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BoSox need production from Martinez

Want to read about Big Papi? Sorry. You've come to the wrong place.

That story is so April.

Now, David Ortiz looks like a lot of designated hitters in baseball: aging, occasionally productive, and on his way to a one-year contract.

His team, meantime, is 19-19. Mediocrity defined.

Sure, the Red Sox would be better if a certain slugger were hitting. But let's make sure we're talking about the right guy.

Victor Martinez.

Yes, that's right: Big Papi, you're off the hook.

Relax. Stay awhile. You aren't the most vexing case in the Boston clubhouse anymore.

Martinez, 31, was one of the most sought-after players on last July's trade market. The Red Sox found him so compelling that they surrendered three pitching prospects to acquire him from Cleveland.

He was the rarest of commodities -- a switch-hitting catcher who hit for average and power. Look at what he did in 2007: a .301 batting average, 25 home runs, 114 RBIs and 121 games caught.

Scouts would hike into the Ural Mountains to sign a player like that.

Here's the bad news: He hasn't been that player in 2010.

Martinez has been the No. 3 hitter in 28 of Boston's 38 games. That is a choice lineup spot, sandwiched between two of the toughest outs in the league: Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis.

But Martinez, despite his talent and widely praised work ethic, hasn't produced.

He has batted just .192 as a No. 3 hitter this year, along with a meager .317 slugging percentage.

Largely because of those woes, the Red Sox have the worst production from the No. 3 spot of any team in the major leagues, according to STATS LLC.

Yes. An OPS of .617. Worst in the majors.

Again: That is not entirely Martinez's fault. Just mostly.

Including at-bats elsewhere in the lineup, Martinez is hitting .226. He has three home runs and 17 RBIs. So, he's on pace to fall short of his recent healthy-season norms of 20 and 100, respectively.

"Not the first time it's happened to me," Martinez said late Saturday, when asked about his struggles. "One of my best years, in '05, I hit .250 in the first half."

Actually, it was .236.

Martinez says he is healthy. And he has been unlucky at times, such as the would-be double that ended up in Miguel Cabrera's glove in extra innings on Saturday.

There is no question that he is trying hard.

Too hard, perhaps.

"Much like David, he takes it very personal, especially when we don't win," hitting coach Dave Magadan said. "He puts it on his shoulders. Maybe he does that to a fault."

"Victor works so much on his hitting," Ortiz said. "It's frustrating when you don't see the results. It's a long season. He's a great hitter. He'll be fine."

I asked Ortiz if he saw any similarities between Martinez's struggles and his own.

"Definitely," he said. "We all go through the same thing. You can never forget how good of a hitter he is. That's what's going to get him out of this."

To be fair, Martinez is dealing with two big pressures on top of his normal expectations:

- His play behind the plate has been closely scrutinized this year.

- He is in the final year of his contract.

Of course, the two circumstances are related. The better he plays behind the plate, the more value he has to prospective employers, the Red Sox included.

Martinez's future earnings will be influenced, to some degree, by how many baserunners he can throw out this year. (Talk about pressure.) Right now, his success rate is 17.5 percent. Better than last year. Better than Bengie Molina, Ryan Doumit and John Buck. But not one of the best marks in the majors.

Martinez looks like a natural hitter. He is not a natural catcher. To his credit, he has worked at great length to improve his skills behind the plate. He's a good teammate, someone who, on his day off, emerged from the dugout to warm up a reliever before the bottom of the eighth Sunday.

Less than 24 hours after catching an extra-inning loss, on a getaway day, as a three-time All-Star, he didn't have to do something like that.

"He's a pro," Magadan said.

But Major League Baseball is a brutal business. If you have a weakness, someone will find it, expose it, and quite possibly beat your team because of it. And that is why 33 baserunners have successfully swiped a base against Martinez this year.

The Red Sox believe Martinez has improved on defense lately. That's good, because I don't think teams are going to halt their running games anytime soon.

As for the possibility of signing an extension with Boston? One major-league source said Monday morning that there have been "no talks at all."

Martinez said his contractual situation isn't bothering him. ("I just think of that when somebody like you asks," he said.) But it would be hard to blame him if that became a distraction. He plays in Boston, where every game invites a new referendum on your bat, glove, arm, personal worth, value to society, etc.

His situation is even more delicate than a regular Red Sox free-agent-to-be. Because of his unclear defensive profile, Martinez will be a complicated free agent for executives and evaluators to assess. And that analysis is already under way.

If teams don't like Martinez behind the plate, could he be an everyday first baseman? Maybe, but scouts will have a hard time answering that question based on recent observations. That's because he has yet to play first base during a regular-season game this year. (Youkilis has won a Gold Glove at the position.)

Martinez will probably have the greatest value to a team that could regularly rotate him through two or three positions. The Red Sox can't do that now. But teams like the Mariners, Rangers, White Sox or the Rays may have the requisite openings in 2011.

But let's not get too carried away with Next Year. Boston has enough talent to be a factor in the 2010 race.

Someone told me over the weekend that the Red Sox are a different team when Martinez hits. I believe that. Because right now, I see a lineup that needs a .300-20-100 season from the No. 3 hole. And the man for the job is already there.

"He'll come out of it," Magadan said. "He always has."

Let's see how he looks tonight at Yankee Stadium.