The Curse of Big Papi

In late 1992, the Seattle Mariners signed a 17-year-old from the Dominican Republic named David Americo Ortiz Arias, who would later be known simply as David Ortiz. He played several seasons in Seattle’s minor-league system before being shipped to the Minnesota Twins as the Player to be Named Later in a 1996 midseason deal for Dave Hollins. Hollins, who was 30 years old and had signed with the Twins for $1.35 million as a free agent the previous offseason, played a total of 28 games for the Mariners, hitting .351/.438/.479 with 25 RBIs. Seattle narrowly missed the postseason.

Ortiz began his career with the Twins the next season with a rapid ascent through the organization, starting at Single-A and ending the year with a 15-game cup of coffee in the big leagues. At 21, Ortiz hit .331/.385/.556 at Single-A and continued to hit the cover off the ball at Double-A, batting .322/.379/.585. He struggled at Triple-A, but earned a promotion to the majors, where he hit an impressive .327/.353/.449 in 51 plate appearances. Ortiz began the next season as Minnesota’s everyday first baseman and hit .306/.375/.531 in his first month of action, before a broken right wrist sidelined him for two months. He returned to the lineup in mid-July and finished at .277/.371/.446 in 86 games, 70 of them at first base.

Despite that impressive showing as a 22-year-old rookie, Ortiz was not a favorite of manager Tom Kelly and was beaten out at first base by Doug Mientkiewicz heading into the 1999 season. Rather than move to designated hitter, Ortiz ended up playing nearly the entire season back at Triple-A, where he was named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team after hitting .315/.412/.590 with 30 homers and 110 RBIs in 130 games. Despite that dominance over Triple-A pitching, Ortiz didn’t return to the majors until rosters expanded in September, at which point he went 0-for-20 with 12 strikeouts.

Sometime between the end of the 1999 season and the beginning of the 2000 campaign, Ortiz managed to find his way out of Kelly’s doghouse, and he spent all of 2000 in the big leagues. At 24, Ortiz was Minnesota’s everyday designated hitter and batted .282/.364/.446 in 130 games for an awful Twins team that finished 69-93. He started just 25 games at first base, while a 33-year-old Ron Coomer hit .270/.317/.415 while getting 122 starts there. Mientkiewicz, who took Ortiz’s first base job just a year earlier and hit a measly .229/.324/.330, found himself back at Triple-A for the 2000 season, much like Ortiz the previous year.

Having sufficiently jerked both Mientkiewicz and Ortiz around, the Twins decided that both of them deserved to make the team in 2001. Mientkiewicz was the starting first baseman and had an excellent year, batting .306/.387/.464 with great defense, as the Twins had their first winning season since 1992. Ortiz was the starting DH, but broke his wrist for the second time in early May. He was hitting .311/.386/.611 at the time of the injury and missed nearly three months, before coming back in late July. Ortiz struggled when he returned and finished the season at a disappointing .234/.324/.475 in 89 games.

After what looked like such a promising beginning to a career that saw him reach the majors at 21 and win a starting job at 22, Ortiz entered the 2002 season as 26-year-old with a grand total of 330 games in the major leagues. He had been moved from first base to designated hitter, suffered two major injuries, and been demoted to Triple-A after having success in the big leagues. Ortiz began the 2002 season as the Twins’ everyday DH, but once again suffered an injury early in the year. This time it was bone chips in his knee and, after having surgery to remove them, he missed a month of action. Ortiz returned in mid-May and managed to stay in the lineup for the remainder of the year. Despite playing in just 125 games, he established career-highs in home runs (20), RBIs (75) and slugging percentage (.500).

Having already played what was considered four full seasons — consisting of 86, 130, 89 and 125 games — Ortiz was 27 years old and eligible for a large raise via salary arbitration during the offseason. After making $950,000 in 2002, it was expected that he would command $3-4 million in 2003, a reasonable sum, but one that would have accounted for nearly 5-7% of the Twins’ miniscule payroll. With several cheaper and healthier DH options in the organization, the Twins decided that Ortiz’s likely pricetag was too high. They declined to offer him arbitration, making him a free agent.

