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No time to lose

A good offseason is crucial if team wants to get back to playoffs

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / October 4, 2010

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For only the second time in 13 seasons, the Red Sox did not finish in first or second place in the American League East.

NESN, the team’s lucrative regional cable television network, has experienced an unprecedented drop in ratings. Seats at Fenway Park, once the toughest ticket in town, were being given away for much of the summer.

The offseason, which starts today, may be the most crucial since John Henry and his partners purchased the team in 2002. In a division that is clearly the best in baseball and getting better, the Red Sox are at a crossroads.

The Red Sox have the talent base to be a few moves away from winning another championship. But the bridge to the future that general manager Theo Epstein spoke of last winter — to his everlasting regret — clearly needs significant repair.

Two All-Star players, catcher Victor Martinez and third baseman Adrian Beltre, are set to become free agents.

The team holds an expensive contract option on another All-Star, designated hitter David Ortiz. He has expressed a desire to receive a multiyear extension.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon enters his final year of salary arbitration coming off the worst season of his career. Outside of setup man Daniel Bard, the rest of the bullpen is in shambles, and replacements almost certainly need to come from outside the organization.

Josh Beckett, the Opening Day starter, spent two months on the disabled list and did not pitch well after returning.

“It’s going to be a challenging offseason, but one where there’s opportunity, too,’’ Epstein said before a recent game as he watched the team he constructed take batting practice.

“We have a significant number of potential free agents who play impactful roles. There are significant needs to address this winter. The offseasons that are less challenging are when you’re fine with the status quo. You might try and improve on certain areas. This is a more complicated puzzle to put together.’’

The situation is comparable to the 2006 season, when the Red Sox finished 86-76 and in third place, 11 games behind the Yankees.

In that offseason, the Red Sox invested $102 million to negotiate with and sign Japanese pitching sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka and another $70 million for outfielder J.D. Drew. Their additions, along with the arrival of second baseman Dustin Pedroia, led to a 10-win increase during the 2007 regular season and a World Series championship.

The team fell a game short of the World Series the following year, was swept in the Division Series in 2009, and this year missed the playoffs entirely. The downturn is difficult to ignore.

“I don’t feel like we’re that far away,’’ first baseman Kevin Youkilis said. “The core of this team is very strong. It could have been a lot different for us this year.’’

Epstein and his lieutenants are convinced the 2010 Red Sox would have succeeded if not for injuries. Beckett was a liability throughout the season. Pedroia missed the final three months with a broken foot. Youkilis was out two months with a torn thumb muscle. Leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury missed all but 18 games with fractured ribs.

“You can make mistakes using injuries as an excuse. Obviously that was somewhat of a factor, but it wasn’t the only factor,’’ Epstein said. “You have to set that aside and look at things how they actually are, not how you wish they are.

“If we were to take the field with the exact same team and do over 2010, I think it would turn out a little differently. That said, there’s going to be change and we have to fight to make sure that change makes us better.

“You don’t want to fool yourself. Things change. Players change, there are different situations and financial considerations.’’

Some of the change will be beyond their control. Beltre and Martinez are sure to test the free agent market and both figure to have ample opportunities.

The Orioles and Rockies are among the teams that have privately indicated an interest in Martinez. The Tigers, White Sox, and Rangers also need a catcher, as do the rebuilding Mets.

The Tigers, Angels, and Athletics figure to be among the teams that pursue Beltre.

“I expect there to be an active market for him,’’ Epstein said. “He did an incredible job for us.’’

Epstein made it clear that the Red Sox would like both players back. But free agency is a two-way street.

“They were impactful guys who made meaningful contributions and we would love to have them,’’ he said. “I think people forget that free agency is a right that players work long and hard to get. Most players don’t even get to six years, never mind six years and coming off a good season. Sure, we’d like to keep those guys. But it can get complicated.’’

Martinez confirmed the Red Sox made a two-year offer last month that was rejected. The catcher turns 32 in December and wants long-term security. “This is where I’d like to stay. I’ve told them that,’’ Martinez said. “But we’ll see what happens.’’

Beltre has a $10 million option to return, but already has said he will turn that down. He signed a one-year contract with the Red Sox with the expressed intent of improving his value in the market. That was certainly accomplished as he hit .321 with 49 doubles, 28 home runs, and 102 RBIs.

Beltre, who in June called himself “a West Coast guy,’’ has since warmed to the idea of staying in Boston; playing at Fenway Park and hitting behind Ortiz proved good fits for him.

“It was a very good year for me personally and I like this team,’’ Beltre said. “But I don’t know what will happen. I want to be somewhere where my family is comfortable.’’

Ortiz should be less complicated. The Red Sox hold a $12.5 million option that comes due three days after the World Series. That is well beyond the market rate for a 35-year-old designated hitter. But the Red Sox might be willing to overpay Ortiz rather than run the risk of signing him beyond 2011.

In April, while mired in a horrendous slump, Ortiz boldly predicted he would be back with the Red Sox. That hasn’t changed. What has is that Ortiz hit 32 home runs and drove in 102 runs.

“I can’t say I know for sure. But I think I’ll be here,’’ he said. “If not, I know teams out there would want me. But I know I have unfinished business here.’’

The Red Sox have approximately $22 million coming off their payroll with Mike Lowell retiring and payments no longer required for former players Julio Lugo and Billy Wagner.

That number grows to $39 million when the salaries of Beltre and Martinez are taken into consideration and close to $52 million if Ortiz ends up elsewhere.

“We have the resources for this to be a very interesting offseason,’’ Epstein said.

The Red Sox are planning to be serious bidders for left fielder Carl Crawford, the most gifted position player headed to free agency. Only 29, Crawford would add a measure of excitement some believe the team lacks. He could command a nine-figure deal if the Red Sox and Angels bid against each other.

The other prominent free agent hitter is Philadelphia right fielder Jayson Werth, a player who has two qualities the Red Sox prize: power and a high on-base percentage.

The Red Sox also may need a new third baseman and catcher, or a new first baseman if Youkilis shifts to third.

“The nature of the free agent market in general has changed the last few years with more players being locked up,’’ Epstein said. “You have to understand going in that it’s a bit of a losing battle. You have to try and pick the players you think will make an impact knowing those players who will earn more dollars total than their contributions.’’

Epstein will actively seek relief pitchers given the poor in-house options. Only two American League teams, Baltimore and Kansas City, had a higher bullpen ERA than the Red Sox.

“That’s an area that we have to address externally, that’s pretty clear. We’ll build a bullpen and we’ll build a good bullpen,’’ Epstein said. “We want to make sure that a year from now we can say we have a good bullpen. It’s going to take a lot of different directions.’’

The Red Sox could fill some of their needs via trade. Papelbon is a possible trade candidate, as are Ellsbury and Matsuzaka. The team also has sufficient minor league talent to help engineer a deal.

“I think so,’’ Epstein said when asked about whether he had the inventory to make a trade. “We don’t have guys we’re looking to move or any obvious surpluses, but our system is as deep as anyone’s.’’

Free agency will start five days after the final game of the World Series, potentially as early as Nov. 6. Come the start of spring training, the Red Sox could look much different than the team that left Fenway Park yesterday.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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