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Things to watch while playing out the string

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 7, 2010 09:05 AM

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Statistically speaking, under the watch of the John Henry group, the Red Sox seem to miss the playoffs about as often as we experience the Winter Olympic Games. From 2002 to 2006 to 2010, the Red Sox have established a very clear pattern: one out, three in.

The good news? The next Olympics aren’t until 2014.

In the interim, despite last night’s victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Red Sox are now one week into a rare September during which the focus is not on October, but well beyond. Lars Anderson is at first base. Ryan Kalish is in center field. The Red Sox are doing among the most difficult of all things – playing out the string – and sand cannot seem to funnel through the hourglass quickly enough.

Evaluators in and around major league baseball remind us of a rule when it comes to this time of year: never evaluate anyone in March or in September.

Nonetheless, here are five things to keep an eye on with the Red Sox:

5. The center field situation. It’s difficult to know exactly what the Red Sox think of the entire Jacoby Ellsbury situation, so suffice it to say it was a frustrating year for everyone involved. While it’s quite conceivable the Red Sox could go with an outfield of Kalish, Ellsbury and J.D. Drew next season, that group is entirely lefthanded. Of course, the righthanded-hitting Mike Cameron would still be on the bench.

Kalish has played all three outfield positions during his minor-league career and already has done the same in the majors. The Red Sox don’t have a ton of depth to deal from with regard to prospects, so the play of Kalish (particularly on defense) could go a long way in determining whether the Red Sox would seriously consider dealing Ellsbury.

4. The candidates for the lifetime achievement award. Specifically, we’re talking about Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield here. Varitek is eligible for free agency and doesn’t seem interested in retiring, so one can only wonder whether these are his last days in Boston. The Red Sox might have some interest in bringing back Varitek as a backup, but he may have other offers to do that.

As for Wakefield, he is under contract for next season at $1.5 million with an escalator that will increase his salary to $2 million if he pitches another 3 1/2 innings. Nonetheless, with the entire starting rotation intact, there doesn’t a place for him there. Wakefield has been relegated to mop-up status in recent weeks (or months), and it will be interesting to see how the Sox approach this after the season given Wakefield’s tenure with the organization.

3. Clay Buchholz and the Cy Young Award. If Buchholz is going to prevail as the best pitcher in the American League this season, he’s probably going to need a few more wins. If he goes tomorrow on three days of rest, as scheduled, he has five starts remaining. A Cy Young Award for Buchholz would be an enormous achievement and validate everything the Red Sox have said about him in recent years.

With regard to the Cy, we all know that wins are a poor way to evaluate pitching. Nonetheless, voters will put an emphasis on it, as they did in 2002, when 23-5 Barry Zito defeated 20-4 Pedro Martinez in the balloting. Tonight, Yankees lefthander C.C. Sabathia is going for his 20th victory. If Sabathia wins 21 or 22 games and Buchholz ends up at 16, that will be a difficult margin to overcome.

2. The closer situation. Let’s spell this out as clearly as possible: By all accounts, Jonathan Papelbon is eligible for free agency at the end of the 2011 season and has one year remaining in Boston. He is eligible for arbitration again and is already earning $9.35 million. He is coming off his worst season. And remember that he ended last year with a historic blown save in the playoffs, meaning he has blown eight of his last 43 opportunities.

All of that seems to make Papelbon virtually untradeable, which means he will likely be part of the Red Sox equation next year. Obviously, Daniel Bard looks like a closer in the making, and it would behoove the Red Sox to make the move sooner rather than later. The Red Sox clearly need to revamp their bullpen. It will be interesting to see if Bard gets some closing opportunities this month.

1. Adrian Beltre, Victor Martinez and David Ortiz. Though the Red Sox hold a $12.5 million option on Ortiz, all three are potential free agents. While the sum for Ortiz seems high, a one-year commitment might be appealing to the Sox. Ortiz may try to leverage that into an extension of some sort, but it will be a shock if the Red Sox give it to him.

For Beltre and Martinez, the situation is very different. Both are going to require multiyear, multimillion-dollar commitments – at least three years? – and the Sox have balked at some of these deals in the past. Under Henry and Theo Epstein, the Red Sox generally have let players like this walk at the end of their contracts. But at this point in time, the Sox may be more desperate for the services of Martinez and Beltre than they would like to be, which could make for an interesting scenario for each.

With their expiring contracts, the Sox have plenty of money to spend this coming offseason. Nonetheless, to do so might require a change in their philosophies. What will the Sox do with these three players in particular?

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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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