The Red Sox will break camp with 25 players heading north to Boston. We begin a daily look at each position on the club, from the projected starters to their backups. Our latest installment examines designated hitter.
It's all about April
It says something about David Ortiz and the respect he commands with the Red Sox that one of the first things both Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford did when Ortiz arrived in camp was to seek him out and talk hitting.
It also says something about the new additions that Ortiz was a bit surprised.
"Who can have a better approach than you guys?" Ortiz uttered to the newcomers. "How can you be better than that?"
Despite his reservations as to what he can offer Gonzalez and Crawford, Ortiz seemed overjoyed with just being able to talk hitting once again. After a year in which he had to discuss a number of different items (Why the slow start, David? Should you sit against lefties, David? Will you be upset if the Red Sox pick up their option on you?), a back-to-the-basics conversation under the sun in Florida was just what he needed.
Still, some of those questions could come creeping back in if Ortiz has another slow start. He has established a rather ugly pattern in that regard. In 2008, he didn't get his average above .200 for good until May 3. His first home run of the 2009 season came in his 36th game and his average was below .200 well into June. Last year, Ortiz hit .143 with a home run in April.
Ortiz is no longer the man in the middle, the big obstacle that opposing pitchers must pass through to get to some easier outs. However, he is still a force, and he knows that those slow starts are sometimes all that stands in the way of a return to those heady days.
If he had just an average April last year, based on his career splits, Ortiz would've finished the year at around .280 with 36 homers and 115 RBIs. Not that his .270/32/102 line was anything to sneeze at, but avoiding that bumpy beginning can have an altering effect. Nobody asks him about April, nobody asks him about platoons, and the talk of the contract will be less pressing if Ortiz hits the ground running on Opening Day.
"I'm not planning on going through that again," said Ortiz, whose first home run of the year will be the 350th of his career.
There are three very viable fill-ins for Ortiz, especially if he has struggles against left-handers that the team cannot endure, as was the case early in 2010, when Mike Lowell wiggled his way into a very short-term platoon situation.
Mike Cameron and Jed Lowrie have both feasted on lefties from time to time over the course of their careers. Darnell McDonald may even get a DH start once or twice if Ortiz ever got hurt.
If all else fails
It's hard not to find someone to plug into a designated hitter role, so if the Red Sox are struggling to replace Ortiz's at-bats, they are probably undergoing the same sort of injury bug they sustained in 2010. Certainly, Gonzalez could take a crack at it to rest his legs, with Lowrie the replacement at first base. The same scenario could play out across the diamond, where Kevin Youkilis might get a day at DH and Lowrie play third.