What will Red Sox do about David Ortiz?

BOSTON -- David Ortiz has been the Boston Red Sox's full-time designated hitter in each of the past seven seasons.

Do you know how many other Sox players have had at least two seasons in which they had 450 or more plate appearances while serving as DH at least 75 percent of the time?

One. Mike Easler. Known as the "Hit Man," Easler was the DH in 1984 and '85, when his OPS dropped more than 150 percentage points and Don Baylor took over.

Orlando "Cha Cha" Cepeda was the first Sox DH in 1973, the year the position was created. He was the first of just 11 Sox players who have served as full-time DH in the past 37 years. The last before Ortiz? Reggie Jefferson, in 1997.

To hold that job, Sox manager Terry Francona said on multiple occasions this season, one has to make a profound impact on a team's offense. Like Ortiz has.

"He's an important part of what we do," Francona said. "I don't think we've ever tried to hide that fact. It was tough in April because he was struggling so much. When you have a designated hitter that is your full-time designated hitter, they need to be a huge force in your lineup, just as David has been.

"A lot of teams are shying away from that full-time designated hitter. They are rotating in guys, getting some guys rest. When you have a guy that's out there every day, like an Edgar Martinez in Seattle was, they've got to be a force. David has certainly been that."

The Sox have to decide whether Ortiz, who turns 35 on Nov. 18, can still be counted upon to be that force, one deserving of having his $12.5 million option exercised in 2011. All indications are that the Red Sox believe that he can.

"He had the tough April,'' general manager Theo Epstein said in his media postmortem this week, "and for the second straight year because he is who he is and because of the passion with which everyone follows this team, he had to sort of take a lot. A big burden came with that, a burden of expectations and questioning.

"He did an unbelievable job setting that to the side and focusing on getting locked in at the plate, and he did, and he didn't get unlocked for about five months. He put up terrific numbers, [did] just about everything you can ask for from your designated hitter, and put up a really big year.''

Ortiz had an .OPS of .899 this season, an improvement of 105 percentage points over 2009 (.794) but nearly 200 percentage points down from his peak 2007 (.445 OBP/.621 SLG/1.066 OPS). But take away his miserable April, and Ortiz performed at a level (.385/.558/.943) that still fell short of his best, but placed him among the league's elite hitters.

He also finished strong, batting .306 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in September while posting an OPS of .923. He ended the season with 32 home runs, the sixth season in which he has hit 30 or more, and also topped 100 RBIs for the sixth time in his career.

That kind of production is not easily replaceable, and the Red Sox recognize that. They have until three days after the World Series to exercise his option, and club sources have indicated they intend to do so.

But here's the rub: Ortiz believes he deserves a multi-year extension. The Red Sox, knowing that Adrian Gonzalez is a potential trade target this winter and both Gonzalez and Prince Fielder prospective free agents after 2011, may be inclined to hedge their bets.

Five AL teams employed a full-time DH in 2010, down from seven just three years ago. That's really not a new trend. Before 2007, the last time as many as seven teams used a full-time DH was in 1995, and 1982 was the only other time seven teams had a full-time DH. The position has always been a rotation, except when a team has an Ortiz, an Edgar Martinez, a Frank Thomas, a Jim Thome or a Harold Baines.

Can the Red Sox expect continued production from Ortiz in 2012, when he will be 36, and beyond? Nine full-time DHs 36 or older have had seasons with an .875 OPS or higher, topped by Martinez, who had back-to-back seasons of 1.001 and 1.002 when he was 36 and 37, respectively.

When Ortiz struggled mightily in April in each of the past two seasons, people suggested age had already caught up with Ortiz. He proved them wrong both times.

The decline will come. It already has started against left-handed pitchers. But judging by his performance, Big Papi is not yet close to being Grand Papi. He can make a pretty convincing case that the Sox should tack on at least another option year, with performance clauses that, if reached, vest the option.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.