It’s been on the forefront of everyone’s mind since the Red Sox were bounced out of the playoffs in October: how are they ever going to replace David Ortiz and what he brings to the lineup? For four months, we all wondered the same. The Red Sox were saddled with the monumental task of finding ways to make up for the production that has now retired – and is currently making videos of himself lounging on a beach somewhere. It’s an impossible task, and it’s one I can’t say the Red Sox have actually completed.
That’s not a knock on the Red Sox at all, though. It’s pretty hard to forget, but David Ortiz was a legendary hitter with a startlingly fantastic track record, a member of the 500 HR club, an iconic postseason slugger, and one of the few baseball players to stare Father Time in the face, say “no”, and get away with it. Finding a hitter like that – or a platoon that could come close to any of that – is actually impossible. If it was possible to quickly find and acquire a hitter or two opposite-handed sluggers that could be comparable, David Ortiz wouldn’t be David Ortiz. He’d just be another guy, and the Red Sox wouldn’t be confronted with a problem such as this.
That’s the thing – there is no one or two position players the Red Sox could’ve easily acquired that would’ve filled the void. Anybody who was hitting like Ortiz did in 2016 – we’re talking stratospheric .320 TAv-level hitting – is not easily had. Ortiz was sitting just behind players like Corey Seager, Jose Altuve, and Yoenis Cespedes. And not only are you looking for a fantastic hitter, you’re looking for one that can actually defend as well, since the Red Sox would be smart to limit Hanley Ramirez (-10.5 FRAA at first base, easily the worst in the AL) from using a glove anymore.
The most accessible player would probably be Joey Votto, since his superb .341 TAv makes his okay -1.4 FRAA extremely acceptable. Votto also comes with a hefty contract that he’s actually playing up to, and he’d probably cost as much, if not more than what the Red Sox gave up for Chris Sale. At that point, you’d have to choose between him and Sale, and with the state the rotation’s in, you’d probably choose Sale. Either way, the point stands: getting an elite hitter is difficult as all hell.
You can say the Red Sox didn’t replace Ortiz’s production, because that’s true. They didn’t. The reason why is because it’s basically impossible. The goal of the offseason wasn’t how the Red Sox will replace him, but how they will make do without him. Mitch Moreland was an alright signing, and he’ll be an okay stopgap until the free agency bonanza begins next offseason. He can pick it with the best of them and hit right-handers with some authority. He’s not going to fill Ortiz’s shoes. He’s just there to play in a role the Red Sox needed.
What the Red Sox seem to be doing is allocating whatever production Ortiz had to other parts of the team. In terms of hitters, a full season of Andrew Benintendi should do some good, while whatever Pablo Sandoval can do at third base should be better than the hideous hot corner hydra the Sox had in 2016. Another year of Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts should bring us some good, productive fun, and if Jackie Bradley Jr. has any sense of month-to-month consistency, he’ll churn out some underrated value.
The pitching is where the Red Sox are the most improved. Chris Sale is obviously a huge boon, since you can essentially bump Drew Pomeranz or Steven Wright out of the rotation and get the 3+ WARP boost simply from having Sale replace them for a season. Tyler Thornburg is really good and will probably be better than Koji Uehara was last year, and a full season of Joe Kelly, Great Stuff-Having Reliever is going to be better than Junichi Tazawa. The relievers show just marginal improvements over last year, but Chris Sale is the main piece here. That’s a lot of value added. David Ortiz was worth 3.9 WARP last year, while Chris Sale is projected for 4.1. He alone could make up for the lost production, even if it’s not from hitting.
Considering how prolific the offense was in 2016, the Red Sox could afford to lose some of their hitting. It’s not a popular idea, but with how the team’s core is set up around young, talented position players, it’s a sacrifice with some merit. By TAv, they were the best offense in the American League last year, and sixth overall. The Mariners were the only ones to even come close to them. Losing Ortiz will inevitably sting, but the boost gained from a vastly improved pitching staff should more than offset it. They might not be the best offense anymore, but they’ll be up there with all of the other contenders.
With David Ortiz’s resume and how good his 2016 was, it really isn’t fair to grade the Red Sox on how they would replace him. They’ve come out as strong favorites to win the AL pennant, and that’s a pretty resounding success since they’re not falling back to the 85-win pack despite losing their best hitter. The Red Sox weren’t ever going to replace David Ortiz because there is no replacement David Ortiz. They can only do what they can with what they have. From what we’ve seen so far from projections and the like, they’ve done pretty well.
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