Around the Horn: DH/Bench

Big Papi gives Red Sox lots of pop

The following is the last in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. For the past seven Wednesdays, we've previewed a different position. Today: Designated hitter/bench.

BOSTON -- He came to Boston relatively anonymously, fresh off a pink slip from the Minnesota Twins. Three years later, the anonymity has been replaced by two words that are equally beloved in New England and feared by pitchers all across baseball: Big Papi.

That's David Ortiz, now as productive a hitter as anyone in baseball. And with the game on the line, Ortiz is probably the guy a pitcher would least like to face.

All he's done in each of his three years as the designated hitter of the Red Sox is get better. From a fifth-place MVP finish in 2003 to fourth the next year to second in 2005, Ortiz is attempting to become the first Most Valuable Player the Red Sox have had since Mo Vaughn in 1995.

While Vaughn was a beloved figure during his time in Boston, Ortiz has taken his popularity to another level.

If he never played another game, Red Sox fans would still have those lasting images of Ortiz being mobbed after all three of those walk-off hits in the 2004 postseason.

It used to be that Ortiz struggled to turn on inside pitches. Then there was a lack of discipline at the plate. Now? If he has a remaining weakness, pitchers across baseball would love to spot it.

Can Ortiz take his game to another level yet again? Perhaps, but it will be difficult. The bar is set somewhere between the Green Monster and the moon.

In 2005, Ortiz was lethal, hitting .300 while accumulating 119 runs, 180 hits, 40 doubles, 47 homers, 148 RBIs and an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.0001.

The average fan might think it is easier for Ortiz to put up such gaudy numbers because he doesn't play defense. The average Major League player would probably say otherwise. To most players who have tried it, DH is a difficult position to stay sharp. Just ask Jason Giambi, who puts up far better numbers when he plays first base. Aside from Edgar Martinez, it is hard to remember a player in recent years who has thrived as much in the DH role as Ortiz.

Ortiz has made the most of his life as a designated masher, thoroughly studying video and working on his mechanics between at-bats.

As for the Boston bench, there are some returnees and quite a few new faces. For the first time since 2001, the Red Sox open a season with someone besides Doug Mirabelli as the backup catcher.

The battle for that job will be waged in Spring Training between veteran John Flaherty, non-roster invitee Ken Huckaby and recent trade acquisition Josh Bard.

Flaherty, who has tremendous intangibles and a terrific glove, comes in as the favorite. Getting comfortable with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield during the spring will be essential for Flaherty, who began his Major League career in Boston (1992-93) before moving on to the Tigers, Padres, Devil Rays and Yankees.

Boston Red Sox
Starters: Sox have plenty of depth
Bullpen: Foulke looks to rebound
Catchers: Varitek a calming influence
Corner IF: Three players for two spots
Middle IF: More new infield faces
Outfielders: A Crisp new look
DH/Bench: Big pop from Big Papi

And playing this year's role of Doug Mientkiewicz/John Olerud is J.T. Snow, the left-handed veteran the Red Sox signed in January. There might not be a better defensive first baseman in the game than Snow, who can also be effective with the bat, particularly against righties.

Snow will back up Kevin Youkilis and should get plenty of starts. Whenever the Red Sox are clinging to a slim lead in the late innings, expect to see Snow at first base.

Another infielder who will see plenty of playing time off the bench is Alex Cora, the heady player who does all the little things. Though Cora may never light up a stat sheet, manager Terry Francona and the entire coaching staff love the way he plays the game.

Cora is a solid defender at both shortstop and second base, and he can also play third if the need arises.

Because of Cora's presence, it seems doubtful that Tony Graffanino, whose contract is not guaranteed, will break camp with the team. While Graffanino was solid as Boston's second baseman after his arrival last July, the Red Sox signed Mark Loretta to be their starter at that position in '06.

Graffanino, who has a solid bat, will come to camp as insurance in the event another infielder gets hurt. Don't be surprised if he is traded during Spring Training.

Super utility man Willie Harris will report to Fort Myers as a non-roster invitee, but his versatility figures to be plenty appealing to the Red Sox. A speedster, Harris plays second base and all three outfield positions. He will also soon be the proud owner of a World Series ring, thanks to his backup work with the White Sox in 2005.

From a bench standpoint, things are a little less settled in the outfield. Dustan Mohr, who clubbed 17 homers in 266 at-bats for the Rockies last year, will try to win a job in Spring Training. He offers a right-handed bat off the bench that the Red Sox would otherwise lack until Gabe Kapler regains his health.

Left-handed hitting Adam Stern, last year's Rule 5 Draft pick, will also compete for one of the final spots. He suffered such a barrage of injuries in 2005 that it makes it hard to gauge just what he is as a player. The one thing Stern possesses is speed.

Don't be surprised if the Red Sox add another backup outfielder before the season starts.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.