(Fifth in a series examining the Red Sox roster for 2017.)
One of the primary offseason projects for the Red Sox is to find a replacement for David Ortiz as their designated hitter.
Well, that’s not exactly the right way to put it.
“You don’t replace a David Ortiz,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said earlier this month. “That’s not possible.”
Ortiz was perhaps the most impactful player in franchise history, leading the Red Sox to three World Series championships over 14 years before deciding to retire after last season.
He hit 483 home runs for the Red Sox, second only to Ted Williams. His 1,768 RBIs trail only Carl Yastrzemski and Williams. He set major league records for the most games, hits, runs, doubles, home runs, RBIs, and walks as a designated hitter.
In his final season, Ortiz had a 1.021 OPS with 87 extra-base hits, 127 RBIs, and 80 walks. He was an All-Star and finished sixth in the Most Valuable Player voting.
Beyond his contributions on the field, Ortiz also brought an unmatched passion and personality to the Red Sox over the years. When the team was eliminated from the playoffs on Oct. 10, nearly every fan stayed at Fenway Park after the final out, waiting for Ortiz to emerge from the dugout and acknowledge their cheers and chants.
When he did, Ortiz cried as he tipped his cap to the crowd. As Dombrowski said, there is no replacing a player of that stature.
But the Red Sox will have a designated hitter in the lineup when the season opens on April 3 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, that much we know. Who that player will be remains uncertain. Dombrowski, like many decision-makers around the game, has been waiting for Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association to complete negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement before making any financially significant deals.
“You want to know the rules you’re playing by,” he said.
With the old agreement set to expire Thursday, an announcement could come at any time. In the meantime, Dombrowski can afford to be patient, given the numerous free-agent options available.
Pedro Alvarez, Jose Bautista, Carlos Beltran, Edwin Encarnacion, Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli, Michael Saunders, and Mark Trumbo all fit the DH profile to at least some degree.
Ortiz said several times last season that Encarnacion would be his choice. But the former Toronto slugger also would be the most expensive choice. Encarnacion, who turns 34 in January, has a .912 OPS the last five seasons while averaging 38.6 home runs and 110 RBIs. He could command $90 million over four years.
The Red Sox would prefer a short-term commitment based on the players they already have.
First baseman Hanley Ramirez is signed for two more years and $44 million, with a $22 million vesting option for 2019 based on plate appearances the previous two seasons.
Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who could transition into a DH or first baseman, is signed for three more seasons and $58 million. That contract is untradeable unless the Sox were willing to pick up a large percentage of it.
Travis Shaw, who has hit 29 homers the last two seasons playing first and third, also returns.
The Red Sox believe 23-year-old Triple A first baseman Sam Travis is close to the majors. They also have to figure out where 21-year-old Yoan Moncada will play. For now, he’s viewed as a third baseman. Dombrowski doesn’t see 20-year-old Rafael Devers being far away. Devers, who will start 2017 with Double A Portland, has played third base in the minors but could move to first base in time.
By 2018, the Red Sox could be loaded with first basemen, third basemen, and DHs. Signing Encarnacion to a long-term deal might first require clearing some payroll.
The Red Sox also value roster flexibility. In the last 12 years, Ortiz was the DH in 80 percent of the games. That made the Sox unusual. In recent years, many American League teams have spread DH duties around to several players or used a platoon at the position. Outside of Ortiz, only Kendrys Morales (Royals), Victor Martinez (Tigers), and Albert Pujols (Angels) were full-time DHs last season.
In the interest of roster flexibility, Dombrowski would prefer the Red Sox not dedicate one player to being the DH. His ideal replacement for Ortiz would be a player capable of playing somewhere in the field for at least 30-40 games, maybe more.
Such an alignment would allow the Sox to use Ramirez as the DH on occasion and even give second baseman Dustin Pedroia some turns there to decrease the wear and tear on his body.
Beltran, who can play the outfield, represents a good solution. The switch-hitter would help balance the lineup. He also turns 40 in April and will not be seeking a long-term deal. Beltran also would help fill some of the leadership void left by Ortiz.
For Beltran, the Red Sox also would represent a chance to win the World Series. That is one of the few accomplishments missing from his career.
Holliday, who will be 37 in January, has similar attributes.
Primary 2016 starter: David Ortiz.
Expected 2017 starter: To be determined.
Major league depth: Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Travis Shaw, Chris Young.
Prospects to watch: Sam Travis.