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This sets the stage for something big

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 23, 2009

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Admit it. With the Red Sox interested in acquiring a hitter, you had visions of Victor Martinez, Adrian Gonzalez, or Nick Johnson. General manager Theo Epstein probably did as well.

Adam LaRoche probably wasn’t on your radar. He might not get you all that excited, and probably won’t get Boston’s competition shaking, either. But what Epstein decided to do was simple: He saved his big chips in case he wants to do something bigger - maybe trade for a pitcher - yet still tried to improve a slumping offense with a lefthanded batter who can hit righthanded pitching and who traditionally has been a better second-half hitter.

Epstein made his calls on all of the sexy names and heard all the responses as to what it would take. Epstein said the Pirates’ demands weren’t as high as the others. He said although he was always looking for a complementary player, “there’s also a second category - a player who could make a significant impact on the roster. Those trades are hard to make but it doesn’t mean you don’t pursue them.’’

Epstein has to have his hands in the Roy Halladay hunt. No longer can anyone say pitching is not a need for the Red Sox. The once-deep rotation is now minus 11-game winner Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, with two No. 5 starters in John Smoltz and Brad Penny who aren’t cutting it, and a youngster in Clay Buchholz who to some degree is still on training wheels.

Epstein knows building a farm system is for two purposes - to keep player costs down by developing your own players or to use them as chips for impact players. With the Sox farm system in great shape, it might be time for the acquisition of an impact player such as Halladay, who not only helps now but also gives you a Josh Beckett, Halladay, Jon Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield/Justin Masterson rotation in 2010 - if you trade Buchholz. The Sox also have the resources to sign Halladay and Beckett long term.

As for the bigger picture, the Red Sox have now fired the first salvo among American League East contenders (OK, the Yankees did obtain Eric Hinske earlier). If the Sox continue to fall behind the Yankees and if Tampa Bay keeps coming up behind them, Epstein might have to be really aggressive in a shake-up.

“I think [the Red Sox] need Halladay more than ever,’’ said one National League GM. “They can make the deal if they want to. If they don’t and allow someone else in their division to get him, they’re in trouble.’’

There’s some feeling in baseball circles that Tampa Bay is gearing up for something big at the July 31 trade deadline. The Rays have more chips than virtually any team in baseball, if they’re willing to take on some salary. The louder the Yankees scream they won’t give up the franchise for Halladay, the more you think they’re in it.

What was expected is playing out - the Red Sox have a boatload of competition from the Yankees and Rays.

The LaRoche deal was just the first step in the process of energizing the Sox for the second-half push. They didn’t give up anyone they really needed in slick-fielding Double A shortstop Argenis Diaz, who can make some brilliant defensive plays. Yamaico Navarro is considered a better prospect and he was promoted to take Diaz’s spot in Portland yesterday. Hunter Strickland, a 6-foot-5-inch righthander, found himself a few deep on the depth chart. In other words, the Red Sox didn’t give up their primary chips.

If LaRoche, who is at the end of his multiyear deal at $7.05 million and who would not have been re-signed by the Pirates, is merely a half-season rental, so be it. LaRoche is a notoriously slow starter and he’s hitting .109 since July 4. He isn’t having a good year (.247, 12 HRs, 40 RBIs), but his play will pick up if he continues on his usual career pattern. If so, the Red Sox might have hit this one right.

“He hits the ball to left-center a lot with power, so he should be a very good hitter at Fenway,’’ said former Sox adviser Bill Lajoie, now an adviser for the Pirates. “I think it’s a very good pickup for the Red Sox. He’s an above-average first baseman who can really make that 3-6-3 double play.’’

LaRoche was described as a “John Olerud type’’ by another baseball executive, someone who likes to use the “inside-out’’ swing and could be effective at Fenway in using the wall, much like lefthanded hitters Fred Lynn, Mike Easler, and Mo Vaughn did.

With LaRoche in the fold, the Red Sox can rest third baseman Mike Lowell and use Kevin Youkilis at third, or Lowell could be the DH to spell David Ortiz against a tough lefthander.

LaRoche certainly has been one of a few veterans trapped in a no-win situation in Pittsburgh, where the team is constantly rebuilding and suffering losing season after losing season with no end in sight. LaRoche never really has played on a good team. You remember the relief Jason Bay felt when he was dealt to Boston? Recently, second baseman Freddy Sanchez got excited about current trade rumors surrounding him and shortstop Jack Wilson. Earlier this season, the Pirates dealt Nate McLouth to the Braves. If you’re a veteran player, you’re not going to be in Pittsburgh very long.

With LaRoche in hand, the next few days ought to be interesting. The Sox are scouting the Indians-Blue Jays series in Toronto, and scouts will stay for the Rays-Jays series after that. Maybe one of those sexy names will be coming to Boston.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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