BoSox can’t afford another Papi poop-out

Terry Francona picked David Ortiz, not Mike Lowell, to be his designated hitter on Wednesday. Fine. I get it.

Even though Ortiz is fading, he has good career numbers against Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte. Baseball people like to talk about that sort of thing.

"In my opinion, tonight would have been a good night to play Lowell," the Red Sox manager reasoned beforehand, well aware of Lowell’s own history of success against Pettitte. “It would have been a bad night not to play David.”

Ortiz, 34, was a meek 0-for-7 this season entering Wednesday. Had Francona benched the erstwhile slugger, he would have given credence to the latest fan hysteria, a mere two games into the season.

And here’s what happened:

• Ortiz singled in the lone Boston run, but his other at-bats included two strikeouts and a first-pitch groundout. He stranded four runners. Only the staunchest Red Sox loyalist would claim that he looks OK. The guy is hitting .091.

• Oh, by the way, Boston lost, 3-1, in 10 innings.

Big Papi will remain a Big Story well into the Red Sox’s forthcoming journey to Kansas City. And probably long after that.

Francona’s loyalty toward Ortiz is admirable. For now. But it’s not hard to envision a major change to the Boston lineup during the season’s first half.

The Red Sox need not apologize for being realistic with Ortiz and themselves about the expectations a championship-caliber team has for its designated hitter.

If Ortiz is hitting .230 (or thereabouts) without a home run at the end of April, as he was last season, then the Red Sox would be within their rights to reduce his playing time — or take it away altogether.

When it comes to Big Papi, patience and diplomacy are so 2009.

The Red Sox were patient last year, and they had to be. Ortiz was already under contract for this season at $13 million. So they waited through April and waited through May and were rewarded with a decent second half.

In fact, his final stat line looked quite all right: 28 home runs and 99 RBIs, albeit with a .238 batting average overall and only .212 against left-handers.

But let’s look closer.

Ortiz had a .794 OPS last year. That sounds OK, until you realize that Alberto Callaspo came in at .813.

(*Bonus point if you know which American League team employs Alberto Callaspo.)

Fact is, the Red Sox have no reason to be deliberate in their handling of Ortiz anymore. Our grand old game is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. Players understand as much, particularly those who are talented and fortunate enough to earn eight-figure salaries, as Ortiz has annually since 2007.

It makes sense for the Red Sox to give Ortiz the opportunity to prove himself. The season is three games old.

But how much time is enough? Two weeks? Three? Four?

“Being reactionary in my job, especially here, that has a chance to set off things in a bad chain reaction,” Francona said. “My goodness, it’s the third game of the year.”

And yet, the early indications aren’t very encouraging. Ortiz didn’t put a breaking ball in play during any of his four at-bats on Wednesday night. American League advance scouts were probably paying attention.

The Red Sox will do their best to stay positive, for obvious reasons: They have invested too much money and too much time in Ortiz to abandon him during the season’s first week. They tried to build his confidence during the offseason … and now this.

“He’s going to be fine,” Sox catcher Victor Martinez insisted. “Just three games in. Ten at-bats (11, actually). He’s going to be fine.”

I’m not so sure.

If general manager Theo Epstein wants a big hitter at the trade deadline, he will get one. He’s done so in the past. It might be Adrian Gonzalez. It might not. But it will be someone.

Perhaps Ortiz is too aware of those realities now. Maybe that’s why the normally genial Papi snapped at reporters after Tuesday’s loss, letting loose a riff of expletives.

"Good," he said, according to reports. "You guys wait ’til [expletive] happens, then you can talk [expletive]. Two [expletive] games, and already you [expletives] are going crazy.

"What’s up with that, man? [Expletive]. [Expletive] 160 games left. That’s a [expletive]. One of you [expletives] got to go ahead and hit for me."

Does he sense that The End is near?

We don’t know. Ortiz exited the clubhouse almost immediately after the media entered following Wednesday’s game. But to the extent that he could, Francona provided Ortiz with the best confidence-booster around.

He wrote ORTIZ on the lineup card.

“I don’t want David looking over his shoulder,” Francona said.

In time, Ortiz will be replaced. So it goes with all players. Believe it or not, Ortiz won’t be the first postseason hero in baseball history to be pushed aside.

And it should be noted that the team has some intriguing internal options.

The Red Sox could opt for a strict platoon between Lowell (against left-handers) and Ortiz (right-handers). That’s their best choice in the near term. Both would get at-bats to start the year, and then Francona could go with the hot hand.

But Francona offered a counterargument, citing the 99 runs Ortiz drove in last year: “If you didn’t play him against certain lefties, he wouldn’t have had those numbers against righties. Facing left-handers, at times, guys have to do that. It keeps them on the ball.”

If the team were to cut ties with Ortiz altogether, Lowell would be the most obvious candidate to succeed him as the fulltime DH.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are trying to trade Lowell, who has yet to appear in a game this season. He needs to perform (and show that he is healthy) in order for that to happen.

If he plays, and hits, the Red Sox will benefit from his production and increased trade value.

Everybody wins … except Ortiz.

And when you think about it, wouldn’t a Lowell/Jeremy Hermida platoon have the chance to generate 99 RBIs over a full season?

It’s too early to make such a change now, but the day when that would be prudent looms in the not-too-distant future. Ortiz has been the source of many happy moments for Red Sox fans. But the same is true of Jim Rice, and he isn’t on the active roster anymore.

In order to stick around, Big Papi needs to prove that he can still hit. And he needs to do it soon.

*Callaspo plays for the Royals