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As the dust settles after the chaotic hiring of Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox will soon turn their attention to David Ortiz, whose free agency looms large when it comes to this offseason and moving forward as a team. His significance as a part of the Red Sox franchise goes without saying; he is one of the last remaining players from the 2004 championship and will always be remembered in Red Sox nation for his efforts throughout his Boston career.
However, things have drastically changed since then: Theo Epstein has departed for Chicago and Terry Francona is no longer filling out lineup cards, so the decision GM Ben Cherington must face is whether or not to retain the services of Ortiz for another couple of seasons.
In 2011, Ortiz put together a terrific season in what has been a two-year comeback from his rough 2009 campaign when he hit .238. Last year he batted .309, his highest average since the Sox championship year in 2007. Ortiz homered 29 times to go along with 40 doubles, and he drove in 96 runners in 146 games. Perhaps the most stunning number was his 83 strikeouts; Ortiz reduced his strikeout numbers in 2011 to an extreme low after punching out at least 100 times in every season since 2004 except 2008 when he only played 109 games. He was a force for Boston throughout the season, a big part of why they were as good as they were for the majority of the year until their September collapse.
However, as good as Ortiz has been year after year with the Red Sox, re-signing him this offseason could very well be a mistake. It is estimated that he is looking for a two-year deal between $10-12 million per year. The Red Sox already have many large contracts locked up around the roster for the long run, and paying that much for a designated hitter could hurt the team at other positions of weakness, such as the starting staff, right field, and shortstop. In years past, the Sox have been loaded at each position, and have had room on the payroll for Ortiz. And while the money is still there with J.D. Drew finally off the roster, it might be significantly more important to spend at real defensive positions before filling the DH spot.
At a time when the franchise desperately needs a new look, I think now is the time for the Sox to let David Ortiz walk away in free agency and find a new home. His departure would give Boston far more flexibility when it comes to working on their roster instead of having the $20 million DH clogging up the team. If he leaves, I think the best option is for the Red Sox to look at players at both shortstop and right field, and sign one of each. Then, the DH spot can be used more loosely to give players half days off, keeping players relatively fresh and playing everyday. It would also give Bobby Valentine the opportunity to experiment with new lineups to see what can work instead of filling out generic lineup cards each game.
One of the biggest problems with keeping Ortiz in the middle of the lineup is the high number of lefties, as Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez already have everyday spots. The normal right fielder will likely also be lefty Josh Reddick, however I think that can change with the departure of Ortiz as well. With regards to shortstops, the free agent market includes high profile options such as Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins, but there are also players who could share time with both Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie such as Ronny Cedeno and Rafael Furcal. While appealing, filling the shortstop position seems like a yearly task for the Sox each offseason, and it might be safer to simply stay with their own options including the development of Jose Iglesias rather than pursuing a free agent.
The outfield market has plenty of appealing options for a team like the Red Sox after the departure of Drew. Again there is the big name option of Carlos Beltran, who has been heavily tied to the Sox in rumors. Michael Cuddyer, Cody Ross, Josh Willingham, and old friend Coco Crisp also exist as cheaper options. An alternative free agent name that has been thrown around is Aramis Ramirez, who could play third base for the Sox from time to time with Kevin Youkilis, who could spend more time at DH and 1B, giving Adrian Gonzalez more rest as well.
I really like the idea of signing Ramirez and letting him join the rotating trio of Gonzalez and Youkilis if Ortiz does not return for 2012. However there doesn’t need to be a player assigned to the position for the team to use it effectively. Hypothetically the Sox could sign a shortstop and a right fielder listed above, filling each position except DH. Then the team could play 8 position players each game with room in the lineup for one more hitter off the bench. This would give players like Ryan Kalish, Jed Lowrie, and Ryan Lavarnway the opportunity to develop without taking time away from regulars. As a position across the league, the designated hitter seems to be in decline, and maybe it is time for the Sox to move forward from it and Ortiz.
I appreciate everything David Ortiz has done for the Red Sox franchise, and I have little doubt that even at the age of 36 he can produce for any team, but he lacks true value because of the position he plays at the price he’s demanding. If he leaves via free agency, it sets up Ben Cherington to make an unexpected free agent splash this offseason with the likes of Jonathan Papelbon and J.D. Drew not returning. I would not attempt to target a shortstop, leaving the job up to Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie to battle for. Aramis Ramirez might seem like a long shot, but his right-handed bat would be a great fit at Fenway, similarly to the way Adrian Beltre fit at 3B for a season. The problem with Ramirez is the contract he’d be looking for. At age 33, I wouldn’t give him any more than a four-year deal. That would shift Kevin Youkilis to the DH spot, which he could also share around the field on days he, Ramirez, or Adrian Gonzalez take off. In right field, I think the best option at a cheap price would be Michael Cuddyer, a great character guy in the clubhouse who would fit right into the Boston environment under Bobby Valentine.
The loss of David Ortiz would be a tough one throughout Red Sox nation, but I think that his departure could be the first step towards restructuring the look of the franchise.