Is it next year yet?

Terry Francona has a tough job that is only getting tougher as the season winds down and the Sox tread water in the pennant race.

Here’s the biggest question he has to mull over in his mind:

At what point do you start to get ready for 2011?

The Sox are 6.5 games out of a playoff spot with 54 games left to play. That’s not quitting time by any means. But when Kevin Youkilis tore a muscle in his thumb, that sure seemed like the final sign of the apocalypse.

Ryan Kalish is here and he’s an actual prospect, not a fill-in guy like Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall or Eric Patterson. Kalish is a player talented enough to be an everyday outfielder for a long time.

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Yet in the sixth inning of a game they were trailing 4-1 last night, Francona used Bill Hall to pinch hit for Kalish agaist Cleveland lefty Tony Sipp. There was a runner on first and two outs.

Lefties are hitting .194 against Sipp, righthanders .256. So Francona played the percentages by sending Hall up. Cleveland manager Manny Acta called in righthanded reliever Joe Smith and hall grounded out to end the inning.

I’m sure Francona was hoping Hall would pop one out. Hall has been hitting for power of late and has served the team well all season. It wasn’t the wrong move to send him up, even if it turned out that way.

But Kalish hit .389/.382/.611 in 54 at-bats against lefties in Pawtucket. The long-term prospects of the team would have been better served to let Kalish stay in the game.

It will be interesting to see at what point — if ever — Francona flips that switch to 2011.

As fans, what do you want? Should the manager hit every button he can to try and wring every last victory out this season or commit himself to guys like Kalish, Dustin Richardson, Michael Bowden, etc. and see what he has to work with next season?

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Let’s hear what you think.