 1.062), his season batting average would have been a paltry .224, his OPS an awful .745. These are the numbers of a guy you might bat eighth, not of one you would use to protect cleanup hitter Kevin Youkilis.
The steroid era made many of us forget the natural decline of the professional power hitter. A look at some of the bigger names of the late eighties and early nineties displays a dispiriting pattern. Jim Rice lost his skills almost overnight. Cecil Fielder and Mo Vaughn achieved several years of greatness, only to see their careers disappear along with their inflated power statistics.Yes, injuries contributed in some cases, but this is the normal shelf life for big-bodied sluggers.
While Terry Francona is known for this blind loyalty, Theo Epstein and the Red Sox front office needn’t be as coddling. Last off-season, Theo opted for pitching and defense, a far cry from the team-building of Red Sox past. Power hitting had always been a hallmark of Red Sox offenses, the short porch in left field allowing a myriad of options for hitters on both sides of the plate. This year, the Red Sox chose otherwise, and the early returns have been gloomy. The team is built for the post season, but if they fail to produce runs, they may not get there in the first place.
With that in mind, Epstein will not be afforded the luxury of giving Ortiz a long leash. David Ortiz is known for one thing: hitting, and now he can’t hit. Worse yet, opposing pitchers no longer fear him. Last year he was intentionally walked only five times, Albert Pujols, by contrast, received 44 free passes. Tampa’s Lance Cormier was probably even happy to see Ortiz scheduled to lead off the ninth, expectant of an automatic out. If Ortiz were to be released, would Red Sox fans really be afraid to face him, even if it were in pinstripes? The answer is no.
Releasing David Ortiz would be beneficial in several ways. First, it would free up more at-bats for Jeremy Hermida, who has already demonstrated the ability to hit for power from the left side. Hermida went deep again Monday, depositing his second home run of the season into the right field grandstand. The fact that Hermida is young and can play defense only bolsters his value. Second, it would free up the Red Sox in the minds of potential trade suitors. As long as Ortiz remains on the roster, potential trade partners will know that the Red Sox are hamstrung by his presence and make outrageous demands when the Sox come calling. Theo Epstein has made no secret of his lust for Adrian Gonzalez, as his name is floated about any time the Red Sox are mentioned in trade discussions. If Hermida could log more at-bats and maintain his early success, Boston wouldn’t appear so desperate, thus adding leverage to their bargaining position when the time inevitably arrives.
A dark horse in the discussion could be Alfonso Soriano. The Chicago Cubs are openly ready to cut ties, particularly because Soriano cannot play defense. Remembering how well he thrived in the AL East, he could find new energy in a Red Sox uniform. His defensive liabilities would be moot if he were to DH. With little signs of an encouraging turnaround, Boston fans will continue to sour on Ortiz. As the boos grow louder his struggles will swell with them. Last season, he struck out 30 more times at Fenway than on the road. Emotions and loyalty aside, the case against severing ties with David Ortiz seems like a no-brainer.