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Stand by Smoltz, swing a deal for a hitter

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 27, 2009 12:08 PM

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"If you don’t get immediate results, you don’t go the other way. We believe in what we’re doing."

- Red Sox manager Terry Francona when asked about John Smoltz on Friday

During any time but the trading season, the concerns might not be so great now, regarding John Smoltz or anyone else. There would be more time, less urgency, more comprehensive debate about who the Red Sox are and, just as important, where they are headed.

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Yet, in the short term as well as the long, the answer now is the same as it might have been then: Even as the July 31 trading deadline rapidly approaches, the Red Sox do not need a pitcher as much as they do a hitter.

Six starts into his career with the Red Sox, Smoltz is 1-4 with a 7.04 ERA following yesterday’s 6-2 Sox loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. The Red Sox are now 8-2 against the Orioles this season, both defeats in games started by Smoltz. Overall, the Sox are 1-5 in Smoltz’s starts this year and 2-6 in games started by Daisuke Matsuzaka, the man whom Smoltz replaced in the starting rotation last month. Combined, in prorated salaries and posting fees, the Red Sox are paying those two men just short of $22.7 million (that’s Johan Santana money) while going 3-11 in their 14 starts.

Combined, Smoltz and Matsuzaka have a 7.68 ERA.

Meanwhile, the trade winds now are in full force, famous names being blown around as if they were grains of sand on the Cape: Roy Halladay, Adrian Gonzalez, Victor Martinez. Boston’s depth of prospects makes the Sox viable contenders for any of those players, each of whom could help the club at least this year and next. The question is what the Red Sox want to give up combined with how much money they are willing to spend, weighing both Boston’s title chances in 2009 and its long-term expectations of being a contender.

Smoltz? He really changes nothing because every team in baseball has at least one soft spot in the rotation. (Ask the Yankees where they would be were it not for Chien-Ming Wang.) The Red Sox still have Tim Wakefield on the disabled list, Clay Buchholz in their reserve tank, Justin Masterson in their bullpen. They have Michael Bowden, Junichi Tazawa, and Casey Kelly in their future. Organizationally speaking, Boston’s pitching is deep, with Josh Beckett under control through next season and John Lester signed through 2013.

The offense is another story, particularly over the longer term. Mike Lowell is 35 and having hip problems again; the Red Sox now are telling us that they knew Lowell might not be 100 percent again until 2010. (Can they bank on that?) We should all be able to agree now that David Ortiz has slipped. Jason Varitek is 37 and Jason Bay is eligible for free agency. Newcomer Adam LaRoche will likely be here for nothing more than a few months, depending on how far the Sox go in September and, perhaps, October.

As for the short term, the Sox rank a mediocre seventh in the American League in runs scored since May 9. During that span, there are also five National League clubs who have outscored what was once the most prolific offense in baseball.

During his time as general manager, Theo Epstein has refrained from giving up anything of consequence for the classic midsummer rental -- at least since the disaster that was Jeff Suppan during the summer of 2003. Even the Eric Gagne deal has not proven as costly as it might have, despite the relative success of David Murphy. At the time of the deal, too, the Sox they believed they would get two compensatory draft picks when Gagne departed via free agency, though they ended up with only one when Gagne failed so thoroughly that he affected his status as a free agent (and, thus, the compensation tied to him).

By Friday, if Epstein makes a substantive deal at all, the likelihood is that he will do so for a player who can help the Red Sox now and in the future. He might even be able to spin LaRoche (if he eats the money) in a package, allowing a team like the Padres or Indians to replace Gonzalez or Martinez, effectively for free, over the final two months. Epstein also would have to give up an elite prospect or two, of course, whether it be Buchholz or Kelly or Lars Anderson. (Note: According to a baseball source, the Indians offered to deal Martinez for Buchholz straight up, but the Sox quickly declined.)

With regard to Boston’s offensive needs, they are now quite clear. The Red Sox’ run production has slipped over the last two months and it is trending in the wrong direction. With or without Bay, if the Red Sox want a hitter between now and Opening Day 2010, they will likely need to trade for it. Anderson, just 21 and batting .259 in Portland, isn’t ready to become a full-time player in 2010. The free-agent market looks thin. And if the Sox are going to trade for a hitter over the winter, wouldn’t it benefit them to do so now, so that they can take another run at a World Series championship?

Yes, Smoltz is failing. Yes, Matsuzaka has been a bust this year. But Epstein has been careful about sacrificing elite prospects in one deal, let alone two, which the Red Sox have important choices to make before 4 p.m. Friday.

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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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