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Fundamental changes needed

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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Theo Epstein and Terry Francona put on a good show at yesterday's postmortem press conference, with promises and answers on how to fix the Red Sox, but they gave the impression that one or both might not be around to see it through.

Francona's body language didn't seem to indicate that he even wanted to be back. He used the skillful answer that it was less than 24 hours after the debacle and said that he and Epstein had already had discussions about his future and whether his $4.5 million option would be picked up.

Francona knows there is a job opening with the White Sox in Chicago, where he was highly regarded and where he and owner Jerry Reinsdorf became friends.

But in trying to look ahead, let's assume the status quo will remain in management. If that's the case, as Epstein pointed out, a lot of things need to be addressed. There are too many soft players. It's time for the Jed Lowries to go. You have to have players you can depend on when times are difficult, not ones who are trying to get out of the lineup because they have pain or discomfort.

Make these guys run out ground balls. Isn't hustle the most fundamental thing in sports? There are too many times when Adrian Gonzalez or David Ortiz just jogs down to first base. It doesn't matter how slow you are; if you run hard down the line, once in a while you might make the infielder make a mistake.

Ortiz, to his credit, picked his spots, but he did it more toward the end of the season.

Maybe these are corny things in 21st century sports, but if this team had shown more heart and desire, perhaps that would have been enough to make the playoffs.

Accountability is huge. Francona pointed out that he didn't like some things he saw following a 14-0 win in Toronto Sept. 6 and he addressed the team.

There were plenty of times when players didn't hit cutoffs and ran the bases poorly in losses -- things that should have been addressed and weren't. But after a win?

There was too much of a country club atmosphere. The urgency was not there.

Part of the culture was conditioning, which Epstein has fessed up to, indicating that not all players met the high standards they had set. This is ridiculous. It's on the players, yes, but their superiors can't allow them to eat too many cheeseburgers or drink too much beer. There have to be consequences for being above the approved weight. You're professional athletes, for goodness sakes.

It's time the Red Sox -- including Epstein -- stop kowtowing to agents. Of course agents want to be extra careful with an injured player; they’re trying to pump up their players' value. But the team shouldn't get into that. Its focus should be on getting the player back on the field as soon and as safely as possible.

The kid-gloves treatment with which Clay Buchholz was handled was nauseating. How long did Buchholz throw from 120 feet? And when they shipped him down to Fort Myers, he threw -- drum roll, please -- 18 pitches. How do you get a pitcher ready like that?

The atmosphere has to change. The hunger has to return, but how do you do that with the current band of slugs on the team?

The change has to start with the manager. If Francona stays, there have to be more consequences for players who make mental mistakes, don't hustle, and take things for granted.

If Francona goes, a guy like Bobby Valentine wouldn't tolerate some of the things players did on the field. The players won't like it, but after a year like this, they don’t get to choose anymore.

Epstein vows to leave no stone unturned in trying to fix John Lackey and Carl Crawford. But why couldn't they have been fixed during the season?

Why has it taken two years on Lackey?

Why? Because he's not that good.

It was a terrible signing. And they’re stuck with him for three more years, so they'd better hope he can be a serviceable fifth starter while making No. 1 money.

The Crawford signing was also suspect, especially when his spray chart is heavy on right field and less so on left and left-center. He hits 350-foot line drives that get caught at Fenway Park, and he never peppered the Wall, as many predicted. So if there’s an overhaul, it has to be with his swing, to get him to take advantage of the Wall.

Considering the recent lack of success with free agents, Sox fans will probably cringe at the thought of pursuing more this winter. And Epstein acknowledged that he needs to change the way he evaluates them. But the Sox need to plunge in again, because their farm system is barren, especially regarding pitching.

Some suggestions on personnel:

  • Rangers lefthander C.J. Wilson will be the big name out there this offseason, and the Sox have to be interested. You shudder to think of them breaking the bank for him, but he is a lefty who throws hard and gives you the ‘‘T word’’ — toughness. He also actually appears to be in shape.

  • It's a shame the Sox didn't have enough to give up for outfielder Hunter Pence, because he's precisely the type of dirt dog player that would have added instant energy to the team. The current hope is that Ryan Kalish can come up and give them that.

  • Re-sign Jonathan Papelbon. While nobody liked the way he pitched at the end, Papelbon cares. He's crazy, for sure, but you need crazy. You need that look in his eyes when he's getting ready to throw. That stuff matters. It can't be quantified by Bill James or the Carmine computer program, but it's important to the mind-set of the team. You need more players like Papelbon and Alfredo Aceves who want to rip out the opponents' hearts when they're on the mound.

  • Re-sign David Ortiz. Tricky, but he's still a potential 30-100 guy, and they're hard to find. Ortiz is not part of the problem, and the team will never find anyone with his hitting credentials at that price or length of contract. If Ortiz is offered a two-year deal at similar money to what he's making ($12 million), he takes it.

  • Pick up the option on Marco Scutaro. Again, there's a toughness issue here, and Scutaro is one of the tougher guys. Is he the best shortstop? No. But he'd at least provide a bridge to Jose Iglesias, who should be up at some point in 2012.

  • Commit to Ryan Lavarnway as your primary catcher. Nothing against Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who will have a big role. Although the sample size is small, there were no signs of Lavarnway being a poor receiver. If he can become a Mike Napoli type who hits home runs and drives in runs, that's exactly what this team needs.

  • Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek. Who doesn't love these guys? And both can still play. But if either interferes with the progress of a younger player who needs the innings or reps, then tough decisions may have to be made.

  • Kevin Youkilis should be healthy next season, and we may see a different player. If the Sox decide that Ortiz is looking for too much money, do they shift Youkilis to DH (where he can platoon with Adrian Gonzalez at first base), then go out and make a deal for David Wright or bring in Aramis Ramirez for a couple of years until Will Middlebrooks takes it over?

  • The Sox missed the playoffs by one game. They don't need to improve much to make it in, especially when a second wild card is added.

    But they do need to remember that baseball is important in Boston. That the fans and the media care deeply. And the way they perform and the effort they put forth are measured on a daily basis. This year, they weren't up to par.

    Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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