11-1-2011: Replacing Big Papi
November 1, 2011 5 Comments
The two biggest expiring contracts we have to deal with this offseason are those of DH David Ortiz and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Even though we can’t imagine a Red Sox team without these two integral players, they are both Type A free agents. Letting them walk and signing a replacement would result in a net gain of one or two high draft picks, which is very tempting. Should they be replaced? Can they be replaced? And with whom should they be replaced are some of the biggest questions facing new GM Ben Cherington. Let’s look at the DH problem first. Paying less for a DH seems like a very good way to drop payroll, as no other team has been paying $12M/year for their DH (of course, no other team has been getting our production from the DH spot, either).
What will we be missing?
Ortiz has become THE definition of a prototypical designated hitter, producing a number of stellar seasons since being signed by Theo Epstein before the 2003 season. In his first 5 seasons with Boston, Big Papi produced slugging percentages around or exceeding .600, but has fallen to earth quite a bit since then. Entering his age 36 season, we face the tough choice of re-signing this face of the franchise, or possibly letting him go to a division rival.
Ortiz had quite a renaissance 2011, slashing .309/.398/.554 and smacking 29 home runs. He cut his strikeouts significantly, becoming a much more selective hitter in the process; he posted a career-best 83.3% contact rate. His .321 BABIP suggests that it wasn’t just lucky hits that inflated his numbers, but it was in large part actual performance. Even with the excellent year, here’s what we see for the aging slugger over the next three seasons:
Looking at these projections, you can see why a lot of people have been warning against anything longer than a two-year deal for Ortiz; it’s thought that he’s looking for three years. There’s a very good chance that his offensive value just crashes in 1-3 years, so I really would not sign him for more than two years plus maybe a team option.
Perhaps the most widely-suggested solution is to plug Kevin Youkilis into the DH role, at least part-time. Perhaps this kind of usage will help Youk to stay on the field more, as he’s endured a couple of really bad seasons in a row, injury-wise. He did not impress me with his fielding over at third, and first base is, of course, spoken for. Youk will be entering his age 33 season, so a DH/3B/1B rotation might be good for him.
Youkilis should outproduce Ortiz every season, IF he can stay on the field. As a right-handed DH to help balance out the lineup, I’m all aboard with that. The question then becomes who we get to play the hot corner. That kind of goes with the next section, which covers available free agents.
There are some young bats which might be considered to fill the DH role. How ready are they? Here’s what the projections suggest:
I do like the idea of Ryan Lavarnway as a DH/backup catcher, but that is potentially quite a bit of a drop in production, especially looking at the OBP numbers. It is a cheap option, though, and we have other problem areas to worry about, like the rotation. Maybe they start him at Pawtucket and make him force his way up mid-season.
Free Agent options
Without further comment, here are the projections for some of the notable free agent bats out there, along with their 3-year UZR/150 at the position they’d be projected to play with the Sox.
I think you can forget about Albert Pujols, and Prince Fielder wants way more money than any DH should earn. I think Jim Thome could be a fit, though at over 40, it’s hard to know what we’d get with him, or if he could handle 500+ at-bats anymore; and using a roster spot on a part-time DH isn’t a strategy used outside of Minnesota. Carlos Beltran can certainly hit, but the injury issue is always a problem for him. Carlos Pena will hit for power and is familiar with the AL East, but he’s a lefty bat and a first baseman, both redundancies on this team. Josh Willingham might be a good signing, but I think teams are still thinking outfield for him, and Cuddyer, while he has experience at RF/3B/1B, doesn’t field well and isn’t likely to be an everyday 3B. Aramis Ramirez is certainly a name that has been tossed about, but he is also among the worst-hitting of the bunch and also not good with the glove. All of these free agents have their flaws (except Pujols) and risks.
Maybe it’s as simple as letting Papi play the market, then come back to us with his hat in his hand. How would you address the problem of DH?