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Sox had to take Ortiz at face value

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 14, 2012 04:22 PM

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This has been an offseason where the Red Sox have become almost unrecognizable. Change has come to Yawkey Way not in droplets, but in torrents, washing away the identity of the Olde Towne Team.

If last offseason created great expectations, this one has created great uncertainty.

The Sox have exchanged the familiar for the unfamiliar since their epic September collapse. Three of the positions most crucial to the success and stability of a baseball team have been swapped out like a light bulb -- general manger, manager and closer. If the departures of Theo Epstein, Terry Francona and Jonathan Papelbon weren't disorienting enough, the Sox have also done a 180-degree turn in their financial approach to building a team, going from lavish spenders to luxury tax tightwads.

In an offseason characterized by departures from past leaders, players and ways of doing business, the last thing the Red Sox needed was for the longest-tenured player on the active roster, David Ortiz, to arrive at spring training with the slings and arrows of an arbitration hearing ringing in his head, steam coming from his ears, and resentment rolling off his tongue.

That's in part why the Sox settled with Big Papi yesterday on a one-year, $14.575 million deal, hours before his arbitration case was to be heard.

An appeased Ortiz is good for the Red Sox, both as a baseball team and as a product that needs a pitchman besides the manager. Every day has been Valentine's Day for the Sox with the voluble Bobby V since upper management foisted him on new GM Ben Cherington.

After a season that ended in disarray and disharmony, the last thing the Sox needed was to start this season on a contentious note. If there is one player on the Red Sox you don't want to go to arbitration with it's Ortiz, who as sensitive as a sunburned supermodel.

This is a guy who barged into Francona's press conference last season with an obscentity-laced tirade over a run batted in -- one RBI -- with the indignation of someone who had just been told he was fired. He's the same player who was incensed with the media and Francona after he was pinch-hit for in Toronto in April 2010, when he was batting .154. He's the same player who was enraged by a NESN post-game poll that season that asked whether he should remain the designated hitter.

Real, imagined, or somewhere in between, Ortiz is finely-tuned to every slight or insult, and he usually holds a grudge longer than he does his follow-through on a home run. Taking his case to arbitration was like taking a bottle of kerosene to the clubhouse and waiting for Ortiz to provide the spark.

The Red Sox were in a lose-lose situation with Big Papi in arbitration, which the Sox have avoided assiduously (the team hasn't had a case decided by arbitration since 2002). Either they had to pay him more than they wanted or pay for not paying him enough.

The Sox were offering $12.65 million to Ortiz, essentially no pay raise since the charismatic DH earned that amount last season between his base salary and $150,000 in bonuses. Ortiz, who was angling for a multi-year deal all offseason, was requesting a one-year deal at $16.5 million.

Both sides had good cases. The Sox could point out that the market was extremely limited for Ortiz because he's only a DH and a 36-year-old one at that. Ortiz could point out that he had the eighth-best OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) in all of baseball last season and that his .953 OPS was higher than Albert Pujols's and four points behind Adrian Gonzalez.

If the Red Sox won the arbitration case, then Ortiz would have shown up to spring training disgruntled and feeling disrespected. Perhaps, he would have gone all Peyton Manning passive-aggressive with digs at the new general manager and ownership. His discontent would have hung over and beat down Valentine's first spring training like the Southwest Florida sunshine.

If the arbitrator ruled in favor of Ortiz, a real possibility after he finished in the top 10 in the majors last year in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, then the Sox would have had to shell out more precious luxury tax money. Who knows, maybe they would have felt compelled to deal starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and his $2.5 million salary to fit Ortiz into the "budget" we've heard so much about this offseason.

Is anyone else mystified that all offseason the rationale for the Red Sox' new found frugality was that they wanted to avoid paying the 40 percent tariff for exceeding the $178 luxury tax marker and get it to reset next year at 17.5 percent; then team president and CEO Larry Lucchino defended the Sox' austerity measures by saying the team is going to "fly by" the tax threshold?

That's pretzel logic worthy of a federal budget debate.

A happy Big Papi is an ambassador for a team that could really use one right now.

Plus, despite being written off more times than a soap opera character, Ortiz is still a productive player. He has averaged 29.6 home runs and 99 RBIs over the last three seasons. The counting stats are about as en vogue in baseball analysis as cassette tapes, but power and run production still resonate in this corner.

Yeah, Ortiz is probably overpaid for a DH, but he's been underpaid most of his Sox career, and you can't put a price on stability and brand recognition.

Ortiz represents a constant and a comfort in an offseason defined by volatility and new approaches. His instantly-recognizable, smiling face is a necessity for a team with new faces and a new attitude.

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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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