July 28, 2017. David Ortiz enters the home locker room at Fenway Park.
Mookie Betts: Hey, guys, Papi’s back!
[Ortiz grins and waves as the team cheers.]
Dustin Pedroia: Good to see you, man. We’ve missed you.
David Ortiz: It’s good to be back.
Xander Bogaerts: How’s the half-season off been? Looks like you’re having fun — I think your TurboTax commercials are hilarious.
Ortiz: Thanks. I mean, I’ve got to keep busy. So, where’s my locker?
Ortiz: Yeah, I’m coming back. You know, to save the season.
Ortiz: This was supposed to be the plan all along — I go away, you guys realize how much you miss me, I come back. This was the Roger Clemens thing, remember? Retire, then come back in midseason like the conquering hero?
Pedroia: I mean, we’re seven games up on Toronto right now. Not to be rude, man, but we don’t need you.
We live in the age of the sequel and the spinoff. Spider-Man gets rebooted more often than someone who’s through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Gilmore Girls gets resurrected after a nine-year hiatus. We’re about two degrees of separation from being able to link Coriolanus to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We just can’t bring ourselves to end things anymore.
It’s understandable that Red Sox fans look on the departed David Ortiz — a 14-year Boston stalwart, author of three World Series titles, and inspiring swearer on television — and want another season. After all, even at age 40, Ortiz led the majors in slugging percentage in 2016; that’s a big hole to fill.
Any team could use a bat like that, but the Red Sox need Ortiz less than almost any other team. For several reasons, any time spent pining for a comeback is time that would be better spent trying on Chris Sale jerseys.
1. It’s time to move on from 2004.
Ortiz was a key figure in the curse-breaking 2004 World Series title that, along with the concurrent Patriots dynasty, helped usher in, for good or ill, the current golden age of Boston sports. Ortiz is a titanic figure in that story — and someday soon he’ll probably be a literally monumental one — but his retirement finally allows everyone to put that story to bed.
One thing the Red Sox have done very well over the past 15 years is turn over the roster, selling high on veteran contributors at just the right time, while having homegrown replacements ready to take their place. Ortiz’s persistence disguised that and gave the team a false sense of continuity, when the truth is that the only other holdovers from 2004 to 2016 were ownership. Now, Dustin Pedroia is the only member of the 2007 Red Sox who remains in Boston, and the only real contributor from the 2013 title team, though Jackie Bradley Jr., Brock Holt, Steven Wright, and Xander Bogaerts were all late-season call-ups or marginal bench contributors to that club.
With Ortiz’s departure, we can now see the Red Sox for what they are: a collection of young position-player talent that is, if not on par with the celebrated young cores being constructed in Houston and Chicago, not far off. Bradley, an All-Star last year and one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, is only 26, and none of the rest of Bogaerts, Betts, and Andrew Benintendi is older than 24. Boston’s first baseman of the future, 23-year-old Sam Travis, will likely get his first taste of big league action this season. And Boston still has all that talent even after trading Yoan Moncada and whiffing on Rusney Castillo.
For the first season in more than a decade, the face of the Red Sox won’t be Ortiz, and it’s past time for that change to take place.
2. Boston has adequate in-house replacements for Ortiz.
Ortiz’s direct replacement as Boston’s DH will likely be Hanley Ramírez, who hit .286/.361/.505 last year, which is not quite on Ortiz’s level, but still really good. What’s made Ramírez’s entire career in Boston kind of puzzling, however, is that he’s never had a place to play. Ramírez has put in time in left field and at first base, and he’s been conspicuously bad at both positions, which is saying something considering the worst defenders in the game go to first base and left field.
That makes the defensive upgrade from Ramírez to Mitch Moreland — who, like all “good defensive first basemen,” doesn’t hit that well — considerable. And if Moreland isn’t the long-term solution, Boston has Travis, as well as Pablo Sandoval, who missed almost all of 2016 with a torn labrum. None of those players will match Ortiz’s 2016 production, but it’s not like they’re Rico Brogna out there. Moreland won’t make back the total offensive gap with his glove, but it’s a start.
3. Even if the Red Sox take a step back at first base and DH, they’re set to improve elsewhere.
For starters, the Red Sox are set to take a huge step forward in left field, where Benintendi replaces last year’s hodgepodge of Brock Holt, Chris Young, and three members of O-Town. Boston got slightly above-average production out of left field last year, a 106 sOPS+, but Benintendi is the goods. The 22-year-old is good enough defensively to play center field and has power to spare despite standing only 5-foot-10 — which should sound familiar to fans of Betts and Bradley. Except, Benintendi, whom Baseball America and ESPN’s Keith Law named the top prospect in baseball this offseason, might end up being the best hitter of the three.
If Benintendi changes Boston’s left-field situation from average to exceptional, Sandoval’s return could bring the Red Sox back up to average at third base, which was their worst position last year. Holt, Travis Shaw, and a couple of others combined for a 78 sOPS+, and Baseball Reference rated Boston’s third basemen as the 22nd-best in the majors, about half a win below average for the position.
Also, they’re replacing Clay Buchholz with Chris Sale.
4. They’ve got some wiggle room.
Last year’s Red Sox won the AL East by four games despite underperforming their run differential by five games. But even if the Red Sox are going to suffer for Ortiz’s absence, the Blue Jays will suffer just as much after having lost Edwin Encarnación and Michael Saunders. The Yankees are still another year away after hitting the reset button for the first time in more than 20 years, and the Orioles continue to roll out one of the worst starting rotations of any contending team in the majors.
Currently, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system has Boston winning the AL East by six games; at FanGraphs, ZiPS and Steamer say the Red Sox are seven-game favorites. The inherent imprecision of WAR makes this sort of a crude way of looking at things, but neither Baseball Prospectus nor Baseball Reference nor FanGraphs has rated Ortiz as a six-win player since 2007.
Put it all together and the picture becomes clear: The dropoff from Ortiz to his replacements will be considerable, but not disastrous. At the same time, Boston will probably make incremental improvements elsewhere on the diamond, and even if that doesn’t happen, they’ll probably be better than their competitors, anyway.
Ortiz won’t need to swoop in to save the Red Sox because the Red Sox won’t need to be saved.