Part 5 of a 10-day series on Red Sox questions that will be answered during spring training.
BOSTON -- David Ortiz’s checklist of things to pack for spring training:
-- More bling
-- His son D’Angelo
-- Advil. Lots of Advil
Ortiz had hoped to leave the pills at home. It’s the reason he gave for lobbying so vigorously for a contract extension last summer, saying he wanted to avoid the headaches of coming into this season having to deal with constant speculation that this would be his last year in a Red Sox uniform, like he did in 2010.
No such luck. The Sox never offered an extension, though they did pick up his $12.5 million option for 2011, which, given the market conditions for aging designated hitters, could be viewed as an act of exceeding generosity.
So Ortiz, who turned 35 on Nov. 18, will see no lessening in the questions about his future with the ballclub. If anything, the questions will increase, in a world in which Vladimir Guerrero, who was selected ahead of Ortiz as the American League’s top DH, remains unemployed (even though Ortiz “guaranteed” Guerrero would re-sign with Texas) and Manny Ramirez, Ortiz’s former partner in mutual destruction, just signed a modest $2 million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said at the time the club renewed Ortiz’s option that he’d spoken with Ortiz directly and that the player told him he was “cool” about not receiving an extension. Ortiz delivered a similar message to ESPN Boston’s Jackie MacMullan.
"I can't go back to 27 again, but I just came out of a good year,’’ he said. “You can't blame me for asking for something I felt I deserved. It's not like I came out of a terrible season and asked for a lot of money.
"I came out of a good season. I hit for power, knocked in runs. I did what I was supposed to do. People want to say I'm declining. I don't feel that way."
Ortiz hit 32 home runs last season, his most since 2007 and his sixth season with 30 or more home runs as a DH, extending his own record. His OPS of .899 was 105 percentage points higher than the year before, and from May 1 on, only two AL players hit more home runs than Ortiz (31): Toronto’s Jose Bautista (50) and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (32).
So he is justified in his assertion that he remains a productive hitter in the Sox lineup. But a second consecutive miserable start -- he batted just .143 last April, with a home run and 4 RBIs -- led to widespread opining that he was a shadow of his former self. And when manager Terry Francona sent Mike Lowell to pinch hit for him twice against left-handers and sat Ortiz against other lefties, it was clear the Sox had doubts of their own regarding his continuing effectiveness.
Francona has said that if he could do it all over again, there are things he would handle differently, and even Lowell said he probably would not have pulled Ortiz against left-handers. But with right-handed-hitting Mike Cameron and Darnell McDonald and switch-hitting Jed Lowrie all available options, Francona could again be tempted to sit Ortiz, at least against certain lefties.
Ortiz batted .222 with 2 home runs and 24 RBIs against lefties last season, striking out 57 times in 185 at-bats. Against lefty relievers, he was just 3 for 33 (.091). Ortiz says playing against lefties helps his overall timing at the plate, but Francona may decide otherwise. But you can be certain that if he elects not to use Ortiz against lefties, that discussion will be held long before the April 1 opener.
With another contract at stake, Ortiz has terrific incentive to put up big numbers again, although that probably wouldn’t assure him of a return to Boston or a similar salary to what he's getting this season. Adam Dunn signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the White Sox, demonstrating that at least some clubs still place a premium on a slugging DH, though at 31 Dunn is considerably younger than Big Papi.
ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian recently noted that in the last 12 years there hasn’t been a single season in which half of the AL teams employed a DH that played in 100 or more games. Last season, there were five -- Ortiz, Guerrero, Travis Hafner (Indians), Adam Lind (Jays) and Hideki Matsui (Angels). Tigers manager Jim Leyland said that with most teams carrying 12 pitchers, many teams prefer to select their DHs on matchups, and on resting their other regulars.
But if Ortiz is indeed becoming a dinosaur, there can be little debate: For the Red Sox, he has been T. Rex.
Coming Monday: Will Jed Lowrie have a chance to compete with Scutaro at shortstop?