Red Sox face decision on Ortiz

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If the Red Sox were certain about designated hitter David Ortiz, they would not be uncertain about his position in their lineup.

They would not be considering free agents such as Russell Branyan.

They would not be linked every three seconds to Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Well, the Red Sox are not certain about Ortiz, cannot be certain, even though last season he rallied to hit 26 of his 27 home runs after June 1.

The Sox's interest in Branyan, a left-handed slugger who reached agreement Friday with the Indians, was the latest indication that they might act quickly to replace Ortiz if he again gets off to a poor start.

Sox officials, naturally, dispute that they will treat Ortiz as if he is this year's version of Julio Lugo, Brad Penny or John Smoltz. But they also must be realistic, considering what happened last season.

Through two dismal months, the Sox demonstrated their loyalty to Ortiz. This season, the consequences of benching or releasing him would be less severe. Ortiz is in the final year of his contract, earning $12.5 million. No longer is he the linchpin of the offense.

He might bat fifth. He might bat seventh. He will not bat third, his spot at the start of last season and for approximately two-thirds of his Red Sox career.

The Sox's lineup, as you might have heard, is in flux. Jason Bay, gone. Manny Ramirez, long gone. Ortiz, not what he once was.

While the Sox will lack their dynamic 3-4 combination of old, they still might be OK 1 through 9 -- better than OK if Ortiz recaptures his "Big Papi" mojo.

Might happen. But the odds are against it.

Ortiz's power numbers indeed spiked in the final four months of last season. But a closer look reveals that he was not the same consistent, dominant force.

He struggled to handle velocity, struggled when pitched inside. When he cheated to the fastball, he became vulnerable to the breaking ball.

He would look locked in one night, and his lower half would fall apart the next.

For the season, he struck out 134 times and drew 74 walks -- a notable reversal. In 2006 and '07, Ortiz had more walks than strikeouts. In '08, the numbers were nearly the same.

Hitters rarely reverse such trends at 34, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona says it is unfair to expect Ortiz to be the player he was from 2004 to '07.

"For a couple of years, he was maybe the best," Francona says. "I don't know if you can be that guy forever. That's just part of the evolution of your career."

Hitting coach Dave Magadan, however, says that Ortiz can build upon his second-half revival and regain his aura.

"I still feel he can be better," Magadan says. "As good as he was the last three or four months of the season, there's no question he can get back to the way he was in '07, when I first had him. I think it's in there."

Looking back, Magadan says Ortiz never got into a rhythm at the start of last season. Coming off a wrist injury, he hit less the previous winter. Then he went to the World Baseball Classic and played only sporadically. By the time he rejoined the Red Sox, he was behind.

Magadan says that Ortiz also worried too much about the impact of the Ramirez trade the previous July.

"He had some concerns about who was hitting behind him; it wasn't going to be Manny anymore," Magadan says. "Whether there was any validity to it or not, that's how he felt. It was in his head. He kind of went into the season with the attitude that he might get pitched differently."

He was wrong on all counts.

Sabermetricians dispute whether "protection" is even important, but Ortiz cannot say he lacked it; Kevin Youkilis and Bay were two of the league's hottest hitters the first two months.

The issue, as it turned out, was not that Ortiz saw fewer pitches to hit. Quite the contrary, opponents attacked him with sudden, startling success. Mechanical difficulties followed.

On July 30, Ortiz had to confront an additional challenge: The New York Times revealed that he was on a list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.

Can this season be any more trying?

Magadan says that Ortiz has not lost bat speed, citing other reasons for his problems with fastballs. His thought process. His pitch recognition. His failure to get into the proper hitting position.

Still, if Ortiz worried about protection last season, he might grow downright frazzled this spring. New third baseman Adrian Beltre -- a high-strikeout, low on-base type -- is the leading candidate to hit

behind him.

"We're going to have to squish that at the beginning," Magadan said.

"If last year is any indication, worrying about that didn't do him any favors mentally."

The most obvious Red Sox lineup looks like this:

Jacoby Ellsbury -- L

Dustin Pedroia -- R

Youkilis -- R

Victor Martinez -- S

Ortiz -- L

Beltre -- R

J.D. Drew -- L

Mike Cameron -- R

Marco Scutaro -- R

Francona, though, has options.

He could flip-flop Drew and Ortiz. He also could hit Scutaro second and drop Pedroia to sixth, allowing Pedroia to pile up opportunities with runners on base -- and, in theory, "protect" Ortiz.

However Francona stacks it, the Red Sox figure to look for a bat in July -- their run prevention should be terrific, but many in the game expect their run production to suffer.

Ortiz could change that.

Or, Ortiz could be replaced.