Though the 34-year-old Ortiz is hitting just .136 (3-for-22) with no home runs, two RBIs and 11 strikeouts through seven games, Francona said during an interview Tuesday on WEEI's Dale & Holley show that it is premature to discuss either dropping the slugger in the lineup or leaving him out of the lineup altogether.
"I don't know if anybody has the exact right answer," said Francona. "But until you do, as a manager, you better err on the side of caution. You can't just treat these guys like chess pieces. I don't think that works. There's a human element to this, and probably a lot more than people realize. If you're going to make a change, you'd better damn well be sure you're right. And that's what we've always tried to do."
Being sure he's right is a concept near and dear to Francona's heart. Ortiz went through an extended slump to start the 2009 season as well, hitting .185 with one homer and just 18 RBIs through April and May, but Francona stuck with him. Ortiz eventually paid him back by hitting a much more solid .264 with 27 homers and 81 RBIs the rest of the way.
But might it make sense for Francona to consider limiting Ortiz's at-bats, at least until it's clear he's back on the right track? No, says the manager, a lefty-righty platoon with Mike Lowell wouldn't be in the team's best interest at this point.
"I think it's too early to [discuss a platoon]," Francona told the show. "David's been such a mainstay for us both versus lefties and righties. And I think if you talk to any hitter, for them to succeed against one type, they almost need to face the other side also.
"Now, I understand at some point there needs to be production," the manager went on.
Well, yes, in theory — if you hope to have a successful team.
And the sooner Big Papi is able to bust out of this early slump — we're only seven games in, remember — the sooner last season's struggles will be forgotten and the sooner the team is likely to reclaim its rightful place near the top of the division.
But Ortiz's on-field performance is causing problems off it as well. Last week, his profanity-laced comments to reporters about how quickly they've condemned his start to 2010 caught the attention of many, including Francona.
"I think he's frustrated," Francona told WEEI on Tuesday. "Until he really starts swinging like he can, he's probably going to have to deal with [the media scrutiny], and I'm going to have to deal with it, and we're all going to deal with it. Because we went through this last year, and because of where we play, it's there. And there's no getting around it.
"It's tough sometimes," he continued. "You'd like to always say you have the right answers, and we certainly try to, [but] sometimes we're searching a little bit, whether it's the division between loyalty and how far to go and who to play and the loyalty to a player and to your team, these are things we think about a lot, and it weighs on all of us."
Hmmm, so loyalty to players actually affects Francona's decisions as manager? Not so, he went on to say.
"These are things that I probably fight with myself all year long [about]," he told Dale and Holley. "I think the loyalty has to be to the team. And through that, I'm hoping that players — whether they agree with the decisions we make or not — they understand why."
It's only fair. Francona has shown loyalty to Ortiz in the past and it has paid off. How much longer can Tito stand to show Papi that trust? We'll find out.
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