- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz seems pretty confident that he's ready for the big leagues again, even smacking a home run for Triple-A Pawtucket on Thursday, and I certainly believe him. Ortiz fell out of my top 100 in mid-March only because concerns about his sore Achilles combined with his age made it seem likely there would be a few too many missed games. Perhaps that'll still be the case, but Ortiz is back sooner than expected, and, assuming the game is played given the ongoing situation in the city, he should be hitting cleanup in Boston's lineup Friday night against the Kansas City Royals. I wouldn't wait to activate him; he has had success against Royals right-hander James Shields in the past, with a .314 batting average, three home runs and more walks than strikeouts.
Those who have compared Ortiz to Philadelphia Phillies slugging first baseman Ryan Howard with the intention of predicting doom are missing some important points. Howard ruptured an Achilles tendon and required surgery, pretty much wasting his entire 2012 season, and he was hardly a stellar hitter the past few seasons anyway. Oh, he hit for power, and maybe will do so again (he's slugging .387 so far), but Ortiz has been improving with age in most areas and the nature of his heel woes are not similar, and that's why I think he'll return to the top of the OPS leaders pretty much immediately.
Ortiz hit .318 last season with 23 home runs and 60 RBIs in 90 games. Extrapolate those numbers to a full season, or the roughly 145-150 games Ortiz tends to play, and it's well over 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, pretty coveted numbers regardless of position. Plus, Ortiz drew more walks than strikeouts in 2012, which he hadn't done since 2007. His 2012 campaign was even better than the year prior, when he hit .309. This is not a player aging poorly. He didn't qualify for the batting title with his 383 plate appearances, but his 1.026 OPS bested everyone who did, including the great Miguel Cabrera, who led baseball at .999. Even if Ortiz had slumped to the .953 OPS he produced in 2011, it would have tied Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen for fifth.
I'd call Ortiz missing fewer than three weeks a pretty good result, though at 37 years old, there's risk he misses more time as the season goes on, even with manager John Farrell giving him a day or two off per week. That's just fine. Perhaps the Red Sox sit him against tougher lefty pitchers, though Ortiz hit .320 against left-handers in 2012, so it's not like he's Lance Berkman in that regard. It couldn't have been much fun to compete for last season's dysfunctional Red Sox, and we'll never know if the happy-go-lucky Ortiz could have suited up more in the final months/weeks of the season. But you know he wants in on the current success with an 11-4 squad on a six-game winning streak. I'm expecting at least a .290 batting average and 25 home runs this season.
As for how Ortiz's return affects the Red Sox, look for him to split second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Mike Napoli while batting in the cleanup spot, lengthening the lineup and adding a lefty power hitter. His effect on the lineup shouldn't be understated. Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., hitting .097 after a strong start that endeared him to many a fantasy owner, is headed to Pawtucket to play regularly. The Red Sox will use Nava and Gomes in left field for the most part, and it's certainly possible that if Mike Carp sticks around, he could see at-bats there as well. Regardless, having Ortiz back will help this team a great deal, as well as fantasy owners.
Box score bits (AL): Seattle Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma continues to thrive. He tossed six shutout innings of three-hit ball against the powerful Detroit Tigers lineup Thursday, though he did leave early with a blister. Iwakuma has issued two walks and permitted 12 hits in 26 2/3 innings. He should be owned in all leagues by now. ... Tampa Bay Rays lefty David Price struggled again Thursday, being charged with five runs. I can't buy low fast enough. ... Toronto Blue Jays right-hander R.A. Dickey outdueled Chicago White Sox lefty Chris Sale over six innings, then left with neck and back tightness after 64 pitches. Still, this is consecutive strong outings for Dickey. ... Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie is hitless in 10 at-bats this week, with six strikeouts. Was he rushed back from his oblique injury too soon? Be prepared.
Box score bits (NL): Those panicking about Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo had concerns assuaged when he tossed six strong innings against the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, striking out six. He also homered. Gallardo had fanned nine hitters over his first three starts combined. This remains a pitcher with four consecutive 200-strikeout seasons, so it's hard to tell why there was so much concern surrounding him. ... Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is gaining fantasy popularity, as his home run Thursday was his third, and his batting average stands at .352. Crawford hit .248 with four home runs in 143 games last year. Don't get too excited about this start. ... Pirates outfielder Starling Marte, off to a terrific start, struck out in all five of his at-bats Thursday. Marte will swing and miss a lot, making it tough for him to bat .300, but he's not really a sell-high guy overall. ... Chicago Cubs cleanup hitter Alfonso Soriano homered Thursday. It was his first homer and RBI of the season. Naturally, the 19th-round pick in ESPN average live drafts is now available in a third of leagues, but he shouldn't be. ... Finally, shortstop Didi Gregorius made his Arizona Diamondbacks debut -- he played briefly for the Cincinnati Reds last season -- and smacked his first pitch of the season over the Yankee Stadium right-field wall. Still, this is not a power hitter and also not a standard-league option.