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Papi's power struggle

Theories abound as homers disappear

By Nick Cafardo
May 17, 2009
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David Ortiz has become the Big Wait.

Wait, wait, and wait some more.

Wait for the time when he turns back into David Ortiz, who from 2003-07 was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Is the answer as simple as recovering from the partially torn sheath in his wrist that damaged his 2008 season? Is it as simple as his knee feeling better, his shoulder? Is it all health-related?

For weeks, the questions have been asked. And there have been no answers.

In an interview last week, Ortiz said that, physically, he's "better than ever," but he also hinted at a personal issue.

"People don't know," Ortiz said. "Sometimes they think we just come here to play baseball and that's it. We're human beings like everyone else. We have things to worry about.

"Sometimes that gets in the way. It's hard to have that free open mind you need to play this game. There's no way you can play this game with a busy mind. No way."

It has reached the point where, with Kevin Youkilis out with an oblique strain, Red Sox scouts are doing their due diligence in looking at other hitters.

According to other teams' scouts, the Sox have been watching Washington first baseman Nick Johnson, who has battled some injuries himself but has become one of the Nationals' top hitters. He is Boston's kind of hitter - a guy with a very good on-base percentage - and he's in the final year of a three-year deal, earning $5.5 million. But the Nationals would want pitching prospects in a trade, and the Sox guard those like gold.

There has been talk among scouts that the Indians might be willing to deal 29-year-old catcher/first baseman/DH Victor Martinez for young pitching. Martinez, who earns $5.7 million this season and $7 million in his option season next year, is hitting .409 with 7 homers and 25 RBIs.

Another option, though less likely, would be Colorado's Todd Helton, who has always indicated that he'd OK a deal to Boston. But Helton is very expensive, earning $16.6 million this year and next and $19.1 million in 2011.

In a perfect world, Ortiz would snap out of it and become the force he's always been. All around baseball, there are general managers, scouts, and players who wonder what is going on.

But players can lose it all of a sudden. It happens to the best of them. Jim Rice's production dropped precipitously at age 34, though he was able to hang on until 36. You also have players like Morgan Ensberg, who hit 36 homers and knocked in 101 runs for Houston in 2005, dropped to 23 homers and 58 RBIs the following year, then fell off the face of the Earth.

"Ensberg is a great example of a player who had it going and then lost it without explanation," said a former member of the Astros' front office. "Usually there's a reason. I've got to believe with Ortiz it's a combination of the injuries, some mechanical thing in his swing. Sometimes you're off by a tick and you're messed up for a long time."

In this day and age, the question of steroid use is asked about great producers who suddenly falter. Ortiz has vehemently denied that he was ever on anything, even though he had an association with Angel Presinal, the Dominican personal trainer banned from major league clubhouses because he was suspected of distributing steroids to Dominican players.

Ortiz's age is also an issue. He is listed as 33 years old and said in spring training that he is too young to be all done.

Certainly, all of those topics are on the table. But aside from them, are there real flaws in his swing that can be corrected?

Someone who knows Ortiz's swing as well as anyone is Ron Jackson, who was Boston's hitting coach from 2003-06 and is now with Round Rock (Texas), the Triple A affiliate of the Astros. Ortiz credits Jackson with transforming him from a platoon player with Minnesota to a superstar in Boston, with a few small adjustments in his swing.

Jackson is reticent to speak about Ortiz because the player is no longer under his watch. But he said, "I like to keep track of all my former hitters."

Does Ortiz look different?

"Yes," said Jackson. "I don't see the same guy doing all of the things we worked on. I know David's swing, but really, that's not for me to comment on."

Mike Easler, another former Sox coach who is now an independent instructor in Las Vegas, has offered to work with Ortiz.

"I know I could help him if I worked with him," said Easler. "I know his swing. I've studied his swing on video."

Rice talked with Ortiz about two weeks ago after noticing things in his swing. While the Sox have been saying that Ortiz has been cheating on the fastball and leaving himself susceptible to the curveball, Rice thinks it's a much different problem.

"His swing is way too long," said Rice. "David always had a short, compact swing where he could get to the ball and drive it. Now he's not getting to it. His front shoulder isn't out front. Look at where his head ends up. He's not able to face the ball, and so he's not getting a good look at the ball."

Ortiz was once feared like no other hitter in the league. Now?

"Now it seems you can get him out on a 91-, 92-m.p.h. fastball," said an American League scout. "I think you're seeing less respect for the damage he can do. At one time, he'd be a guy you wouldn't mind walking with the bases loaded. Managers treated him like they would Barry Bonds.

"But now? Not as much. That's not to say that he gets hot and it gets back to that. But now teams are far more fearful of Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis and certainly Jason Bay."

So what do you do if you're the Sox?

Send him off somewhere where Victor Rodriguez, a very good hitting coach in the Sox minor league system, can work with him? Send him to Easler? Send him off with Rice?

It's in the Sox' best interest to make David Ortiz Big Papi again.

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