If the market for Ortiz was any indication, Minnesota’s decision was a sound one, as Ortiz had few serious suitors and ended up signing with the Red Sox for just $1.25 million, a $300,000 raise from the previous season and about one-third of what he likely would have gotten in arbitration. Ortiz then proceeded to have the season the Twins had been waiting for. Though he only played 128 games due to not getting in the lineup early in the year, he stayed healthy and had a monster season, batting .288/.369/.592 with 31 homers, 39 doubles and 101 RBIs, all career-highs. He finished third in the American League in slugging percentage and fifth in OPS, on his way to a fifth-place finish in the MVP balloting that included four first-place votes.

There were plenty of rumblings in Minnesota that letting Ortiz go was a huge mistake, but they were somewhat muted by the fact that both Mientkiewicz (.300/.393/.450) and Matthew LeCroy (.287/.342/.490), who replaced Ortiz at DH, had solid seasons as well. At the same time, Ortiz’s personal experience in his first year with the Red Sox could not have been any different than the time he spent with the Twins. In Minnesota, he was an oft-injured disappointment who was in and out of the manager’s doghouse nearly as often as he was on and off of the disabled list. In Boston, he stayed healthy, had a huge year at the plate, and became a fan favorite, the lovable “Cookie Monster.”

Facing arbitration again, the Red Sox made what was surely one of the easier decisions of their year, signing Ortiz to a one-year deal worth $4.6 million, before later giving him a two-year extension with an option year that could potentially keep him in Boston through 2007. Ortiz responded with an even bigger year in an even bigger role, hitting .301/.380/.603 with 41 homers, 47 doubles and 139 RBIs in a career-high 150 games. He led the league in extra-base hits, finished second in home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and total bases, third in doubles and fourth in OPS. Ortiz also made his first All-Star team and will very likely find himself among the top vote-getters when the MVP balloting is announced next month.

Meanwhile, Mientkiewicz, who first took Ortiz’s job and later was kept by the Twins rather than Ortiz, struggled mightily for Minnesota in 2004, hitting .246/.340/.363, and was sent packing at midseason, coincidentally enough to Ortiz’s Red Sox. With Mientkiewicz gone, the Twins brought up one of the best hitting prospects in baseball, Justin Morneau, who hit .271/.340/.536 with 19 homers and 58 RBIs in 74 games, establishing himself as their first baseman and cleanup hitter of the future.

While cutting Ortiz loose following the 2002 season isn’t going to go down in history along with the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, there is little doubt that the move turned out extremely poorly for the Twins. However, I think this is clearly a situation where their move, however bad it turned out, was a defensible one at the time. In fact, I did defend it, and then some.

In October of 2002, while the Twins were still deciding what to do with Ortiz, I wrote:

David Ortiz has been frustrating Twins fans for several years now. He will hit a monstrous home run in his first at-bat of a game and then look absolutely lost in his next three at-bats. He’ll be dreadful at the plate for months at a time (.240/.310/.410 in the first half of 2002) and then crush the ball for prolonged stretches (.297/.363/.572 in the second half). As much promise as he has shown off and on through the years, I think, quite simply, that it is time to let him go and try to live up to the promise on another team’’s roster.

Then, the day after Ortiz signed with the Red Sox in January of 2003, I wrote:

As a Twins fan, I have seen Ortiz play hundreds of times and I had mixed feelings when he left the Twins earlier this offseason. On one hand he is oft-injured and has never really been a great hitter, even when healthy. On the other hand, he shows so many flashes of potential and he is still fairly young. However, the Twins have way too many 1B/DH-types in the organization to lose much sleep over not having David Ortiz anymore. That said, he can definitely be a very productive player.

