For three brief games at Fenway, David Ortiz's retirement won't be the one that is most prominently discussed. Instead, from Tuesday through Thursday, it will be the announced Friday finish line of Alex Rodriguez's baseball career that occupies a spotlight.
Yet the Yankees' conclusion that Rodriguez's days as a productive lineup member were over carries with it something of a warning light for the Red Sox. Rodriguez, after all, had re-emerged as a force through the first half of last year, only to see his production fall off a cliff around the start of last August. The Red Sox, to some degree, are left to hope that they aren't witnessing anything of the sort with Ortiz.
The thought seems hard to fathom, given all that Ortiz did in delivering quite possibly the most dominant offensive performance of his career in the first half of this year. He entered the All-Star break hitting .332/.426/.682 with 22 homers, 57 extra-base hits, 72 RBIs, and more walks (48) than strikeouts (43).
But he hasn't looked the same since the break. In 20 games, he's hitting .216/.277/.365 with three homers, five extra-base hits, 15 RBIs, and nearly twice as many strikeouts (12) as walks (7). As much as David Price has become a natural flashpoint for criticism as the starter of three of the Sox' six losses on the just-completed roadtrip, Ortiz's lack of impact during the 11-game West Coast swing – a .133/.206/.167 line with just one double and no homers in nine games (eight starts) – was not only costly but underscored a point.
Ortiz is 40. Despite the immense knowledge and raw physical strength he still possesses, the difficulty of maintaining physical health over the long haul of the season makes it incredibly tough to sustain the sort of offense that can carry a lineup for a full year. He started one game in the field during the three-game series against the Dodgers and ended up having to leave due to stiffness, a development that underscored what Ortiz is trying to accomplish in a game more typically played by colleagues who are more than 10 years his junior.
Though he wasn't performing to the standard of Ortiz this year, it's worth recalling that Rodriguez concluded last July with a line of .282/.386/.544 and 24 homers. From Aug. 1 forward – just after he hit a homer to celebrate his 40th birthday on July 27 – Rodriguez hit .191/.300/.377, the start of a decline from which he never emerged, leading to the retirement announcement (which, as much as anything, was an announcement that the Yankees no longer believed he could be a productive contributor).
Rodriguez's drop-off last season did not come with warning signs. He went from being one of the best hitters in the game for four months to one of the least productive over the final two. He couldn't stop the slide.
There are reasons to think that Ortiz can follow a different path. His dominance to start 2016 was at a different level than Rodriguez's in 2015; moreover, year after year this decade, he's shown an ability to hit his way out of slumps, to shed the brief periods of struggle and to re-establish himself as a middle-of-the-order force.
Still, at a time when the Sox need to play with the sort of consistency that's eluded them for much of the last two months, there's little question about what's at stake when it comes to Ortiz's battle against age. If he is not able to return to play a starring role down the stretch, then the odds that the Red Sox will be able to reach the playoffs in his final season will drop precipitously.
If Ortiz's career is to last beyond Oct. 2, the Red Sox will need him to more closely match his performance of the first months of this year (or, at the least, Rodriguez's performance through last July), as opposed to the Rodriguez who began the long downhill march towards the end of his Yankees days last August.