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They have a score to settle

Offense could be hit or miss

For the Sox to have a powerful lineup again, ''[David] Ortiz has to be the old Ortiz,'' says a scout. For the Sox to have a powerful lineup again, ''[David] Ortiz has to be the old Ortiz,'' says a scout. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 13, 2009
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JUPITER, Fla. - With Jason Bay and David Ortiz back from unsuccessful stints for their respective countries in the World Baseball Classic, we may begin to find out the burning question of spring training: Do the Red Sox have enough offense?

The actions of Sox management this offseason indicated they had questions, too, based on their dogged pursuit of free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira. Manny Ramírez is irreplaceable in the middle of the order, even if he was a "cancer," as Jonathan Papelbon said in an Esquire interview. The fact of the matter is Ramírez's performance at the plate, the clutch hitting, the postseason excellence, and the fear he instilled in opposing pitchers are unmatched.

Last season, Tampa Bay proved a team doesn't need an all-world lineup to win the American League East, but if you don't have one, you'd better outpitch everybody.

After 13 spring training games - the Sox are 5-8 - few questions have been answered, mostly because Brad Wilkerson, Nick Green, and Chris Carter have been playing instead of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and Bay.

But even that star-studded list contains an asterisk or two.

Lowell is on the comeback trail. Ortiz must prove he's the game-changer he was two years ago. What can Pedroia do for an encore? Will Youkilis continue to be one of the toughest outs in the game?

And there are other questions.

Will Jason Varitek's offense improve? Who will play shortstop (Julio Lugo's offense has been very good, with a .450 spring average)? Is Jacoby Ellsbury ready to emerge as a leadoff superstar?

Varitek went 0 for 3 with a strikeout in the Sox' 4-2 loss to St. Louis yesterday. The one ball he hit hard - a shot to third base - was hit righthanded. Varitek, who hit third to get as many at-bats as possible, is hitting .105.

Manager Terry Francona was asked if this camp had a different feel without Ramírez, and with the likelihood that other players would have to pick up some of Ramírez's offensive production.

"Maybe I don't look at it like this because this was our team last year from July on," said Francona. "It's not like we have a new lineup. It's not like our lineup is bad. We were second in runs, love to be first. But there's a lot of ways to win games - pitching it, catching it.

"We're just trying to have the best team we can. We're not opposed to scoring a bunch of runs. We're kind of in a unique position where we have guys who . . . like Jason Bay, we have Ellsbury, a young kid we want to play. J.D. Drew. You can't really go out and sign a softball team. We've already got a DH. We were waiting for Lowell to get healthy, and now he's making that turn. Unless you want to give us another DH, we really don't have a place to play another player."

Of course, that was the case when they pursued Teixeira. You don't go after a hitter of that caliber and be willing to spend $170 million to $180 million if you feel your lineup is exactly the way you want it. The plan was to trade Lowell when he got healthy or keep him as insurance if Ortiz's wrist or conditioning was problematic. The Sox felt so strongly about Teixeira, they were willing to risk creating an uncomfortable situation.

The Sox were a good offensive team last season, and the numbers concur. The Sox also say Bay's production after Aug. 1 was equal to that of Ramírez prior to Aug. 1. All true. The Sox led the majors with 646 walks and a .358 on-base percentage, were second in the AL in runs (845), doubles (353), and batting average (.280), were third in hits (1,565), and third in slugging (.447).

Those numbers are good enough to win championships, but the Sox didn't make it to the World Series. Would they have made it with Ramírez? We'll never know, but Ramírez has the ability to come up big in the postseason.

"There's no doubt no Manny changes the whole lineup," said a National League scout. "You've lost one of the best hitters in baseball. I will say this: Youkilis is one of the toughest outs in the game and Pedroia defies logic. The types of pitches he can turn into hits is amazing, which I guess is why he's the MVP. Jason Bay is a nice player, but he has trouble with the breaking ball. J.D. Drew can be a good hitter, but he's not going to carry a team for any longer than he did for the month last year. Can Varitek hit at all? You can win with a not-so-great lineup. Is it a lineup it was two years ago, when you had Ramírez, Ortiz, and Lowell in the middle? I don't think so."

Certainly, most teams would love to have Boston's lineup. When you compare it with the competition, the Sox stack up on paper. They have a better offense than Tampa Bay, which added Pat Burrell, and since Alex Rodriguez is missing a couple of months, they may have a better lineup than the Yankees.

"Ortiz has to be the old Ortiz," said the scout. "When he was in there with Manny, I think it gave him a psychological edge or something because he was an aggressive, confident hitter who wanted to win the game. With Manny gone, real or imagined, it seems as if he's talked himself into thinking he's not getting good pitches to hit. But, quite honestly, I think that's in his head."

Which certainly explains the many times this offseason and early in spring training Ortiz has repeated the need for another big bat in the middle of the order. Maybe, if Lowell's progress stalls, that big bat eventually becomes 21-year-old prospect Lars Anderson.

Ortiz, 33, seems to be breaking down - the wrist last season and shoulder problems in camp.

"When I was hitting, I was fine," said Ortiz, who dabbled at first base with the Dominican Republic in the WBC. "It was sometimes when I was playing catch I wasn't feeling right. It's because I really don't play catch too much. I never play first base here anyway, so all my focus is on hitting."

You have to hit in the American League.

That means your shortstop, your catcher, your DH, everybody.

Lots of questions and, right now, not a lot of answers.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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