David Ortiz has to be one of the single greatest free agent bargains in the history of the game. Ortiz was originally signed by the Seattle Mariners as an international free agent and rose through the same system that produced Alex Rodriguez around the same time. But in September of 1996, he was sent to the Minnesota Twins as a player to be named later in the deal that brought Dave Hollins to the Mariners. The Mariners in those days made a lot of silly moves.
Ortiz spent the next six seasons with the Twins, but only twice played in more than 100 games. His power was evident as he hit 58 home runs during this time period, with a high of 20 in 2002, but the Twins wanted him to become something he was not. The Twins thought that they could turn him into a contact hitter with occasional home run power. After several seasons of attempting this, they decided to cut bait and non-tendered him in December of 2002. Ortiz was on the market for a little while until Pedro Martinez contacted Red Sox management and put in a good word for him. He was signed shortly thereafter for $1 million.
2003 would be the turning point in Ortiz's career, but it did not start off real promising. The Red Sox had brought in a number of hitters who kind of clogged up the first base and designated hitter spots, including Kevin Millar and Jeremy Giambi. In addition, they had to find playing time for two third-basemen in Shea Hillenbrand and Bill Mueller. So Ortiz struggled to get playing time for the first few months. Eventually though, Hillenbrand was traded for relief help and Giambi's struggles made it easy to move on from him. Ortiz found himself the primary designated hitter. He did not let this opportunity pass him by as he hit .288/.369/.592 with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs, leading to a fifth place MVP spot.
The next season was when Ortiz became a legend. He showed his 2003 season was not a fluke by hitting .301/.380/.603 with 41 home runs and 139 RBIs, making his first All Star team. Then, he showed his incredible ability to hit in the clutch in the postseason. First was the walkoff home run that sent the Angels home in the ALDS. Then, he hit a stunning walkoff home run against the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS. It was a must-win game for the Red Sox after being down 3-0 in the series and having just tied the game off of Mariano Rivera in the ninth. He was not done though and hit a walkoff single in Game 5. Ortiz hit .387 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in the ALCS win and was named the MVP. He also homered in the World Series against the Cardinals.
From 2003 through 2007, Ortiz finished in the top five in the MVP balloting every season, finishing as high as second in 2005. He led the league in RBIs twice, home runs once and walks once during this time period. He set the team's single season record for home runs in 2006 with 54, surpassing Jimmie Foxx's nearly seventy-year old record of 50. During this time period he helped the Red Sox to another World Championship in 2007.
In 2008, some cracks began to appear. He got off to a very slow start and only ended up hitting .264 with 23 home runs and 89 RBIs. 2009 saw his batting average dip all the way to .238, but he hit 28 home runs and drove in 99. There were concerns that he was waning, but he rebounded somewhat in 2010, hitting .270 with 32 home runs and 102 RBIs. He was rejuvenated after that, suffering some minor injuries but staying mostly in line.
2013 was Ortiz's third World Championship season. In the regular season, he was once again an All Star and won the Silver Slugger while finishing tenth in the MVP voting. He hit .309/.395/.564 with 30 home runs and 103 RBIs. Then, he reminded the baseball world of his clutch hitting ability in the postseason. He hit two home runs off of the Rays in the ALDS. He did not do much in the ALCS against the Tigers except for one at-bat that may be one of the greatest at-bats in postseason history. Boston had struggled against the exceptional pitching of the Tigers in Game 1 and it was getting late in Game 2 when Ortiz came to the plate with the bases loaded in the eighth against Joaquin Benoit down 5-1. He sent a Benoit pitch (who he had never homered against previously) into the bullpen, along with a chasing Torii Hunter to tie the game and provide the turning point in the series.
In the 2013 World Series, Ortiz was other-worldly. The Cardinals tried to pitch to him early on, but he was crushing everything. Even his outs were hit hard. Eventually, they just stopped pitching to him altogether. Ortiz ended up that World Series with a line of .688/.760/1.188 with two home runs and six RBIs to lead Boston to the title. He was an easy choice for World Series MVP.
Ortiz's average dipped again in the next two seasons, but his home runs and RBIs remained at a high level and he eventually hit his 500th career home run. He announced prior to the 2016 season that he would retire at the end of the year and it became his victory lap. Teams lavished gifts on him throughout the season while he continued to wear out their pitchers. He had what was probably one of his greatest seasons, hitting .315/.401/.620 with 38 home runs. He led the league in slugging percentage, doubles (48, not bad for an old guy), RBIs (127) and OPS (1.021) and was an All Star and won the Silver Slugger while finishing fifth in the MVP vote. Unfortunately Boston was bounced in the first round of the postseason and could not win one last time for the big guy. Ortiz took to the field shortly after the last out at Fenway and tearfully waved goodbye one last time as an active player.
Ortiz's legacy is as an incredible clutch hitter who helped lead Boston to three World Championships, almost unheard of prior to his arrival (Harry Hooper has four, but that was 100 years ago). He was an All Star ten times, won seven Silver Slugger Awards, was a Home Run Derby Champ and won the MVPs in both the ALCS and World Series. He finished in the top five of league MVP voting five times. He hit 541 career home runs, including 483 with the Red Sox, which is more than any other player not named Ted Williams. Ortiz is a Red Sox icon and he was one of the faces of the game for many years. There was some concern about his candidacy for the Hall of Fame, but when the voting was announced, he made it in with some room to spare. Some writers did not vote for him because he was a designated hitter for the great majority of his career, others were convinced he used PEDs, though there was little, if any, proof of that. When it all came down to it though, Ortiz marched into the Hall of Fame wearing a Red Sox cap.