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Sox now look a little soft in the middle

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 20, 2008 07:55 AM

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the end, for all of the time and breath spent on the absence of Manny Ramirez, his departure was really just part of the story. In 2008, after all, the Red Sox probably bade farewell to the old David Ortiz, too.

They need a bat.

And a big one.

"We have one of the best GMs in the game and he has an idea of what we need," Ortiz said when asked about the Red Sox’ most pressing needs, deferring to general manager Theo Epstein in the wake of the Red Sox’ 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Tropicana Field last night. "I’m going to leave that to him. That’s why he gets paid a lot of money."

Questions, questions, questions. Win or lose, the end of every baseball season inevitably leaves us wondering what will happen next. The 2008 Red Sox ultimately won 101 games and came within five victories of a fifth world title during a five-year span, and yet we can only wonder how close they really were. Minus the final three innings of historic Game 5 of the ALCS, the 2008 Sox batted a mere .226 and slugged just .374 in 11 postseason games. Once the Sox got past the No. 6 spot in their batting order, it was safe to walk the dog.

Ortiz? In 43 official at-bats this postseason, he batted a mere .186. Worse, he slugged just .349. And so a Red Sox offense built around David and Goliath for the better part of the last six seasons now seems to effectively have lost them both, leaving Epstein with what might be his greatest challenge since officially taking over the Boston baseball operation in November 2002.

For now, know this: According to a team source, the Red Sox already have had some internal discussion about free-agent-to-be Mark Teixeira, the most desirable hitter available on the open market and a player for which the bidding will be fierce. Coupled with the strength of Boston’s player development system, the real benefit of Ramirez departure is that the Red Sox will have a truckload of money to spend this winter. All signs point to a spirited run at Teixeira, a switch-hitting, slugging first baseman with the good defensive skills, exceptional baseball acumen, and the kind of discretionary plate discipline that Sox officials so covet.

The obvious question is where they will put him.

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s loss, Epstein deferred all questions pertaining to 2009 (and beyond) until later this week, but do not let the GM fool you. The Red Sox already have much of their postseason plan mapped out. The simple truth is that the Red Sox (and all of us) must now wonder if Ortiz ever will be the same player again and if Mike Lowell will sufficiently recover from hip surgery (scheduled for today). Factoring in the loss of Ramirez, too, the Red Sox finished 2008 minus the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters that anchored their lineup at precisely this time a year ago.

From Epstein’s standpoint, the beauty is that he has ample resources to work with, and not solely in terms of pocket money. Depending on where the Sox set their 2009 payroll, and thanks largely to the contractual erasures of Ramirez and Curt Schilling, the Red Sox will have roughly $40-$60 million to spend this winter. But the real flexibility Epstein possesses comes courtesy of a player development system that also will allow him to seek any number of trade possibilities, whether the Sox would consider Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins or any other number of potential hitters believed to be available.

If Epstein wants to try trading Lowell and moving Youkilis to third base, opening up a spot for Teixeira, he can. If he wants to put together a package of young players for Holliday or Atkins, he can do that, too. The Red Sox have proven that they will eat contracts if they must – Edgar Renteria and Ramirez offer varying degrees of proof – and depending on Lowell’s health (is anyone else worried about this?), they may be forced to take a bullet or two on the left side of their infield.

The point is this: Epstein has options, of which Teixeira is the most obvious. During the final two months of the season, Coco Crisp might have elevated his trade value to an all-time high. The Sox have ample young pitching to develop or deal, and assuming the long-term health of Josh Beckett, their pitching staff is in good shape. Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, and Justin Masterson all are under team control through 2009 or beyond, and the Sox still have assets in Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Daniel Bard and others.

Given all of those realities, the obvious priority is the lineup, no matter what happens at catcher. Regardless of whether the Sox re-sign captain Jason Varitek – and one must assume they will at this point – they are not likely to end up with a catcher who will hit in the middle of their batting order. (Such animals are rare.) The Sox also are not likely to find a No. 3, 4 or 5 hitter at shortstop, regardless of whether they intend to open 2008 with Jed Lowrie or Julio serving as Dustin Pedroia’s double play partner.

During the 11 games against the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays this month, many things became clear. Among them was the fact that the Red Sox are extremely well-positioned for the future with many developing young players who still figure to be a big part of their future. Another was that the Sox put far too much pressure on their pitching staff, particularly the starting rotation, which ultimately cracked under the weight of that burden. Were it not for the considerable efforts of Jon Lester, in particular, the Red Sox’ season might have ended weeks ago.

Beginning in 2003, over the past six seasons, the Red Sox have made five trips to the postseason, four appearances in the ALCS and claimed two world titles. During that time, generally speaking, the one indisputable constant in Boston’s success was the tandem of Ortiz and Ramirez. The Red Sox of 2003-2008 scored more runs than any team in baseball and won more games than any team but the New York Yankees, and they established themselves as the premier franchise in baseball, something that will remain true no matter who wins this year’s World Series.

Still, thanks largely to the emergence of the talented Rays, the landscape has changed in and beyond the AL East. While Tampa was unleashing B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria this postseason, the Red Sox operated without Ramirez and a productive Ortiz. Getting through the Boston lineup was not nearly the challenge it used to be. A year ago at this time, after all, Sox opponents were the ones who had trouble navigating their way through the heart of the enemy batting order.

Now, whether they want to admit it or not, the Red Sox are the far easier outs.

Between today and Opening Day 2009, the question is what they intend to do about it.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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