At the end of the 2009 season, David Ortiz faced a crossroads. Barely removed from four consecutive seasons finishing in the top four in voting for the American League MVP (though never winning it), he'd just finished his worst season in the majors since joining the Boston Red Sox, hitting .238/.332/.462 -- a year after his second-worst season as the Red Sox designated hitter, .264/.369/.507 in an injury shortened campaign -- and the fall-off in his ability to hit for average combined with the looming end of his contract with the Red Sox after the 2010 season clouded his future in Boston considerably. The Sox had a team option for the 2011 season they could exercise, of course, but if things continued how they'd been going, it was all but assured the club would not exercise it. After all, who would pay $12.5 million for one year of a declining DH who was barely league average with the bat anymore?
Ortiz never let them answer that question. The Red Sox would pick up his club option after a bounce-back year in 2010, extend him a year after that, and since that poor 2009 season Ortiz has had 1697 plate appearances of .300/.392/.566 baseball -- an astounding line for a guy whose specialized skills and body type seemed a few years back as if they might be destined to turn him into a journeyman slugger along the lines of Russell Branyan or, less generously, Carlos Pena. But no: After that brief pit stop, the big man continues to hit for average against both left- and right-handed pitchers (he has a bit of a split favoring righties so far this year, but looking back over his recent seasons, by year's end he's evened it out every time), display one of the best batting eyes of the game and continue to slug well enough to take advantage of that eye by forcing pitchers to the corners of the plate as he turns their mistakes into doubles and home runs.
It is safe to say that the Boston Red Sox this year are not one of the more dangerous contenders in the American League if he doesn't come off the 15-day disabled list at the beginning of the year and pick up right where he left off, the team's offense to that point sustained by wild hot streaks from now-AAA shortstop Jose Iglesias and planned-fourth-outfielder-turned-everyday-player Daniel Nava (whether he be in an outfield corner, first base or even DHing to start the season while Ortiz was sidelined with heel injuries). Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli helped a lot too -- especially Napoli, who had a good-but-not-great start to the year on his stat line merits but who had the good fortune of always getting his hits in with runners in scoring position. But Ortiz remains the only hitter in the lineup who has shown great contact and power with elite discipline. A lot of things went wrong to send the Red Sox to the bottom of the AL East last season, but one of the major ones was losing David Ortiz until it was too late for the team to recover.
Which leads right into a discussion of where he and the Red Sox go from here. The immediate answer, of course, is "they go through the end of the 2014 season, which is when his current contract expires," but this is necessarily a bigger-picture question considering what Ortiz means to the city right now off of the field; nothing more about that needs be said besides that he dropped an F-bomb in a widely broadcast pregame ceremony following the capture of the Boston Marathon bomber got not only a free pass but a pat on the back from the FCC. At the plate, however, Ortiz is probably not going to keep hitting .362/.408/.681 unless he's aging into Barry Bonds (though Bonds probably would draw a few more walks, since he was even better at that than he was at hitting home runs, and he could still manage left field passably at age 37, which Ortiz turned last November), but he doesn't have to in order to keep providing fantastic value for the Sox out of a position that, league-wide, is kind of terrible right now and has been used more as a rotating triage station for hurt, aging or platoon-specialized players than an actual everyday position held down by someone signed to that role -- the only "true" DHs in baseball right now are probably Ortiz, Billy Butler in Kansas City, Travis Hafner in New York and Adam Dunn in Chicago, though Victor Martinez has currently been forced into the role in Detroit and Luke Scott would be on this list if he'd been healthy and good at the same time at any time over the past few seasons, outside of the last 30 days.
There are some peripheral concerns over his defense and the designated hitter position and how it relates to Major League Baseball's current experimentation with year-round interleague play. Ortiz's bat obviously has to either come out of the lineup when the Red Sox visit an NL team at their home stadium, or he has to go out into the field and play first base. He's a relative butcher out there, to be sure, but most of that is due these days to lack of practice and familiarity rather than problems with his core fundamentals and instincts. The real problem with putting Ortiz in the field is the risk of aggravating the ongoing issues with his Achilles' tendons and heels, and while the year-round slate of interleague play doesn't actually add any more games between the two leagues to the schedule, it does open the door for balanced scheduling league-wide, instead of the current practice of heavily slanting play towards divisional and league opponents. That would mean a lot more of the National League, and a lot more of guys like Ortiz (or Butler, or Dunn) in the field or riding the pine. While this is a concern from the perspective of an American League front office trying to look down the road and see where their roster is in five years, it's hard to say they should make any sort of decisions based on what is merely, right now, just that: a concern.
And then there's the steroid thing, which is stupid, but which we have to talk about because earlier this month the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy wrote a column in which he skated inches from outright stating Ortiz was currently using PEDs (he didn't, because unlike the casual fans whose banter his column resembles, he can't get away with libel). The fact remains that the term "PED" covers a vast array of products used in a wide variety of combinations, and we are woefully unequipped to perform any kind of analysis of what a guy's stats might or might not look like if he were using any or all of these substances -- especially if a guy is testing clean like Ortiz is. When you walk down the road of "stats bad = clean, stats good = dirty" in 2013, you're doing so not because you have something interesting to say about steroid or HGH use in American professional sports; you're doing so because for some reason, you want to watch a guy burn. If you're a particularly loathsome beetle about it, you bring his race into it too in some sort of twisted mockery of law enforcement's racial profiling. And really there's just no reason to engage with the question of whether or not Ortiz is using and what it means until he fails a test out in the open regardless of what you think of the 2003 result, because there's nothing informative you could possibly have to say on the matter.
All of which leaves us with a player who is either getting better at the plate as he ages or, seen in a different light, had a pair of down seasons a few years ago that, because of his body type, physical tools and age, people saw as likely to be the beginning of a permanent decline rather than a down year, like any player can have. Ortiz has more than established himself as one of the best hitters in the game, and though I don't think that as a late-blooming DH he'll ever have the stats to overcome the (entirely justifiable) opposition to putting a hitter into the Hall who couldn't consistently play the field, he doesn't have to in order to help slug the Red Sox back to the top of the AL East. And Red Sox fans are fine with that, because that's all they need from the man who leads their team.