Twins fans with a good grasp of Twins history are likely to note that this is the 10 year anniversary of the off-season when David Ortiz was non-tendered and left for Boston. In the near decade since that off-season, Ortiz has emerged as one of the best power-hitting designated hitters of this era and he helped lead the Boston Red Sox to two World Series titles. The folklore states that Ortiz wasn’t a good player when he left Minnesota. Ortiz was just a pull-happy hitter with no clear position. He wasn’t going to be a good baseball player and there was no inkling that he would become “Big Papi,” a fan-favorite in Boston. Is this all true? His 2002 season, among other things, provide us with an answer.
Before we get there, a bit of background information is needed. In 1992, David Ortiz was signed out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager. In August of 1996, The twins acquired Ortiz from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for roughly one month of Dave Hollins. Dave Hollins posted a 3.7 fWAR that season, so not too shabby. The return was excellent though. Ortiz spent 1997 hitting 31 home runs between three levels of the Minor Leagues. He made his MLB debut that September and seemed to be well on his way to becoming a power-hitting threat in the middle of the Twins lineup.
A wrist injury cost Ortiz much of the 1998 season, but he stlll managed an OPS+ of 111 in his rookie season. He returned to AAA for most of 1999 and posted a 1.002 OPS with 30 more bombs. In 2000, Ortiz only hit 10 MLB home runs, but posted a respectable .282/.364./.446 slash line and added 36 doubles. This was hardly the power hitter the Twins expected, but not terrible for basically a second-year player. It is also worth mentioning that Ortiz was only 24-years-old. His 2001 season was a combination of an injured wrist and some bad BABIP-related luck, but he still hit 18 home runs in only 89 games. He also slugged .475, a number he wouldn’t fall below again until 2009.
By 2002, questions about injuries, position and weight were becoming more legitimate. The Twins seemed to be growing tired of his approach at the plate. There is a pretty funny quote from Mind Game that illustrates just how much this irked Ortiz. You can read it here. History has proven that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his swing. Ortiz has hit 401 career home runs and 482 career doubles. He has posted 38.7 fWAR, which doesn’t sound elite, but it all comes from his hitting. The real question is, should the Twins have seen this all coming?
Uh, yeah, probably.
Star wipe to his 2002 season. It was pretty nice. Now, it is worth pointing out that Ortiz was mostly a DH at this point. The lack of a true position certainly hurts his versatility. However, the Twins did have Doug Mientkiewicz to play first, and he was generally considered a great fielder. Ortiz wasn’t really known for his defense anyway, he was known for power.
Ortiz certainly provided power in 2002. He posted a .500 slugging percentage, hit 20 home runs in 125 games and provided a robust .228 isolated power. These aren’t eye-popping numbers, by any means, but when you take into consideration his age (26) and his service time (would have been first-time arbitration eligible), there were reasons to keep him around, just to see what he could do in a full season. Instead, Ortiz was released by the Twins and picked up by the Red Sox.
The Red Sox weren’t exactly head-over-heels in love with Ortiz. They basically used him as a reserve/pinch hitter, until they got sick of Jeremy Giambi (as everyone does) and inserted him into their lineup mid-season. He helped lead the Red Sox to the ALCS that year and then played historically well in the 2004 playoffs, leading the Red Sox to their first World Series title since 1918.
Why did the Twins give up on David Ortiz?
Is it possible that they preferred Matthew LeCroy? LeCroy was 26 in 2002 as well, was also a DH, but could catch in a pinch. He was also drafted and developed by the Twins, while Ortiz was traded for. In 2002, LeCroy was basically inferior to Ortiz in all offensive categories. He had less power, worse on-base skills and struck out more. Yet, when 2003 rolled around, Ortiz was gone and LeCroy was given 374 at bats. He actually produced well that year, but that fact comes with the benefit of hindsight. LeCroy was cheaper, but neither guy was working off a long-term, high-dollar contract.
We all know David Ortiz’s brief and unfortunate history in Minnesota. His powerful bat would have looked really nice in the middle of those 2003-2007 lineups. Those teams always seemed to come up a bit short, and Ortiz’s bat would have made those lineups better. The Twins weren’t huge fans of Ortiz, and as a result, we have no way of knowing what he would have given the 2003 and 2004 playoff teams. However, I know I would have enjoyed following Big Papi as a Twins fan.
It was Rondell White’s birthday on February 23. You can read about him and more craziness here. Also, do you think the Twins should have seen Ortiz’s breakout coming, or were they justified in letting him go? Respond in the comments below.