THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Ortiz sure looks like a keeper

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 14, 2011

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To re-sign him or not to re-sign him - that is the question facing Theo Epstein during the offseason.

’Tis a vexing matter, I’d say. This is why they pay the Red Sox general manager the big money, to make the hard decisions.

At the beginning of the season, it didn’t look as if it would be a difficult decision. David Ortiz would be at best good, not great, in 2011.

True, he was better last year than he was the year before, when he put up a career-low OPS of .794, a fine figure for a generic middle infielder but a significant comedown for a man who had given the Sox a five-year run from 2003 through 2007 of .961, .983, 1.001, 1.049, and 1.066.

Those are very manly stats, and that’s the way Big Papi was going to frame himself, you could be sure.

Ortiz made a decent comeback last year with 32 homers, 102 runs batted in, and a somewhat more Papi-like OPS of .899. He had some good spurts, but he just wasn’t the same fearsome hitter he had been in those glory years, and everyone knew it.

Theo & Co. were not exactly in a major rush to open negotiations for a contract extension as Papi entered the walk year of his contract. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most observers were having a very hard time envisioning David Ortiz as a member of the Red Sox in 2012.

Most of those people - and I am definitely one of them - would now have a hard time envisioning him being anywhere else. But is it a lock? Only Theo knows.

There are two issues. The first is how to evaluate David Ortiz. The second is to ask yourself how easy or difficult it would be to replace him with another qualified DH.

One thing 39 years of designated hitter history has taught us is that it isn’t for everybody. There aren’t as many pure professional hitters as you might think, for one thing. And a lot of good, professional hitters simply have not been able to adapt to the very specific role of being a DH.

Ortiz, who came into organized baseball as a first baseman, is not one of those people. You might very well argue that only Edgar Martinez has done it better on a prolonged basis.

This year, Papi has passed both the numbers test and the eye test. Through Friday’s action, the OPS was back to a very respectable .946. He’s on pace to drive in 110 runs. He’ll have more than 30 homers and 40 doubles. The obvious numbers will be his best since 2007, when he ended that dazzling five-year run with 35 homers, 117 RBIs, a league-leading on-base percentage of .445, and a career-high OPS of 1.066.

Injury helped account for an off-year in 2008, but in 2009 and 2010, he got off to horrendous starts before picking it up in June. And I need not remind any devoted Red Sox fan how often he looked, well, sad, at the plate, especially against lefthanders. In those two years, he seriously failed the eye test.

But that is not the case this year.

This year he is a different hitter, one reminiscent of the 2003-04 Papi. I think he began to change his style in 2005, when he hit 47 homers as a pronounced pull hitter. He followed that with a monstrous 2006, when he broke Jimmie Foxx’s franchise home run record with 54 while driving in 137. He had made a big commitment to being a pull hitter, and he delighted in hitting the ball over the nightly shift.

All the pull-hitting did him in, I believe. That’s why it is so refreshing to see the 2011 Papi, who has reinvented himself as an all-fields hitter. Miss inside and he can launch one. Work him away and he will go to left, no problem.

Why? Adrian Gonzalez; that’s what I think. It’s not just his presence in the lineup. It’s the idea that watching Gonzalez take what pitchers give him to use the entire field has been the equivalent of a light bulb going off in Papi’s head. Like, “Hey, I used to do that!’’

Well, he did, and now he’s doing it again.

As partial proof that he is a better hitter than he’s been in four years, check out his strikeout/walk numbers. In 2006 and 2007, he walked more than he struck out. In 2009 and 2010, he had a huge skew the other way (134/74 and 145/82).

This year? Fifty-eight strikeouts and 56 walks through 111 games. Something is going on.

Now, he did fall off in the first month following the All-Star Game, so we must keep a close eye on him. But he sure looked like a dangerous hitter last week.

If the Sox were to let him go, replacing him would not be easy. The only current DH even close to him in the extra-base department this year is Michael Young of Texas.

Finding a good DH has never been easy. Any time you see a DH batting anywhere lower than sixth in the order, you know that team has a problem. And you see it all the time.

Papi is coming off a five-year contract worth about $64.5 million. He, of course, will be looking for at least three years, with a decent raise. But he would play those years at ages 36, 37, and 38, so a contract of that length would give Epstein pause. But if he regressed, say, 10 percent a year, would he not still be viable?

Take a look at what’s out there. Papi will remain Boston’s best option.

Two years at $12 million per or so, plus a club option. That would be my offer. But Epstein is the GM. I just play one in print.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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