11-1-2011: Replacing Big Papi


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:

Year AB HR RBI Avg OBP SLG wOBA wRAA
2012 543 27 97 0.266 0.354 0.488 0.374 29.9
2013 513 23 86 0.258 0.337 0.462 0.356 17.6
2014 475 19 74 0.249 0.320 0.434 0.336 6.0

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.

Internal solutions?

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.

Year AB HR RBI Avg OBP SLG wOBA wRAA
2012 456 20 79 0.282 0.384 0.492 0.392 35.7
2013 447 18 75 0.276 0.373 0.476 0.381 28.9
2014 432 17 69 0.269 0.361 0.458 0.368 21.3
2015 410 15 62 0.262 0.347 0.438 0.354 13.4

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:

Name AB HR RBI Avg OBP SLG OPS
Ryan Lavarnway 329 16 53 0.262 0.340 0.473 0.812
Lars Anderson 472 11 62 0.250 0.327 0.400 0.727

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.

Name Pos AB HR RBI Avg OBP SLG OPS UZR
Albert Pujols 1B 598 40 119 0.306 0.396 0.578 0.974 1.8
Prince Fielder 1B 597 36 115 0.281 0.396 0.528 0.924 -3.7
Jim Thome DH 380 22 70 0.257 0.363 0.488 0.851 n/a
Carlos Beltran RF 365 13 54 0.282 0.357 0.469 0.826 -7.6
Carlos Pena 1B 503 29 89 0.227 0.342 0.459 0.801 -3.0
Josh Willingham LF 454 21 71 0.252 0.346 0.455 0.801 -7.1
Michael Cuddyer RF 586 21 84 0.271 0.339 0.452 0.791 -11.4
Aramis Ramirez 3B 487 20 80 0.273 0.327 0.460 0.786 -8.5

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?

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5 Responses to 11-1-2011: Replacing Big Papi

  1. toosoxy says:

    Can Ortiz go anywhere? Seriously. Think about the fan backlash Ben Cherington would get. He might not want to make a tidal wave in his first month. He’s the face of the nation. I don’t think Ben is going to have a choice.

    • redsoxtalk says:

      Really? I think the Sox will let him go to free agency, only to have him crawl back to them after he realizes he’s not gonna do better than 2/18 or 2/20 out there.

  2. Pat says:

    This situation makes me wish we still had Beltre. I think with how fragile Youk has been, getting him to DH is a great solution if we let Ortiz walk. He’s a great backup corner infielder. The depth that creates is nice. That still presents the issue of filling third base, which might be the subject of another post.

    • redsoxtalk says:

      Yeah, I heard it brought up by several people that had we signed Beltre or V-Mart, we would not be in this situation. In his latest, David Ortiz has been talking about wanting security, and is pointing to contracts like Martinez and Adam Dunn. That’s ludicrous that he’s talking about a 4-year deal, given his age. No one in baseball is going to give him $50M, and we may just have to wait for him to realize that.

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