Red Sox wise to bank on Big Papi

BOSTON -- How much better would you feel about the Red Sox's chances next season if someone told you general manager Ben Cherington could sign a player who brought to the table the following credentials:

• In the past three seasons (2010-2012), he trailed only Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Jose Bautista and Josh Hamilton in on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).
• In the past three seasons, he trailed only Cabrera, Votto, Bautista, Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun in OPS+, which measures OPS adjusted to a player's home park.
• In the past three seasons, he trailed only Cabrera, Bautista, Hamilton, Votto and Braun in slugging percentage.
• In the past three seasons, he trailed only Bautista, Giancarlo Stanton, Cabrera and Hamilton in isolated power (ISO), which measures the percentage of extra-base hits a player has.

Now, how much better do you feel to know that Cherington has already signed that player, and for a salary less than the average salary of the game's top 125 players?

His name is David Ortiz, and yes, the two-year, $26 million contract the Red Sox gave him Friday to remain with the club is greater than what the free-agent market has historically rewarded designated hitters. But maybe it's about time to acknowledge that Ortiz, especially after the way he hit in 2012 before going down with a strained Achilles tendon, does not match the profile of the typical aging designated hitter.

And with so few big bats on the open market this winter, this might have been the year another club decided to bet big that Ortiz would continue to be a very productive hitter for a couple more seasons. The kind of hitter that could mean playing deep into October.

The Red Sox obviously were unwilling to take that chance, striking a deal with Ortiz's agent, Fernando Cuza, before Ortiz could shop his wares elsewhere.

Did they overpay? You could point to the fact that the Sox offered Ortiz two years for $18 million when he was a year younger and make that argument. Plenty of people have, just as plenty of people have said that Ortiz wouldn't have come close to $26 million on the open market.

But a stronger argument can be made that Ortiz is a special case. He has an intrinsic worth to the franchise that makes him more valuable to Boston than any other team, and he might be one of those rare players, like fellow DHs Edgar Martinez and Paul Molitor, who can sustain performance even in the twilight of his career.

Ortiz turns 37 later this month. He will be just short of his 39th birthday when this deal expires. He is coming off a major injury, one that caused him to decide to stop playing in late August after the megadeal with the Dodgers, according to the skewed vision of fired manager Bobby Valentine.

Ortiz averaged a .950 OPS over the past three seasons. Since 1970, only 19 players age 37 or older have had a season with an OPS of .900 or better, and only six of those players did not play during the steroid era. All six are Hall of Famers: Paul Molitor, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays.

The last player age 37 or older to have an OPS of .900 or better: Manny Ramirez, with a .949 in 2009, the same year he tested positive for a banned drug and was suspended 50 games. Upon his return, his performance dropped off noticeably (.881 in his last 77 games).

This past season, only one player age 37 or older had an OPS higher than .800: Chipper Jones, the 40-year-old Braves infielder (.832) who is bound for Cooperstown.

So some slippage is to be expected. But Ortiz has been hearing that argument for the past few seasons now, and last season, one in which he was arguably in the best shape of his career, he turned back the clock five years and was having his best season since 2007 until he strained his Achilles.

Injuries, of course, are one of the primary reasons for late-career decline. Players' bodies break down as they age.

But rather than assuming the worst, perhaps it is useful to consider the case of Martinez, who reigned as the league's best DH until Ortiz came along. Martinez turned 37 before the 2000 season. He retired when he was 41, in 2004. His .OPS over that time: .900, with a .401 on-base percentage and .499 slugging percentage.

The Red Sox are betting on Ortiz not for four seasons, but two. Worst-case scenario, the falloff starts next season and he is a drag on the lineup by 2014. But the Sox, after divesting themselves of $262 million in payroll, are in a position to take that risk. And it's a fair bet that another team might have been willing to do the same.