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Sox should play long ball with Ortiz

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  August 18, 2011 03:06 PM

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David Ortiz is in a walking boot, but it’s the Red Sox offense that is limping along without him.

With bursitis in his right heel keeping Ortiz out of his customary fifth spot in the batting order for a Fenway Park pit stop against the Tampa Bay Rays, a Red Sox lineup that has relied on its top five all season was shallower than an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians."

The Sox scored just five runs during the three-game set and were shut out yesterday. For the first time in franchise history the team was held to three hits or fewer in three consecutive home games.

Thanks to the anemic offensive output, the Red Sox ceded the major league lead in runs scored to the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have scored 652 runs to the Sox’ 649.

With his contract drive in full swing, a wear-and-tear injury like the heel -- estimated to keep Ortiz out about a week -- would seem to buttress the case that the 35-year-old designated hitter is not a wise investment beyond this season. But his absence is actually making the opposite argument – that Ortiz is an essential piece for the Sox beyond 2011.

This is not an opinion based on teary-eyed nostalgia or mawkish sentimentality. It’s based on the pablum of the baseball world -- cold, hard stats. Big Papi's this season are a .300 average, a team-leading 24 home runs and 79 runs batted in. Those are not easy numbers to replace.

So, if it takes more than a one-year deal to bring Ortiz back for 2012 then the Sox should warm up John Henry’s checkbook. How about a nice two-year, $24 million-$25 million deal with a vesting option for a third?

If Ortiz walks on such a deal to take three years from say the Yankees then he’ll get the Johnny Damon treatment when he returns to the Fens. Unlike Damon, he will deserve it, especially after ownership went to bat to get his $12.5 million option picked up this year.

Two years is too much for a designated hitter that turns 36 in November you say? There is no such thing as too much money on Yawkey Way. Like the Yankees, the Sox have deep enough pockets to absorb risky or unsuccessful investments. It’s simply the cost of big boy baseball.

If the Sox can afford to pay on-base percentage poster boy J.D. Drew an average of $14 million dollars a year for five years, or give John Lackey $16.5 million per season for five, or write a $142 million check to a player who has never hit 20 home runs in a season, then they can afford to go more than a year for Ortiz.

It’s just a few more Fenway commemorative bricks to broker to the masses.

Ortiz will be a productive player next season. The worry is beyond next season, when he is 37. But if Big Papi goes bust in 2013 then the Sox can simply write it off as the tariff of having him – and the best chance to win -- in 2012.

Being written off is nothing new for Ortiz. Writing off the Dominican designated hitter has become as much a ritual of the Red Sox season as the insipid crooning of “Sweet Caroline.”

For Ortiz DH once also stood for designated hero, recently it’s been Doubted Hitter.

He was supposed to be done three years ago when he had one home run through the end of May, or last year in April, when Terry Francona pinch-hit for in Toronto and the Sox were reportedly considering releasing him.

But here he is in August with a better slugging percentage (.557) than Adrian Gonzalez (.542) and Miguel Cabrera (.554).

Even as he entered the presumed twilight of his career (cue Dan Duquette voice) Ortiz was basically a 30 homer, 100-RBI guy. He had 28 long balls and 99 RBI in ’09 and went 32-102 last season.

Those guys don’t grow on trees in MLB, at least not any more, now that the Steroid Error has been nipped by Bud.

The other death knell for Ortiz’s career was that he was Big Putty against lefthanded pitching. Way back in spring training Ortiz admitted he had to prove to himself that he could hit lefthanders.

Check.

After hitting just .217 with eight home runs, a ghastly .286 on-base percentage and 101 strikeouts in 350 at-bats against lefties the last two seasons, Ortiz is batting .320 against southpaws this season with seven homers.

His on-base percentage (.424 vs. .371) and slugging percentage (.578 vs. .547) are actually higher against lefties.

Look, locking up Ortiz to more than a one-year deal is not without downside or potential pratfall. Anytime you’re signing a 36-year-old there is an element of caveat emptor due to injury or decline. And Ortiz comes with an additional warning label.

It was two years ago this month, that Ortiz held a press conference in New York with the Major League Baseball Players Association at his side to explain why his name was on the list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in 2003.

Except there has never been a sufficient explanation from Ortiz or anyone else as to why his name was on this list if, as he maintained, he has never used steroids. Ortiz said he was going to find out why he was on the list. We're still waiting.

However, Ortiz has tested clean ever since.

Ortiz said he hopes to play at some point during the Sox’ eight-game road trip, which commences tonight Kansas City. That’s good because Ortiz was the Sox’ hottest hitter before his injury, carrying a seven-game hit streak during which he was batting .500 with three home runs.

But the longer he is cooling his heel in the walking boot the stronger the case gets for the Sox not to let him walk.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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