With the Red Sox falling to 18-17 with Wednesday night’s loss to Toronto, the Fenway faithful are growing ever more frustrated with the team’s journey to the cold, dark annals of the AL East basement.
There are no “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” about it: The team is frantically treading water -- if not outright drowning -- in need of both a spark and better personnel to reclaim its playoff hopes.
Victor Martinez is underachieving at the moment, though he can be expected to turn it around. Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury continue to work back from injury while Darnell McDonald and Jeremy Hermida admirably attempt to fill the void.
Fortunately, the Boston front office is too well managed and too intelligent to scapegoat a single player or staff member for the team’s woes (paging: Seattle and Alan Cockrell).
Unfortunately, there are serious, gaping holes in the team’s once-shimmering armor -- and one, in particular, has endured for two seasons now: the plight of David Ortiz.
With a .200/.274/.412 line through his first 85 at-bats, countless members of the Boston media have clamored for his benching, even hinting at his possible release.
And, at this point in the season, what other choice does Boston have? The internal options are few.
Triple-A Pawtucket has plenty of future major leaguers, but none who can be entrusted with the offensive requirements of a playoff-caliber designated hitter.
Buttressing the existing platoons already in place will help, but in lieu of this, the team’s best option seems to lie outside the organization.
The catch is, these precious few options are dwindling by the day.
Complicating matters are the unexpected hot starts of perennial cellar-dwellers, while the team’s affinity for hulking first basemen Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder make the search all the more arduous.
With their known preference for Fielder or Gonzalez as a long-term fix, Boston is limited to candidates who are both expendable to their trade partner while not interfering with the club’s ability to acquire either first baseman on or before their impending free agency in 2011.
This leaves few viable candidates.
Trouble is, the Nationals are off to a surprising 19-15 start, their hopes buoyed by an early lead in the wild-card chase. Should things go south, which they may, expect Dunn to hit the market. Until then, however, all bets are off.
Instead, persistent knee troubles have threatened to sabotage his season. The once-dominant first baseman hitting a paltry .197/.293/.394 through May 12, Berkman has been reduced to nothing more than an unreliable lineup drain.
With the dearth of options available, the best the Red Sox can do at the moment is buttress the platoons they have in place and wait for sinking teams to call it a season.
And if that means slugging it out with Ortiz for at least a few more weeks, so be it. It will give the team more time to judge if he still has some gas left in the tank while also doing right by their struggling icon.
Giving respect to business prudence and the need to win in the cutthroat Boston media market, Ortiz’s value to the team goes beyond his bat. Having been a stand-up teammate and the perfect face to Boston’s franchise for eight seasons, he deserves far better than a dishonorable release.
And the team owes it to itself and Big Papi to give it one more shot. And, though things seem destitute for the once-proud DH, hope is not all lost.
There is more than meets the eye when it comes to Ortiz’s batting woes.
The crux of Ortiz’s struggles are rooted in two areas: his mounting strikeout rate and his diminishing ability to drive the balls he does make contact with. The good news -- and bad news -- is that these factors are not independent of one another.
First off, Papi is vastly underperforming his plate discipline indicators in 2010. If pitchers threw in the zone more and Ortiz played in line with his contact rates, his strikeout percentage would dip to last year’s level of 25 percent.
Further, he is still making contact in a full 72.9 percent of his swings -- a rate that exceeds such luminaries as Justin Upton (68.1 percent), Matt Kemp (70.8 percent), Jason Bay (72.0 percent) and David Wright (72.2 percent).
When considering that Ortiz has faced the MLB’s second-largest concentration of high-velocity fastballs on the season -- averaging 92.3 miles per hour according to Fangraphs.com -- a light at the end of the tunnel only shines brighter.
When aging sluggers face diminishing bat speed, they tend to cheat on fastballs, becoming vulnerable to off-speed stuff away -- hammering those balls into the dirt on the pull side for easy outs.
Luckily, this may be where the fix lies.
Continuing to platoon him away from lefties, manager Terry Francona could remedy the situation by removing him from the lineup against hard-throwing righties as well. This would grant fourth outfielder Jeremy Hermida more opportunities at the dish while putting Ortiz in situations where his bat speed troubles are minimized.
If Big Papi faces heaters he has little difficulty catching up to, he may not have to cheat as much on fastballs and may see a rebound in his production.
An OPS of over .800, though not terribly likely, is still a possibility, and should be enough to get the Sox into the playoffs if the rest of the team rounds to form. Though a full rebound may not be in the cards, giving Big Papi one more shot is Boston’s only real option at the moment -- as long as it comes in the form of a carefully orchestrated platoon.
Ortiz still has value to the team, and, considering his slow April ‘09 and the adjustments he made after the poor start, there’s reason to believe he can do it again.
The team would do itself a disservice not to try. It would do an even greater one if it disgraced the city’s beloved star with a mid-May release.
And who knows? He may even convert a few doubters along the way. Given the alternatives, it may be the best route to go. Big Papi may just prove that it’s worth it to stand by your man -- for at least a little while, anyway.