Group therapy

The most discouraging thing I heard yesterday?

“It might be one more chance with this group to go out and win the whole thing.”

That, of course, was Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein at yesterday’s 2009 postmortem at Fenway Park, one day after Jonathan Papelbon and Terry Francona choked away Game 3 of the ALDS to the Angels. It was the typical end-of-the-season press conference. Changes will be made. Trades will be discussed. The Sox will get outbid by the Yankees on a free agent or two. The usual.

In many ways, this offseason will be Epstein’s most difficult yet, with his team at a crossroads and the only paths to dramatically improve things having to come via trade. Unless you think Hank Blalock and Adam Dunn are free agent solutions.
In the cutthroat world of professional sports, management needs to project possibilities and probabilities down the road. We tried to do that last November in this space by suggesting the team explore trading David Ortiz, a proposition that was greeted with venomous reaction. A year later, Ortiz is a shell of his former self. In 2010, he very well may be the Red Sox’ version of Vin Baker.
Mike Lowell had a nice year playing through injury, and has one more year left on his $37.5 million contract. But at this point in his career, at the age of 36 next season, is he really a full-time player?
Trouble is, one year after the Red Sox were willing to move some pieces in order to acquire Mark Teixeira, neither he nor Ortiz has any trade value whatsoever, so you’re pretty much stuck with both, or forced to eat the contracts. A DH platoon might not actually be such a bad idea, opening the door for the Sox to go out an acquire the pipe dream likes of Adrian Gonzalez or Prince Fielder.
Either player will cost Daniel Bard or Clay Buchholz, for starters. So too will Felix Hernandez.
Of course, Papelbon’s name is the one on the minds of Sox fans after his outing on Sunday, a disastrous afternoon that can be attributed as much to his manager for not realizing what 99 percent of the rest of us watching knew – he didn’t have it. Papelbon was noticeably jittery on the mound, and did nothing to ease anyone’s fear that he’s not the elite closer he once was, which is sort of unfair seeing how high he set the bar.
Trade Bard, and you’re most likely committed to Papelbon through 2011, even if the trade market for his services now might be strong (If Billy Beane got Matt Holliday for a package highlighted by Huston Street last offseason, would the Cubs willing to do something similar for Derrek Lee?) Exploring a trade does make some sense, especially considering Papelbon’s sometimes-shaky 2009 and his proclamation that he is indeed looking for top dollar in two years. He won’t get it here.
Trade Buchholz for a bat, and you’ve got a gaping hole in the rotation with Josh Beckett possibly hitting free agency after next season.
Oh, and Theo probably wants to go find another shortstop even though he has a solid, everyday defensive gem in Alex Gonzalez. Big Ben. Parliament.
He’ll probably also have to find a replacement for Jason Bay, for it sounds like he’s not all that interested in returning unless the Red Sox bowl him over. And frankly, I’m not even that sure the Red Sox are that crazy about him to do so. Nice player. Had a nice run here. But is he really a $60 million guy? Is Holliday? Do you want to give either guy that much with one year remaining on Victor Martinez’s deal and a guy named Joe Mauer looming as a potential free agent after 2010? Do you really want to miss out on the chance to watch the Yankees outbid the Sox for him too?
OK, not fair.
But for as much success as the Sox have had with their farm system in recent years, Epstein and Co. have yet to develop a power bat. In fact, Kevin Youkilis (a draft pick from the former regime) is the closest thing the team has had to Mo Vaughn, the last Red Sox-developed player to hit 40 home runs. On that note, did we mention that Lars Anderson had a .673 OPS at Portland this season? No? Probably better left unsaid anyway.
That’s why I smell a big deal coming. Epstein has to understand that heading into 2010 with this current crop of players – and minus Bay – is tantamount to waving the white flag. If the Red Sox are going to go on the cheap again this offseason (Hideki Matsui in lieu of Bay or Holliday?) on the free agent market, then the major improvements will take dealing some of the core players currently on the roster. Guys not named Ortiz or Lowell. For better of worse, the Red Sox are stuck with them (not to mention Jason Varitek, who will cost $3 million to inform him to retire). That handcuffs what they can do to some degree with their overall roster.
But “this group,” as constituted, isn’t good enough anymore. It became somewhat clear as the 2009 season wore on. It became painfully obvious over the past week.
It won’t take a major overhaul, but it will take dramatic moves to keep pace. In other words, we could be in for one shocker of a deal.



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