The man in the middle

Less than 24 hours after the 2009 Red Sox season had been buried, covered in lime and put to rest, general manager Theo Epstein made a few bold public statements about the club's expectations for the offseason and what should follow in 2010.

Epstein addressed the need for stability at the shortstop position. He talked about the need for a solid and healthy starting rotation, specifically calling out right-handed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka for his horrendous season. Epstein was direct and poignant. No one was exempt from his evaluations.

Especially not David Ortiz.

"If he's going to be the DH on this team, we need him to be a force," Epstein said of the veteran designated hitter. "We are a different team when he is that force. It's important for this club for him to be that force as the DH."

That force Epstein spoke of certainly didn't describe the 2009 Ortiz, who posted a lowly .238 average with 28 home runs and 99 RBIs in 150 games. Sure, he finished the season strong to make up for his monumental struggles in April and May, but it still wasn't the type of season the Red Sox were expecting and needed from their DH.

But with spring training winding down and the Red Sox set to face the defending World Series champion New York Yankees on Opening Night on Sunday at Fenway Park, don't try to tell the 34-year-old Ortiz his career is on a decline.

He doesn't want to hear it.

"I had a nightmare for two months," Ortiz said early in spring training. "Even after you wake up, you still feel like you're in a nightmare. But that's not my point right now. My point is to move on. I guess the last four months of the season changed people's mind and that's all I care about."

Ortiz is in the final year of his contract, but the Red Sox hold a $12.5 million club option for 2011. It's stating the obvious that in order for Boston to have success, Ortiz will have to produce in a big way. When he was tearing the cover off the ball between 2003 and 2007, the Red Sox were having a lot of success. Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were the best one-two punch in baseball. But Ramirez is long gone and Ortiz's numbers have declined.

He was given a lot of flexibility during his early struggles in 2009, but the Red Sox won't be so willing to wait for him this season.

"David needs to hit," Red Sox manager Terry Francona told ESPN's Jayson Stark recently. "He's our full-time DH. I'm not trying to put pressure on him ... but if he's our full-time DH, he needs to hit."

Hit is something Ortiz did not do consistently at the start of spring training, at least not in his first 20 or so at-bats. He has since bounced back, but still is hitting just .226. Ortiz, however, will be the first to remind you there is a reason why they don't print spring statistics on the back of baseball cards and Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said he is pleased with how Ortiz has looked this spring at the plate, even if the results haven't always been there.

"You know, when he got [to Fort Myers], I thought he was in a really good place," Magadan said. "He was where I wanted him to be mechanically. He got off to that statistical bad start. I know he wasn't hitting a lot of balls hard but it was due more to timing issues and doing some new stuff. Then when the media started the 'you're only 1-for-18' and he shut down that interview and got pissed off, then he went on a little 15 at-bat streak where he had really good at-bats, hit one home run, but I was always pretty happy where he was.

"I know it wasn't showing too much in the games, but for me, he was doing what I wanted him to do and it was just a matter of time before he got the timing of it. So it's still a little bit of a battle for him, trusting what he's doing. It feels good in batting practice, but there are times during the game it doesn't feel really good."

Magadan accounts for Ortiz's slow spring with finding a comfort zone at the plate. He doesn't see a parallel to what Ortiz went through at the start of the 2009 season.

"Last year was a different story, especially the first half of the season," Magadan explained. "It wasn't a timing issue, basically pitchers were blowing balls right past him. So this spring I think it's been more doing something not different, but a little more what he did in '07 and getting used to it, comfortable with it.

"You're in the box, you want to be 100 percent focused on the ball, I think there were a lot of times this spring he was maybe 60-40, 60 percent focused on the ball, 40 percent focused on mechanically what he was trying to do. You want it 100-0. Right now, he's probably 70-30, so we're getting there. ... We're getting closer to the point where he won't be thinking about it, and let it flow."

If Ortiz doesn't produce once the regular season starts, there are a couple of possible remedies for the Red Sox, but management sounds confident the Ortiz of old will show up on a consistent basis in 2010. If that's not the case, and the Red Sox don't trade Mike Lowell anytime soon, then Lowell could become the team's DH. That scenario is possible, but it's one the Red Sox would probably like to avoid.

The projected batting order to start the season for the Red Sox has Ortiz batting fifth. The batters in front of him include Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis. There's no doubt the top four hitters in the lineup will reach base, and it will be Ortiz's job to drive them in.

He needs to be the cog for this lineup. He's in charge of keeping the line moving. If he falters, it could stifle the offense the way a slow-moving car clogs a highway.

