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Sox aren't out of options

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 20, 2009 11:49 AM

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For the Red Sox, with regard to replacing the offense they once received from David Ortiz, there are options. But as the Red Sox creep toward the middle stages of this 2009 season, one can only wonder just how appetizing their choices will be.

"I don’t think David’s career is over," third baseman Mike Lowell said last night following a 2-1 Red Sox win over the Toronto Blue Jays in which Ortiz went 0 for 3 with a walk and two more strikeouts. "I think he’s going to bounce back."

Fair enough. But what if he doesn’t?

The Red Sox are publicly saying all the right things, but do not be fooled. They are examining their options. Despite Ortiz’s struggles, the Sox enter tonight’s game against the Blue Jays on pace to win 96 games. They have the third-best record in the American League. The absence of Kevin Youkilis has made Ortiz’s failures all the more glaring, yet the Red Sox still have had one of the best offenses in the game, particularly at Fenway Park.

And yet, assuming the Sox' starting pitching pans out and their issues at shortstop stabilize -- and those are big ifs at the moment -- the club could be faced with no more pressing need than to replace the man who was an indispensable component of their teams from 2003-07.

As things stand, as a slumping designated hitter who accounts for $13 million of the payroll both this year and next, Ortiz is untradeable. Beyond that, he is a 10-5 man who has the power to veto any deal. Unless things change dramatically, that leaves the Red Sox with the option of either sitting Ortiz on the bench or placing him on the disabled list, the latter of which might require some creative bookkeeping but is not out of the question.

Should it come to replacing him, the question is this: How will they do so?

Even before this season began, Red Sox officials knew that the need to trade for a hitter might become a necessity. The only question was where they would have a hole. The best thing to happen to them has been the play of Mike Lowell, who is on pace for 116 RBIs. Had Lowell been struggling, too, the issues facing this club would be much more daunting.

For all of the names being speculated about at this stage of the game -- from Victor Martinez to Magglio Ordonez to Matt Holliday -- the Red Sox still aren’t sure of their precise needs yet. And they may not know that until they get a firsthand look at Mark Kotsay, whose return from back surgery was derailed by a leg injury but who may now be approaching a return to the playing field.

So why is Kotsay a factor? Barring a dramatic turnaround in Ortiz’s performance, the Red Sox are not likely to find a 30-homer, 100-RBI man on the trade market, at least at a price they are willing to pay. Over the winter, Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro was asking for a steep price for Kelly Shoppach; he will do that and then some for Martinez, a switch-hitter essentially under contract through next season (the Indians hold a club option for 2010) who can catch and bat in the middle of the lineup. Ordonez has been struggling (.256, two home runs). Holliday has yet to hit stride in the American League and is eligible for free agency at the end of the year, making him a potentially risky rental at a relatively high cost.

If and when Kotsay returns to make a contribution, the Red Sox could have choices at their disposal. While Kotsay has never been a power hitter, the Red Sox have been getting virtually nothing from Ortiz in that area, anyway. What Kotsay could give the Sox is a disciplined hitter who can "keep the line moving," as manager Terry Francona likes to say, and that could go a long way toward deepening a Boston lineup already relying on Lowell, Jason Bay, and Youkilis to knock in a majority of the runs.

Should Kotsay prove reasonably productive, general manager Theo Epstein’s job could get a lot easier. Because of Kotsay’s ability to play first base, Francona could use Youkilis at third (as he would have if the Sox landed Mark Teixeira) and employ Lowell as his designated hitter. Epstein then could turn his attention toward someone like Cleveland's Mark DeRosa, who is batting .317 with a .959 OPS against righthanded pitching this season and who can play multiple positions. That kind of move would be affordable while giving the Sox great flexibility, something any manager would embrace.

Beyond that, the Red Sox could rekindle discussions with the Texas Rangers for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a 24-year-old switch-hitter with just 610 career major league at-bats. Saltalamacchia would give the Sox the option of using him at first base, DH or catcher, the latter of which remains a long-term concern. The Red Sox could give Saltalamacchia the at-bats needed now (for him and them) while simultaneously grooming a potential replacement for Jason Varitek, all while keeping the door open on George Kottaras, too.

Of course, for all of this to happen, the Sox face potential sacrifices, the most obvious of which is the talent of a young pitcher like Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden. Depending on whom Boston’s target is, the price for the Sox could be high. That is especially true now that the New York Mets also are looking for a first baseman in the wake of an injury to Carlos Delgado. Once there is a second team involved, there are the makings for a bidding war.

So, which route would Epstein choose? That is difficult to say, especially given that the Sox are just one-fourth of the way through their schedule. Epstein never has been one to make rash decisions, and it is unlikely that he will overreact now as Ortiz continues to spin himself into the ground. What is clear is that the Red Sox don’t necessarily need to make a big trade to improve their offense -- at least not yet -- and that the Sox would be wise to explore internal options (beginning with Kotsay) before they do anything else.

In the interim, they will watch and wait, specifically to see if Ortiz starts to hit.

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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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