There really isn’t another way to see David Ortiz’s one-year, $16 million contract extension other than as a reward for past performance. That makes it odd, as teams generally work to avoid paying for past performance when signing players to new contracts. Pay a two-win player for the five wins he posted last year, and pretty quickly you’re spending lots of money for a team that isn’t very good. What’s more, Ortiz will be 38 years old this season. Teams don’t typically give large average annual value contract extensions to players approaching 40, and yet, that’s exactly what the Red Sox have done here. Coming from one of the smarter organizations in baseball, this seems like a curious deal, and in pure baseball terms it is. But this deal can’t be measured in pure baseball terms.
There is a baseball aspect to it, of course. Ortiz is 38, but it can be reasonably argued he’s coming off his second best season in the majors, and whether or not it was his second best of fifth best, it can’t be argued that it wasn’t darn good. His projections are impressive for a player of his age and position. FanGraphs Steamer projects an OPS just below .900 while Baseball Prospectus offers a more conservative .840. Given that DHs last season had a .765 OPS (a figure which includes Ortiz’s .959), the Red Sox would probably take either outcome.
Of course, David Ortiz was already signed for the 2014 season. The extension covers the 2015 season, his age-39 season, and that’s where things get iffy on the performance side. There’s a good chance that Ortiz won’t be worth the three-plus wins he’ll be paid for next season. That’s all right though, because as I said earlier, this deal really isn’t about performance. It’s about the fact that during his time in Boston, Ortiz has become the face of the franchise. It’s about the fact that, over his career, Ortiz has been underpaid for his performance. It’s about the fact that, after the Boston Marathon bombings, the city turned to the Red Sox to help heal, and nobody said or did more to make that happen than David Ortiz. When he said, “This is our f—ing city,” he was including himself. Boston is his home, he’s embraced it, and the people of Boston have embraced him.
In a previous draft of this piece, I wrote that this signing is a win-now deal, and in a baseball sense that is correct. Giving Ortiz the extra year he wanted is about making him happy and productive this season as much as it is about signing him for next season. Red Sox GM Ben Cherington even spoke to that when announcing the deal, when he said, “Right now it’s very clear that our best chance to win is with David Ortiz in the middle of our lineup.” That is true. But this deal is about much more than winning baseball games in 2014. This contract extension is the Red Sox formally saying Ortiz will be a Red Sox for the rest of his career, money be damned. It says he’ll be an ambassador to the organization when his playing career is done. It says nobody has done more to turn the Red Sox from a perennial second place team into perhaps the preeminent franchise in baseball over the last decade. That may or may not show up in his stats, but it undoubtedly has value. On Monday, the Red Sox formally recognized it.