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Epstein always has a Plan B

Epstein had to dig deep to give Francona the players to keep team in contention

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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The Red Sox finished in third place in the American League East last season, seven games behind the Rays. Television ratings plunged and empty seats were common at Fenway Park as tickets once fought over were given away.

But it may have been one of the best jobs Theo Epstein has done of building a team in his eight seasons as general manager.

Injuries led to the Red Sox using 53 players over the course of the season and calling up two others who were on the roster but never got in a game. Manager Terry Francona drew up 143 batting orders over the 162 games and used 44 outfield combinations.

Yet the Red Sox finished with the fifth-most victories in the American League and were second in baseball with 818 runs despite having five Opening Day starters — Josh Beckett, Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis — spend large chunks of the season on the disabled list.

“We’ve had more successful teams. But we got a lot out of what we had,’’ Francona said. “You have to give credit to Theo and his guys.’’

Assembling a 25-man roster is fairly easy for most general managers, especially for a team with financial resources. But finding the depth to combat injuries requires creativity.

“You have to plan for injuries because they happen every year,’’ said Epstein. “You try and plan for the worst-case scenario and adjust to the best-case scenario. It’s by trying to create redundancy.

“An exercise every club does is to go through their whole projected roster and say, ‘What do we do if this guy gets hurt? What do we do if this guy gets hurt?’ You’ll have some answers that you’re happy with and other answers you’re not happy with.’’

The Sox stayed in contention as long as they did last season thanks to players such as Bill Hall, Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, and Scott Atchison. None were thought to be important when acquired but ended up helping to fill the gaps.

Hall was acquired from the Mariners Jan. 7, 2010 for first baseman Casey Kotchman. The Red Sox were responsible for only $2.1 million of his $9.25 million salary.

He ended up with 344 at-bats and played seven positions, including pitcher for one inning. Hall contributed an unexpected 18 home runs and 46 RBIs.

McDonald, a 31-year-old career minor leaguer, was signed to a minor league contract but ended up playing in 117 games and hitting a respectable .270. Nava, a former independent league player, saw action in 60 games. Atchison was signed following a two-year stint in Japan and pitched in 43 games.

Allard Baird, the team’s vice president of player personnel and pro scouting, is adept at finding such players. The Red Sox have nine scouts under Baird who cover major and minor league games.

Finding pitchers is their focus.

“You project more injuries than your position players because there’s a higher rate of attrition with pitchers,’’ Epstein said.

The Red Sox added a new group of potentially helpful players this season, plucking minor league free agent pitchers Randy Williams and Clevelan Santeliz from the White Sox organization. They’re also giving a chance to Tony Pena Jr., a converted shortstop trying to make it as a relief pitcher.

Drew Sutton, who has been with three organizations, could be this year’s version of McDonald. The 27-year-old infielder has impressed the Red Sox with his approach at the plate this spring.

“You try to create options every year,’’ Epstein said. “The hope is you don’t need them.’’

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

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