In less than 24 hours, David Ortiz will be able to sign with a team besides the Boston Red Sox. Qualifying offers are due Friday, and Ortiz is guaranteed to receive one from the Red Sox if the two teams do not negotiate an extension prior to that deadline. This is an unexpected turn of events, as the off-season began with what seemed like an obvious two-year deal coming to Ortiz -- the two-year deal he has wanted for three off-seasons in a row. Here we are, though, less than a day from Boston's exclusive negotiating window ending, and Ortiz still not locked up.
To understand where the Red Sox are coming from, and why they haven't acquiesced to Ortiz's demands yet, a little history is in order. Before the 2011 season, the Red Sox held an option on Ortiz's contract for $12.5 million. Ortiz wanted a multi-year deal, rather than for Boston to exercise his option. There was no real reason for the Red Sox to do so, though: the designated hitter market was less fertile than that option made it appear to be, Ortiz was heading into his age-35 season and had seen the normal decline that comes with that territory over the last three seasons of his previous deal, and Boston had other plans for the money, plans that were going to put them up against the luxury tax threshold once more before the season even began.
It might have been unfair to Ortiz that new players like Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez were handed long-term contracts, while the Red Sox who had been in town for nearly a decade had to settle for his one-year option being picked up. But that was the situation for Boston, and realistically, Ortiz did very well for himself despite this. Peers like Vladimir Guerrero and Hideki Matsui were also free agents that winter, and combined, they pulled in less money for 2011 than Ortiz did with his option. Neither received a multi-year contract, and all three had similar 2010 campaigns at a similar time in their careers. Boston might not have given Ortiz exactly what he asked for, but it was still better than what comparable players received.
Ortiz had an excellent 2011 campaign while Guerrero and Matsui saw their value decline. This made it clear that Ortiz was the premier DH of the three, and worthy of being paid like it. Boston once again wanted to give Ortiz a one-year deal, though, while Ortiz continued to ask for multiple years. For Ortiz -- and you can look at just about any article on the subject from the last two years -- it was about respect. For Boston, it was about keeping financial and roster flexibility for the future. They were willing to give him two years, but it would have been at a highly reduced salary -- something around $9 million per year for two seasons. They offered him arbitration when Ortiz balked at that, and gave him a raise from $12.5 million to $14.575 million rather than head to a hearing.
Ortiz was in the midst of his best season in at least half a decade when he went down with an Achilles injury in 2012, limiting him to 90 games. This time, there's no question about Boston signing Ortiz to a two-year deal, not now that they have created so much room in their budget with the August Nick Punto trade to the Dodgers. And they still want to reduce the average annual value of the contract, but not by massive quantities. The numbers out of Boston suggest the Red Sox are looking to pay Ortiz $12 million or less per year for the next two seasons, while Ortiz is looking for between $25-30 million total.
That's not an insurmountable difference, but it's what is holding up an agreement at this stage. Ortiz is getting his coveted second year, and isn't getting the huge downgrade in money, but that's not enough. And that's understandable from his side, too: there's no need to rush the negotiations when delaying and allowing other teams to get involved can earn you a few million more. Ortiz feels he's been squeezed in the past -- despite what the market for DHs suggests -- so it's not surprising to see him putting the squeeze on Boston this time around.
That's where the Rangers come in, according to Ken Rosenthal, and now WEEI's Rob Bradford as well. It's no secret the Rangers are content to let Josh Hamilton walk if they can find a replacement in the lineup, or if he's going to be too expensive. Ortiz would represent a short-term solution that could put up comparable numbers. Ortiz outpaces Hamilton in OPS+ over the last three years, and bests Hamilton in on-base percentage despite a lower batting average in a less-friendly home park. He has his risks, but Hamilton would cost more in years and dollars, and has his own risks as well.
Texas' interest in Ortiz means that, even after the qualifying offer is issued from Boston, that the Red Sox will maintain their offer of two years. But that could also be what forces the Red Sox to hand over that few extra million to Ortiz, in order to keep him. Guaranteeing the 2014 season could be risky for a DH who will then be 38, but that's the cost of keeping him around in 2013, when Boston needs his bat as they rebuild and await their prospects.
That qualifying offer is Boston's rebuttal to Ortiz's delayed negotiating, as it forces whoever wants to sign Ortiz to cough up their first-round pick for 2013. Under the new CBA, that also significantly reduces a team's draft budget. While the Rangers will get a replacement pick for Hamilton when he leaves, it won't be as high (or as valuable) of a pick as their original first. That might be enough to give Boston the edge in the Ortiz sweepstakes, if they don't already have it.
These negotiations are so fluid that by the time you read this, Ortiz might already be locked up in Boston for the rest of his career. Texas' interest is genuine, but that doesn't mean Ortiz is leaving, or that they will offer a competitive deal for the designated hitter.