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Steering it from the ‘bridge’

Epstein taking a long-term view

GM Theo Epstein doesn’t want a quick fix to compromise the Red Sox’ future. GM Theo Epstein doesn’t want a quick fix to compromise the Red Sox’ future. (File/The Boston Globe)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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INDIANAPOLIS - As Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has begun to navigate the offseason and the free agent period, there is a sense that he is working hard to manage expectations. Over and over yesterday in his session with the media at baseball’s winter meetings, Epstein used the word “bridge,’’ his buzzword for the period between years of great teams, teams that can win the World Series, teams that are of the caliber Sox fans demand.

But that might not be the case in 2010. Or at least that’s the way Epstein is painting it at the moment.

The Sox might sign Jason Bay. They might sign Matt Holliday. They might leave left field in the hands of Jeremy Hermida and a partner. And yet, for a team with one of the top payrolls in one of the biggest markets, that last option hardly seems palatable for anyone watching or working for the Sox.

With a team that is a year older than it was last year, a team whose weaknesses were exposed, the Sox need an infusion of talent (specifically at least one bat, though shoring up the rotation wouldn’t hurt). And yet Epstein appears to be indicating that the infusion might not come.

“We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we’re kind of in a bridge period,’’ he said. “We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues.’’

That necessary talent might not come until next offseason, when the market is far better and the Sox will be shedding some major contracts (David Ortiz, Mike Lowell). They recognize that there are no major impact free agents on the market right now, no players like Mark Teixeira worthy of those big-money deals. There are such players on the trade market. But, it seems, the Sox would rather hoard their prospects.

With the fan base clamoring for more, the Sox are certainly making an effort to fill their holes here. Bay continues to be the priority, and to that end, the Sox met with his agent, Joe Urbon, Monday night.

Asked if there was any progress on a deal, Epstein said, “Just that we’re continuing to talk. Both sides are working at it.’’

The left field situation is, in some ways, complicating other deals. Until that is sorted out, they don’t know exactly what they’ll have left, in dollars or in prospects. Before that situation is settled, the Sox are having to do a bit of a dance to make sure all the pieces eventually fit.

“Timing’s important for any club, for any agent,’’ Epstein said. “It’s part of the strategy. The longer you wait on anyone - I’m not talking specifically about Bay - the longer you wait on any one thing, the more other opportunities go by the board.

“Sometimes you wait too long, sometimes you can act too quickly. You have to balance all those interests. It’s not a particularly acute issue yet with respect to our left field situation, but it may be at some point.’’

So the Sox will continue to pursue Bay, continue to pursue deals that will keep them competitive. But at the same time, the general manager is seemingly trying to let people know that the possibility exists that nothing will get done. He’s talking about bridges instead of World Series. He’s talking quite a bit about the future.

“You cannot mortgage the future, and we don’t plan to do that,’’ president/CEO Larry Lucchino said Saturday. “But our goal is to be competitive every year. We’ve said that probably about a million times since we arrived eight years ago.’’

The question is whether the Sox will sign the free agents and make the deals that will correct the problems of 2009, whether they can bridge the gap between great teams with good teams or merely adequate ones.

“We did it between 2004 and 2007 for the most part, with one really [terrible] August of 2006 thrown into the mix, which could always happen again,’’ Epstein said. “But, yeah, it can be done.

“It’s hard. You expose yourself in certain areas. There are always vulnerabilities that come about. But you get lucky, it can be done.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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