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Between employing David Ortiz at designated hitter and Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis at the infield corners, the Red Sox have had a trio of reliable cornerstones in their lineup the last three years. Unfortunately for their pennant hopes in 2009, there is the very real danger that all of them will be delivering less at the plate, but to make a bad situation worse, the organization has only one possible patch available, a minor league first baseman who may not be ready until midseason, if then.

This might seem a bit of a surprise, because the combination worked very well for them in 2006 and 2007. Before 2008, Youkilis had shown that there was more to his game than a good eye at the plate, and if he wasn’t a power hitter of the class you normally get at first base, he was producing numbers consistent with the first sackers the Sox have employed in the aftermath of the Mo Vaughn era. Lowell had rebounded from a career-worst season with the Marlins in 2005, re-emerging with a career best .320 average and 120 RBI in 2007 (winning himself a three-year extension in the process). Big Papi has been the heart of the club, and had batted .302/.402/.612 since coming over from the Twins in 2003.

Then two legs of this tripod showed signs of folding in 2008. Lowell underwent surgery in October after a partially torn labrum in his left hip limited the 34-year-old to .225/.286/.357 rates in the second half before he was shut down in mid-September. The resultant move of Youkilis to third base meant the Sox were forced to experience Sean Casey‘s second-half slump before settling on late-season acquisition Mark Kotsay for the playoffs, a decision that proved disastrous. Lowell’s rehab is supposedly going well, but the combination of a severe injury and a player in his mid-30s rarely augurs heightened production. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA forecasting system envisions him showing no more durability than he did in 2008, while projecting a further decline in offensive production, dropping to .272/.332/.442.

Lowell’s not the only old-timer trying to come back from injury. Ortiz tore a tendon sheath in his left wrist in 2008, and saw his swing significantly affected. Although still productive upon his return (he hit .277/.385/.529 in 55 games), he was far from the intimidating hitter who had ranked among the top five MVP vote-getters for five years running, and after more than 50 games on the shelf, the wrist was still “clicking” on him late in the season. PECOTA projects that Ortiz will recover his health in 2009, but not his former productivity, predicting rates of .269/.375/.504, a level of production equivalent to the injury-hampered numbers from last year.

Alone of the three, Youkilis emerged from the season not only whole, but improved. For the second year in a row, the former “Greek God of Walks” cut his walk rate, eschewing ball four for a more aggressive approach at the plate. The change was small, but significant, with Youkilis swinging at more pitches and putting the ball in play earlier in the count. The result was a .312/.390/.569 breakout, Youkilis maintaining his doubles power of earlier years, but also boosting his home-run total to 29-13 more round-trippers than the year before.

The problem is, that was then, and this is now. Youkilis got a late start to his major league career and, at 29 years old last season, may have enjoyed a late-peak season. That peak was abetted by a .347 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a very high rate of success. Youkilis has had high BABIPs throughout his short career, but last year does represent a career high, so he should be expected to lose ground. As such, PECOTA foresees Youkilis returning to his late-model John Olerud ways, providing a weighted mean projection of .275/.366/.475.

Add that up, and the Red Sox have three key players potentially going in reverse, all in the same season. Over the winter, general manager Theo Epstein did little to add quality depth to surmount this problem once his pursuit of Mark Teixeira came up short. If Lowell is slow to recover, Youkilis remains the prime option to take over at third; moving shortstop Jed Lowrie in Lowell’s place is a possibility (he started 22 games at the hot corner last year), but that would force the restoration of Julio Lugo to the starting lineup, and Lowrie and Lugo starting at the same time would only exacerbate their run-scoring problem. If Ortiz isn’t his old self, free-agent signee Rocco Baldelli could substitute (at least sometimes, given his channelopathy), but he’s not really a DH-quality bat, and in any case may be required to substitute in right field for the fragile J.D. Drew. Youkilis is in less danger of tailing off as severely, but were he to miss extended time, the Sox would have difficulty substituting for him from among what’s on the roster-Ortiz hasn’t worn a glove for more than 10 games in any season since 2004, and the re-signed Kotsay shouldn’t be seen as a serious substitute.

The one in-house band-aid available to protect them from such hurts is their top prospect, Lars Anderson, only 21 but coming into view. An 18th-round pick in 2006, Anderson batted .317/.408/.513 at High-A Lancaster last year, then moved up to Double-A Portland and continued to rake, hitting .316/.436/.526. These are terrific numbers for any player at these levels, particularly a 20-year-old; the Portland numbers translate to .292/.399/.489 at the major league level. PECOTA sees him capable of hitting only .256/.336/.400 in the majors this next season, but as Anderson is quite young and has yet to experience much of Double-A, let alone Triple-A, it is bound to be conservative. Long-term, Anderson projects as a quality middle-of-the-order hitter in the big leagues, but the immediate problem is that Anderson is only one man, he’s only a first baseman, and even if he has the upside to deliver at the plate as effectively as the trio of Ortiz, Lowell, and Youkilis did in their best days, that potential probably won’t show up in 2009.

In short, if Youkilis, Lowell, and Ortiz fail or slump to the levels that PECOTA expects, the Red Sox will need awfully big years from just about everyone else-especially incumbent MVP Dustin Pedroia, the even more fragile Drew, or Manny-replacement Jason Bay-to avoid losing so much offense that finishing higher than third place in baseball’s toughest division becomes a matter of destiny instead of forecasting.