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Papi hopes that Sox have pop

They didn't add slugger, so his comeback is key

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 18, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - It was hard to predict just how the Red Sox offense was going to react to the loss of Manny Ramírez. Hard to know that, after the swap of Ramírez for Jason Bay, the team's runs per game actually would go up, despite the addition of a few extra strikeouts and the loss of a bit of swagger.

This is not to say Bay isn't a valuable offense force; he is. But the Red Sox lineup is different with Bay in and Ramírez out.

That is why the Red Sox attempted to sign Mark Teixeira in the offseason, as good an indication of the front office's feelings about the team's offense as one can get. Especially given that they didn't exactly need a first baseman. They have one, a pretty good one at that, and at third base is a guy entering the second year of a major contract. Granted, Mike Lowell is coming off hip surgery, but there wasn't exactly an opening.

David Ortiz, for one, wasn't convinced by the numbers. He decided that the team needed another bat. And it's not something he's been shy about discussing.

"When you have the opportunity to go out and get somebody, you've got to try to go get him," Ortiz said. "I don't know what the situation is with Mikey Lowell right now, I don't know how he's doing. When you are in this division and you want to compete, you've got to bring your best."

Not only did Ortiz cite Lowell's return from hip surgery, he also expressed concern over J.D. Drew's back issues. And that gets to the crux of the problem. The Red Sox offense could be fine. Or it could fall apart, likely because those most susceptible to injuries will, in fact, succumb.

"Our division is built up around pitching," said Ortiz, who himself is angling for a bounce-back season. "I'm pretty sure our division has the best pitching in the league all the way around. You play 19 games against everybody. When you add it up at the end of the season, you're playing almost 100 games in your division. So out of 162, you want to make sure you win most of those games. But if you have offense, you have chances. If you don't have offense, you can't control it.

"Because you have a guy going out there and trying to [throw] seven good innings, eight good innings, and you don't produce for him, what's going to happen at the end of the night? He might end up losing the game, 2-1, 2-0, 1-0, and you don't want to be facing that kind of situation. The better hitters and the [more] hitters you have, I think the better chances for you to win the game."

There is some solace in the numbers. Before Aug. 1, when Ramírez was traded to the Dodgers, the Red Sox were second in the American League behind Texas with 5.22 runs per game. With the insertion of Bay into the lineup, the Sox were first in the AL with 5.79 runs per game.

That bodes well for this season, especially because Lowell was hobbled down the stretch last year, rookie Jed Lowrie was tailing off because of a wrist problem, and Ortiz wasn't close to the vintage version of himself.

"We've got some really good players, and I think David had that luxury of hitting in front of Manny for a lot of years," Lowell said. "But not everyone in the big leagues has that luxury and can still put up numbers.

"Have you looked at him? He came in in great shape. You look at our lineup and I think we've got five legit guys that can hit 20-plus home runs. We've got an AL MVP that's probably going to be hitting in front of David. So he's going to be in a spot where he can do a lot of damage.

"May he walk more? Sure, why not? Manny walked a ton when I hit behind him, but his numbers were still there. So I'm not worried about David having his numbers. I think David just needs to make sure he's healthy, and then he'll be able to put up his numbers."

For the first time in his tenure with the Sox, Ortiz hit fewer than 30 home runs (23) in just 109 games in 2008. He knocked in 89 runs; his previous Sox low was 101. So while the team might not have added another slugger - as Ortiz said he suggested strongly to general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona - it surely would be helpful to get back the one whose presence was diminished last season, even if he doesn't have a savant hitting behind him.

"The more good hitters you have, the better," Francona said. "I think that's stating the obvious. In saying that, where are you going to put them? We have a team in place and we're not going to play softball.

"We may not hit as many three-run homers as we have in the past. Maybe we will. But I think our base running will be better. I think our defense will be better. There's a lot of ways to be better than other teams, not just hitting a three-run homer. I'm actually pretty comfortable with our team."

It's a team that includes that MVP, Dustin Pedroia, along with the AL's Hank Aaron Award winner for top offensive performance, Kevin Youkilis. It's a team that could have a more productive Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the lineup, as long as he fixes the holes in his swing that teams have exploited.

And while it might be the Sox' pitching that is their strength, those inside the organization believe they certainly will have enough offense.

"I think we'll be fine," Ortiz said. "We have a lot of good hitters. Like I said, you never walk away from a little help."

Asked if the team could win as currently constituted, Ortiz said, "We'll see. We'll take our chances."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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