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ON BASEBALL

With Beltran gone, what's next option?

The polls, the sentiment, the common sense all favor Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein saving his valued prospects to acquire pitching.

Getting Jamie Moyer from Seattle, for example, would make it more difficult for the Yankees to acquire a lefthanded pitcher, which they may need in the playoffs. Or, the prospects could be used to obtain Seattle righthander Freddy Garcia, the prize of the '04 trade market.

That's sound judgment.

But as the Red Sox season unfolds, a case can be made that the Red Sox might need another bat. Carlos Beltran would have been sweet, but last night Beltran was traded to Houston in a three-way deal involving the Astros, Royals, and Athletics. Oakland got its closer, Houston's Octavio Dotel. The Royals were left with prospects, two from the A's (third baseman Mark Teahen and righthander Mike Wood) as well as Astros catcher John Buck.

The good news for Boston, if there was any, was that Beltran did not go to the Yankees. When any major player does not end up there, it's always a plus. That leads one to believe New York is eyeing pitching more than hitting. That might also be the case now with Boston, which kicked some tires on the Beltran front, but in the end was unwilling to part with both catcher Kelly Shoppach and third baseman Kevin Youkilis.

The Beltran-to-Houston deal seemed dead Wednesday, but it was revived late yesterday when Oakland came around on having to spend money to keep Dotel, who is 14 for 17 in save opportunities, next season.

The A's, torn apart by team dissension stemming from their bullpen woes, finally decided things had gone far enough. With Texas winning and Anaheim playing well, the A's could ill afford to lose more games because of bullpen failure, so general manager Billy Beane pulled the trigger.

In the end, Epstein held true to what he said in this space last week -- he would not mortgage the future in any trade, to come up with the next-best option.

Epstein said there is a list of prospects that would be nearly impossible to extract. Indications are the Sox could handle dealing Youkilis, even with Pokey Reese on the shelf, but not Shoppach.

And after yesterday's 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Twins in a Fenway Park matinee, it's clear the Sox must have a superb offense to win.

While pitching is the most important piece, the Red Sox addressed that need in the offseason with the signing of Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke. They addressed the need for better infield defense with Reese, while allowing Todd Walker to walk.

However, with the organizational philosophy of not giving up outs by playing small ball, the offense has to run at optimum efficiency consistently, much as it did last season. And it hasn't this year, even with Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon returning to the lineup, with David Ortiz having a monster season, and with Manny Ramirez proving again he might be the best righthanded hitter in the game.

There's something missing.

And while the numbers may look good on the stat sheet, they can be deceiving.

Tim Wakefield pitched an admirable 7 2/3 innings yesterday, allowing three runs, only one earned. Ortiz was able to tie the game with a two-run single in the seventh, but the Sox offense, at home, could muster very little off veteran Brad Radke or the Twins bullpen.

The Sox have better starting pitching than the Yankees. The bullpens are a wash. What's it come down to? Hitting.

The Yankees hit in the clutch, something the Sox don't do with any consistency. And Boston certainly can explode for big innings and double-digit run totals. The Sox lead the American League in runners left on base, and they have been dreadful with runners in scoring position. They are 5-8 in one-run games.

Acquiring Beltran would have improved the Sox offensively and defensively. While Ramirez has been a decent outfielder, he kids that he's not a Gold Glover. Beltran would have allowed Johnny Damon to move to left, which would not only be a can of corn for him at Fenway, but it would also enable him to roam the bigger left fields (Yankee Stadium). Ramirez could then spend more time as a DH.

Manager Terry Francona chose to blame a little bit of everything for the inconsistency. Yesterday, Garciaparra's throwing error in the 10th proved costly.

"We've made some errors," noted Francona. "At times when you build your team, I mean, the guys we have, some aren't going to win Gold Gloves. Again, if we hit like we should, that won't be an issue."

While Jason Varitek and Kevin Millar insist the Sox are close to exploding offensively, it's clear it's not the same as last season.

"Pitchers are definitely going to do some extra studying when they come to face us," said Damon. "They've got to, or they know they're going to be in for a long one. There's a lot of inconsistencies right now. I've got to start getting on. I feel it starts with me."

The Sox may rank high in on-base percentage, but if they're leaving those runners on base, it means nothing.

So revel in the fact that Beltran is not a Yankee. But maybe there's reason to be disturbed that he's not a Red Sox. 

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