He may not have lost any sleep over it then, but if Terry Ryan is anything like me, I’d bet he’s had some sleepless nights second-guessing himself since. However, the issue with Ortiz was never whether or not he could be a great hitter, it was whether or not he could stay healthy for any great length of time, and whether or not he could put together consistent stretches when he was actually in the lineup. The Twins gambled that the guy who was never healthy and only occasionally dominant with them was not worth committing $3-4 million to with a payroll of $55 million, and it backfired, without question.

However, that is one of the major pitfalls of having a small payroll. A lot of the focus is on not being able to sign premier free agents, and while that is a disadvantage for a team like the Twins, not being able to afford your own players is often even worse. After signing with Boston, Ortiz said: “This game is a business too. When you’re in a small market, you have to go for the player that will not cost you too much and that’s what [the Twins] did. I was very upset at first but now I understand that.”

If Ryan had a budget of $75 million to work with, I have little doubt that he would have given Ortiz at least one more year to put everything together. But the Twins decided they couldn’t afford to keep waiting for Ortiz to flourish once the price tag went up, much like the decision they will be facing with Jacque Jones this offseason. I suspect they’ll cut Jones loose, just like they did with Ortiz, and if Jones goes on to have a breakout year or two with another team, we might be right back here in 2007, having this same discussion.

Ortiz was always treated with what could generously be described as tough love in Minnesota. He was benched, he was demoted, he was moved to DH and criticized, whether wrongly or rightly, for his defense. And when it came time to make the call on whether or not to keep him around, the Twins decided to spend the money elsewhere. It’s the same dilemma that caused Eddie Guardado, Latroy Hawkins and Eric Milton to leave via free agency and trades last offseason, it’s the same thing that could lead to Jones’ departure, and it may cost the Twins the services of their starting third baseman for the last six years, Corey Koskie, and their best pitcher over the last decade, Brad Radke, both of whom are now free agents.

Such is life in a small market. The decisions are a little harder, the room for error isn’t nearly as big, and there are a lot more tough calls that simply have to be made. In the case of Ortiz, it has turned out about as badly as possible. It’s not surprising that he has stepped up his game in his age-27 and age-28 seasons (when hitters typically peak), particularly when he showed flashes of being this good on several occasions with the Twins, but it was far from a given that he would have done the same in Minnesota.

What if Ortiz had spent the last two years playing in the Metrodome? After leaving the Twins, Ortiz said, “What really was killing me was the turf at Minnesota.” What if he had stayed with the Twins, who have developed, at most, one legitimate power hitter in the last decade, and continued to abide by the instruction they were giving him? Ortiz told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week: “When I first came to Minnesota, that’s when I was told, ‘Stay inside the ball … hit the ball the other way.’ I always was a power hitter in the minor leagues. Everything changed when I went to Minnesota. I would take a hard swing and my first manager would be in the dugout, saying, ‘Hey, HEY, what are you doing?’”

Just as the Twins felt they needed the $3 million more than they needed Ortiz, he clearly had an immediate benefit from a simple change of scenery. Perhaps that’s just what he needed. To play on grass, in a hitter’s ballpark, in a lineup full of offensive threats, on a team that wanted him to do what he does best — hit for power. But as the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918 — with Ortiz starting at first base and Mientkiewicz coming in late as his defensive replacement, no less — I can’t help but wonder what could have been for the Twins.

Money, injuries and organizational philosophy are what did the Twins in with Ortiz. The Red Sox, with vastly more money and a completely different organizational approach, benefited from the Twins’ decision, and ended up getting something the Twins could never get: A healthy Ortiz. With baseball’s most famous “curse” finally over, perhaps there’s room for another one, transferred not from New York to Boston, but from Boston to Minnesota. “The Curse of Big Papi” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “The Curse of the Bambino,” but it still works. That is, of course, if you believe in any of that nonsense.

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