The Red Sox front office has spent much of the off-season deconstructing and reconstructing their team while dealing with the happiness/unhappiness of Manny Ramirez. News surfaced at the end of last week that the heart and soul of Boston — AL MVP runner-up David Ortiz — wants a contract extension that will keep him in Boston for the rest of his productive career (and beyond).
According to a story in Friday’s Boston Globe, Big Papí wants a deal that would keep him in Fenway until he turns 36.
Currently 30, Ortiz is entering the last guaranteed year of his current contract. For his 31 win shares (fifth best in the AL) and 136 runs created (third best in the AL and tops on the Sox), the big slugger is set to make $6.5 million in 2006. The Red Sox hold a club option worth $8.4 million for 2007.
Now, I have long believed that Ortiz’s contract is among the best in the game. The Red Sox are getting insane amounts of offensive production (as well as unparalleled leadership and a few other “intangibles”) for less than $7 million! Plus, the Sox picked Ortiz up off waivers. It’s a steal.
While the Red Sox can bask in the glow of this thievery, I doubt that the team will be able to get away with paying Ortiz so little if he is to remain in Boston. I would imagine that Ortiz will want a deal that pays him anywhere from $13-15 million. He’s easily worth more money than Johnny Damon or Rafael Furcal, both of whom will be making in excess of $13 million. So why shouldn’t he want to break the bank? However, a contract extension here is the classic example of a team’s having to pay for what a player has done in the past instead of what he is likely to do during the course of his career.
Confused? That’s alright. Let’s take a look at David Ortiz and ten players whose offensive careers are most similar to his through age 29.
In 2005, the 29-year-old Ortiz had the following offensive line:
Ortiz right now is playing awesome baseball during his peak performance years. After 30, according to conventional wisdom, Ortiz’s production — or more basically, the production of a hitter in general — is bound to decrease. To see how Ortiz may perform, let’s look at how his comparables performed from age 30 onward.
At Baseball-Reference, every player is listed along with his comparables through their current age. Here is the list of Ortiz’s comps along with the similarity scores (out of 100):
Mo Vaughn (941)
Richie Sexson (931)
Ryan Klesko (919)
Lee May (918)
Danny Tartabull (916)
Tino Martinez (916)
Tim Salmon (914)
Jason Giambi (911)
Carlos Delgado (911)
Tony Clark (906)
Here’s how this group performed collectively at age 29:
Overall, Ortiz and this group stack up fairly well. Because Sexson played just 23 games at age 29, the numbers are a little on the low side. Ortiz out-slugged the group, but the on-base percentage and strike out-to-walk ratios are fairly consistent. It may be possible to determine how Ortiz will age by examining this group. The following table does just that.
First, this comparison is only useful up to about the age 34 season. With only two players playing to 36 and four playing to 35 (many active players have not yet at that age), it’s not statistically reasonable to determine anything from such a small sample size.
So from ages 29 to 34, this group witnessed an 11 percent decline in batting average, a 10.5 percent decrease in on-base percentage, and a 16 percent or 100-point drop in slugging. Notably, home runs declined from a high of 30 to a low of 20.
As superhuman as Ortiz has been, there is every reason to think he’ll suffer the same drop in production. Going from the heights of Ortiz down, however, isn’t awful. By age 34, Ortiz may be hitting around .270/.365/.500 with over 30 home runs instead of nearly 50.
But at this point, here’s where the comparisons get a little more worrisome. Mo Vaughn, Ortiz’s top comparable, saw a huge decline in bat speed at age 34 and played fewer than 30 games before an injury ended his career at 35. Now, he’s opening a $7-million car wash in Boston. None of the other players hit the same after 34, and they weren’t anywhere close to their 29-year-old peak season.
No matter how well or poorly Ortiz ages, it seems certain that he is currently playing at his peak. He’s very underpaid for his performance and seems destined to be overpaid by the time he is 32 and 33. In this case, I think it’s reasonable for the Sox to overpay because the discount they got now. In the end, it’ll balance out. But they shouldn’t give Ortiz too many guaranteed years.
In discussing his extension, Ortiz seemed set on getting a long extension from the Sox. But for all of the talk, the Sox would be better off giving Ortiz a two- or three-year extension that keeps him around until the end of his age 34 season in 2010. They could probably throw in some performance-based options as well. At that point, the Sox will just have to see if Big Papi can defy the downward spiral of age just as well as he can defy pitchers in the American League.