<
>

Red Sox face steep climb out of Big Papi-sized hole

David Ortiz's retirement dealt a blow to Boston's offense. Here's why the club is confident it won't be fatal. Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

A couple of months ago, Dave Dombrowski wandered into the weight room in the home clubhouse at Fenway Park and spied David Ortiz working out.

"Hey, you're looking like you could play now," Dombrowski said, according to his best recollection. "Look at the shape you're in."

Ortiz responded with a booming laugh and a reassurance that, no, he wasn't having second thoughts about filing his retirement papers with Major League Baseball in November.

Oh well. Can't blame the Boston Red Sox president for trying.

Replacing one of the greatest hitters in franchise history is difficult enough, but the Red Sox scarcely attempted it. They passed on free agent Carlos Beltran, who signed a relatively modest one-year, $16 million contract with the Houston Astros. They didn't bid on Edwin Encarnacion either, even though Ortiz's pal and preferred successor was available until almost Christmas before landing with the Cleveland Indians for three years and $60 million.

Instead, the Sox added reliever Tyler Thornburg. They improved defensively by signing Gold Glove first baseman Mitch Moreland. And, of course, they pulled off a blockbuster with the Chicago White Sox that brought Chris Sale to a starting rotation that features David Price and reigning Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello.

In the post-Ortiz era, Dombrowski has chosen to focus on run prevention, a tactic that may yet lead to another AL East crown.

But what about that Big Papi-sized hole in the middle of the lineup? While remaining respectful to Ortiz and his place in Red Sox lore, team officials have come off as remarkably unconcerned about the consequences of not finding a big bopper to fill his size 12 cleats.

"You'll never replace his presence, that part of it," Dombrowski said early in the offseason. "But our run production, as much as we can, we have a lot of positional players right now, a lot of guys that can play different positions. We have some young guys coming that we like a great deal. So, we'll just kind of wait and see what happens."

For that, there isn't any need for a crystal ball or a palm reading by Miss Cleo. Of all the predictions for 2017, mark this down as a stone-cold lock: The Red Sox won't score as many runs as they did last year.

The only question now: How steep will the drop-off be?

The Ortiz effect

Last season, Ortiz led the majors with 48 doubles, 87 extra-base hits and a 1.021 OPS. He batted .315, swatted 38 home runs and drew 80 walks against only 86 strikeouts.

A case could be made that, at age 40, he was the best hitter in baseball.

At the very least, Ortiz was the focal point of a Red Sox lineup that produced 878 runs, 101 more than the second-best offense in the American League. Based on formulas developed by stat guru Bill James, Ortiz created 130 of those runs, Boston's second-highest total behind All-Star right fielder Mookie Betts (133).

Subtracting Ortiz won't result in a 15 percent decline in runs scored. Surely, though, the offense will suffer without him.

It isn't merely about Ortiz's production. His impact on the hitters around him was profound. Will shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who batted ahead of Ortiz for much of last season, get as many pitches to hit if the threat of a similarly fearsome slugger isn't looming on deck?

Ortiz was also the primary left-handed bat in a lineup that leans right-handed through the top half of the order with Dustin Pedroia, Bogaerts, Betts and Hanley Ramirez.

The Sox are relying on two players, in particular, to pick up the slack from the left side: 22-year-old rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi and switch-hitting third baseman Pablo Sandoval.

Benintendi batted .295 with 11 doubles, two homers and an .835 OPS after making his big-league debut in August. Sandoval, who has three years and $59.8 million remaining on his five-year, $95 million contract, was a complete zero last season. He reported to spring training out of shape, lost his job, went 0-for-6 with four strikeouts and one busted belt buckle, and had season-ending shoulder surgery in May.

With Benintendi in the lineup all season and Sandoval feeling healthy and, as he told ESPN.com last month, motivated by the embarrassment of 2016, the Red Sox are crossing their fingers that they can put up a chunk of Ortiz's numbers.

Moreland, also a left-handed hitter, is expected to play first base (with Ramirez as the designated hitter) against right-handed pitching. Although Moreland is regarded more for his defense, he did hit more than 20 home runs in three of the past four seasons with the Texas Rangers.

Against lefties, manager John Farrell intends to play veteran outfielder Chris Young. Ramirez likely will move to first base, with other everyday players rotating through the DH spot to help keep them rested.

So, the Ortiz-less Red Sox won't outscore the rest of the league by more than 100 runs. But after upgrading their pitching and defense, they believe the offense will still be robust enough for a return to the postseason.

Will they be correct?

Numbers game

The Red Sox didn't reach that conclusion arbitrarily. Based on their internal projections, they not only determined it would be nearly impossible to add an impact slugger while achieving their goal of bringing in the 2017 payroll at less than $195 million for luxury tax purposes, but also that the offense wouldn't be severely weakened if they didn't do so.

With assistance from ESPN contributor Dan Szymborski, creator of the computer-based ZiPS projection system, we ran some numbers to gauge how many runs the Red Sox might score without Ortiz.

ZiPS projects the performance of each player assuming good health and based on an average ERA of 4.05 in the AL and 3.97 in the NL. While some are predicted to improve or maintain their level, others are targeted for a regression. Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., for instance, is pegged to hit .255 with 18 homers and a .775 OPS, down from a breakout season in 2016 in which he surpassed most of his previous career highs and hit .267, 26 homers and had an .835 OPS.

According to ZiPS, a full season of Benintendi looks like this: .278, 12 homers, .787 OPS. Moreland, meanwhile, is projected at .244 with 15 homers and a .719 OPS, Sandoval at .264 with 11 homers and a .719 OPS.

For this exercise, ZiPS also allocated playing time. Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley and Pedroia were allotted 630 plate appearances apiece because they are expected to be in the lineup almost every day. Young was assigned 378 based on the likelihood that he will play primarily against lefties.

Using those estimates, ZiPS has the Red Sox scoring 811 runs, 7.6 percent fewer than last year's total.

ZiPS also made a projection for Ortiz -- .282, 30 homers, .926 OPS -- on the off chance that he changes his mind about retiring. (Not happening, by the way, based on his insistence that his balky feet couldn't withstand the pounding of another season -- or even the World Baseball Classic in March.)

If Moreland's 525 plate appearances are transferred to Ortiz, ZiPS has the Red Sox scoring 843 runs, 32 more than the estimate without Ortiz and 35 off last season's pace.

And while that might not seem like a lot over a 162-game season, consider this: In 2016, one win was equal to 9.778 runs scored. By that measure, not taking the bolder step of replacing Ortiz with Beltran or Encarnacion could cost the Red Sox nearly four victories, or the margin by which they won the division last year.

So, go ahead and mark it down: The Red Sox will score fewer runs without Ortiz. And it will come down to the pitching and defense to soften the blow.