BOSTON -- David Ortiz may be "cool" with the Red Sox's decision not to give him a contract extension, as he told Theo Epstein, according to the Red Sox general manager. But Boston's refusal to grant Ortiz the extension he very publicly sought had to come as a jarring reality check for the Red Sox slugger.
Ortiz's return to the Sox for 2011 was assured Thursday when the team exercised the $12.5 million club option that had been tacked on to the four-year, $52 million deal Ortiz signed in 2007, when he was in his prime.
But Sox ownership took the position that it had no obligation to Ortiz beyond the option, one club source said this summer after Ortiz began lobbying for an extension, and the team never deviated from that position.
In the end, according to another source with knowledge of the negotiations, the Sox put this question directly to Ortiz: Could he live with the option? When he said yes, the team elected to take him at his word and Thursday afternoon announced that it had picked up the option.
Neither Ortiz nor his representatives responded to repeated requests for comment, even though Ortiz had pledged to address his situation when it was resolved. But Epstein insisted Ortiz, who turns 35 on Nov. 18, was satisfied.
"He's happy now with the one-year solution,'' Epstein said in a conference call with the media. "I think in the end, he realized that we weren't in a position to give him what he was looking for with a multiyear arrangement and this was an outcome that was acceptable to both sides.
"That was important to us, to be honest with you. I don't think we were that interested in picking up an option if it was going to be seen as burdensome to the player or seen as unfair to the player. That was a component of these talks, to make sure that ultimately David was content and comfortable playing on the option. Because if you're going to pick up an option of this magnitude, you want to make sure it works for both sides.''
Ortiz's desire to maintain his salary status beyond next season flew in the face of how the industry values designated hitters in their mid- to late-30s. There have been 20 designated hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in a season since 2000, and only Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and Gary Sheffield were paid eight figures in a season after they turned 36.
At 35, Hideki Matsui was World Series MVP for the New York Yankees in 2009, when he was paid $13 million. The Yankees let him walk after the season and he played last season with the Anaheim Angels for $6 million.
Thomas offered a cautionary tale. The long-time Chicago White Sox star was believed to be at the end of his career when he signed for $500,000 with Oakland at age 38, but had a big year for the Athletics. The Toronto Blue Jays signed him to a $5.5 million deal the next season, then more than doubled that to $12.5 million in 2008, when he was 40. But Thomas tanked and was released by the Jays after batting .167 in 16 games.
Only three players 35 and older started last season as a full-time DH: Ken Griffey Jr., 40, lasted just 33 games before retiring from the Seattle Mariners. Vladimir Guerrero, 35, who took a huge pay cut to sign for $6.5 million with the Texas Rangers, hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs, but after a second half in which he hit 9 home runs and his .OPS dropped by 170 percentage points, the Rangers declined to exercise his '11 option. Matsui is a free agent again after one season with the Angels.
Ortiz had to understand that he had little chance of matching his Sox salary on the open market, even as he insisted he needed an extension to avoid all the questions raised by his second straight slow start this past April.
"Yeah, I talked to him directly,'' Epstein said in response to a question. "He told me directly that he was cool with it."
Epstein did not rule out the possibility that Ortiz, after three straight seasons of declining production against left-handed pitchers, might have to cede some at-bats to another player. In April, that led to friction when manager Terry Francona platooned Ortiz with Mike Lowell.
"We always try and have a well-balanced roster,'' Epstein said. "You always want your bench to complement the starting core. That's something we've accomplished in the past, some years more than others. Ultimately that will be Tito's [Francona] call on who plays against what type of pitching. Certainly we'll have complementary players on the bench who have that skill.
"That's also something we wanted to make sure everybody's on the same page about as we head into next year, that there's comfort in the contract, comfort with the role, comfort with the manager. Certainly Tito and David are absolutely on the same page, on great terms and it shouldn't be an issue going into next year.''
The Red Sox also announced Thursday that they exercised the option on reliever Scott Atchison, one that will pay him just over the big league minimum, while declining options on Bill Hall and Felipe Lopez. Hall thrived in a utility role last season for the Sox, but they passed on his $9.5 million option. Epstein expressed interest in bringing Hall back at a lesser figure, but Hall is expected to find an everyday job as a free agent.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.