Unfortunately for Ortiz, his early-season struggles in 2009 are well documented. When the calendar turned to June, he was hitting .185 with one home run. Then it was as if the Red Sox hired an exorcist because suddenly Papi was Big again and hit .320 with seven homers and 18 RBIs in the month of June. Overall, he hit a lowly. 222 with 12 homers and 47 RBIs in the first half, but rebounded with a .258 average, 16 homers and 52 RBIs in the second half.

It was clear he was having trouble batting in his usual No. 3 spot, so Francona penciled Ortiz into the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth spots in the order during the season to try to help the sluggerless slugger break out of his funk.

Ortiz was able to fight through the on-field adversity and began to produce in the latter portion of the season. But there were plenty of off-the-field distractions, too. His father was being treated for cancer and there was Ortiz's reported inclusion on the list of 104 major league players to test positive for performance-enhancing substances in 2003.

He was forced to answer a lot of questions.

The season came to an abrupt end after the Angels swept the Red Sox in three games of the ALDS, in which Ortiz went 1-for-12 with four strikeouts.

"Predicting future performance is tough, but it's part of my job," Epstein said during the team's postmortem last October. "The last four months of the season were certainly better than the first two months for him. If he can find a way to prepare himself for [the 2010] season and build off what he did from June 1 on and maybe grow from there."

Epstein, Francona and Magadan sat down with Ortiz and explained exactly what they wanted him to do during the offseason. Management asked him to watch a lot of video of his plate appearances in order to objectively compare the good with the bad. Ortiz listened and began his offseason workouts only a few weeks after the season ended.

Prior to Thanksgiving he had already lost weight and was in a good frame of mind.

Ortiz also spoke often with close friend and reigning National League MVP Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals during the offseason.

"To talk baseball with Pujols is easy because you're talking to a guy who has done it all," Ortiz said earlier this spring. "The way he does things are not easy and I don't think anybody can do it but him. He's a bulldog, a bulldog. You can't compare anyone to him. Look at his numbers -- he's a monster, a machine. We always talk about hitting and the one thing he always makes a point of is how you can keep your head still. You need to keep it in the same place and not move it. The more you move your head, the more the ball moves. He always talks about that."

So, Ortiz spent the offseason with his required video homework and broke down his mechanics and rhythm at the plate. He began his offseason hitting program earlier than normal and when he arrived at spring training, his hands were covered with blisters and dead skin and every time he left the batting cage, his hands were bleeding.

Only a few days into camp, Ortiz quickly realized this season had the potential to be a good one based on the way he was feeling.

"It's a big difference," he said, comparing this spring with last year's. "I feel totally different."

He also said at the start of camp that he believes people gave up on him too quickly after his horrendous struggles in the early part of 2009. He wants to prove those people wrong this summer.

"He's very anxious to get out there and solidify what he accomplished in the second half last year and improve on it," Magadan said. "I think that's a big reason why he felt good coming in to spring training. I know a lot of people equate the numbers whether a guy is doing good or bad, but I'm very pleased where he's at now, and where he was coming into spring training. I look for him to get off to a good start.

"I think the second half last year, he showed everybody what he's capable of still doing," added Magadan. "No matter how good the numbers were the second half, I felt like he could have been better and that's what we talked about at the end of the season. I wanted him to not only come into spring training ready to go, but improve upon what he did in the second half. He did everything I asked of him and from what I've seen, it's very favorable."

Baseball personnel outside of the Red Sox organization agree.

Scouts working the Red Sox's Grapefruit League games this spring were impressed with Ortiz's approach at the plate, despite his slow start in the early games.

Around the clubhouse Ortiz seems to be a different guy this spring. He's not his usual jovial self, and when asked about it, he simply said he's focusing on the season and nothing else.

"I think so," said Magadan. "In a good way, he's got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He proved a lot of people wrong with the finish he had last year, but he still feels there are a lot of people out there who are doubting him and he's looking to prove everybody wrong this year. He's been very focused during spring training."

Ortiz's work ethic has never been in question and that's a major reason he's had success in the past.

"He's going to be hitting fifth in our lineup, and any team you talk to, whether it's us, the Yankees, Texas or Kansas City, your five-hole hitter has to be a guy who is going to be a run producer," Magadan said. "I don't see any reason why he can't be that guy. I still think he has a lot of baseball left in him. He's as important as anybody else in our lineup and I look for him to pick up where he left off last year."

A number of times this spring, Ortiz has told reporters he is confident he will be able to play for a few more years and wants to end his career in Boston.

But if he doesn't produce in a big way in 2010, there won't be a future in Boston.

"I've always been a force here," he said. "I've always been a guy who this ballclub counts on."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter. ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes also contributed to this report.