Bizarre Moves from Seasons Past: The non-signing of David Ortiz

While not quite as indefensible as the trading of Mike Lowell for yesterday’s garbage (not signing someone as opposed to dealing a valuable commodity away are certainly on very different levels of egregiousness on the GM infraction scale), I — and I’m sure many other Yankee fans — have often thought about how different the course of this decade might have gone had the Yankees signed David Ortiz after the 2002 season instead of the Red Sox.

Ortiz came up in the Mariners’ organization, but never saw any time in the Bigs with Seattle. Following the 1996 season, he was traded to the Twins. He only got into 15 Major League games during 1997, his first season, but still turned in a 107 OPS+ in 51 plate appearances. The following year he played in 86 games and posted a 111 OPS+. Despite displaying above-average ability at the plate, I guess the Twins still weren’t sold on him, as he only played in 10 games in 1999.

In 2000 he apparently finally graduated to full-time regular, with an OPS+ of 101 in 478 plate appearances. In 2001 he had a 106 OPS+ in 89 games, and in 2002 — his last season in Minnesota — he posted the best OPS+ of his career, 120, in his age 26 season.

As the story goes, Minnesota curiously decided to non-tender the as-yet-to-be-dubbed Big Papi that offseason. Apparently they wanted Ortiz to tailor his swing to hit more doubles than home runs, which just sounds insane, and I guess they felt he’d reached his peak and that somehow the Twins — a team that wasn’t exactly known for its middle-of-the-order power threats in the early 2000s — would be better off without him.

Now granted, Ortiz hadn’t yet developed into the monster he would become with Boston, and there’s an argument to be made that maybe he never would have had Minnesota retained him, depriving him of the protection provided by Manny Ramirez batting right behind him for five and a half seasons (and we all saw what happened to ol’ Papi once Manny was removed from the Boston lineup), but it still seems perplexing that a team would cut ties with a 26-year-old player that put up a 120 OPS and .357 wOBA.

Maybe the Twins feared having to pay Ortiz too much money in salary arbitration? Or again, perhaps they figured 2002 was a fluke year and that they could replace his production with a cheaper alternative. Whatever the reasoning, it turned out to be a horrible move by the Twins.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Boston’s Theo Epstein was paying attention. So was George Steinbrenner, who supposedly told Brian Cashman to go out and sign Ortiz, to which Cashman replied that the Yankees already had Jason Giambi and Nick Johnson at first base and designated hitter. Another version of this story goes that the Boss didn’t demand Ortiz until after his impressive 2003 campaign. Regardless, the Red Sox signed Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million deal for the 2003 season, and received a 144 OPS+ and .400 OBA for their troubles.

Was there room for Ortiz on the 2003 Yankees? I suppose conventional wisdom says no, but if the Yankees had looked at Ortiz primarily as a DH instead of a fielder perhaps they would have been more inclined to upgrade at that spot. As much as I love Nick the Stick, he was slightly below-average in 2002 (99 OPS+), and even if the Yankees had signed Ortiz I’m sure they still could have found at-bats for the Stick at both 1B and DH. Heck, the Stick only played in 96 games in 2003 (albeit at a 138 OPS+), forcing the Yankees to go out and reacquire Ruben Sierra, who had a decent partial season for the team but was exactly league average.

I know it’s easy to look back and deride the Yankees for not signing someone who gave little indication that he was on the cusp of becoming one of the most intimidating hitters in the league, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow.

During the next four years, in which time the Red Sox won two World Series, Ortiz went on to post wOBAs of .408, .418, .427 and .448, respectively. Ortiz simultaneously manhandled the Yankees every time the two teams faced each other, hitting what felt like 1.000/1.000/4.000 for his career against New York.

Again, it’s impossible to know whether David Ortiz would have blossomed in quite the same way without Ramirez’s protection, although you have to like his chances with A-Rod batting behind him. Just imagine the 2004 Yankees Opening Day lineup with Ortiz:

2003 OPS+
SS Derek Jeter 125
LF Hideki Matsui 109
RF Gary Sheffield 162
DH David Ortiz 144
3B Alex Rodriguez 147
1B Jason Giambi 148
C Jorge Posada 144
CF Bernie Williams 107
2B Miguel Cairo 74

While the bottom of that lineup doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, that’s an obscene 3-7, not to mention a nice 1-2 punch up top.

Additionally, perhaps this Yankee squad doesn’t end up dropping four straight and losing to Boston in the 2004 ALCS, especially if the Red Sox don’t have Ortiz. The 2007 Red Sox may still have won the World Series without Cookie Monster, as that was a powerhouse team, but it sure would have been hard to replace Ortiz’s career-best 171 OPS+ that season.

Of course, we can play the “what if” game all day and never draw any realistic conclusions, but it’s interesting to think about what might have been.