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So many questions, but time running out for Red Sox

Posted by Staff  July 27, 2012 11:39 AM

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The gap between the Red Sox and New York Yankees stands at precisely 10 1/2 games, 11 in the loss column, and so there is no point in belaboring the obvious. The Yankees are just another opponent now. The Red Sox have far more immediate challenges at the moment.

Like survival, for instance.

Only five days remain before the annual July 31 trading deadline, and so one can only wonder how the Red Sox view this weekend's three-game series against the Yankees, particularly with three more to follow against the awakened Detroit Tigers. On Tuesday, just a few hours before the Sox and Josh Beckett are to take on the otherworldly Justin Verlander, general manager Ben Cherington will have to have made a decision on just what to do with his fledgling ballclub. Help it? Begin dismantling it? Or just stand there and let it wither away down near the bottom of the American League standings?

The Red Sox play their 100th game of the season tonight, after all. At the moment, only Seattle, Kansas City and Minnesota have worse records in the American League. The Red Sox have fallen into the lowest reaches of the lower middle class, nestled comfortably in the nowhere land between contender and pretender. Are they holding onto false hope at this point? Or is a hot streak around the corner? This is what Cherington must decide in the next 100 hours or so, the large majority of which the Red Sox will spend in the reconstructed Bronx.

One thing is for certain: The Yankees would still take great delight in burying the Red Sox in the concrete that once held David Ortiz's jersey.

One week ago today, during an appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub, the Red Sox were coming off a walk-off win again the Chicago White Sox, Cody Ross delivering them to a 5-2 record in their first seven games after the All-Star break. Cherington believed the Red Sox could “beat anyone.” One very short week later, Cherington made an appearance on WEEI this morning and spoke only of beating the teams directly ahead of the Red Sox in the wild-card race, a group of teams that includes Baltimore, Cleveland and Toronto, among others.

Where Cherington and the Sox are come Monday (or Tuesday) is anybody’s guess, but their goals are clearly getting more modest. What if the Yankees sweep them? What if the Sox play even worse? With the way things have been trending, Cherington and his staff might soon be focused on staying ahead of Minnesota, Kansas City and Seattle.

An exaggeration? Not really. The Red Sox are now effectively living day to day, as they did last September, when their postseason life was at stake. Cherington now has just five days to make a definitive judgment on a team that seemingly has spent the entire season in purgatory. The prevailing question now is whether the Red Sox place any real value on making the playoffs as a wild card entrant or whether the goal is to win a championship.

In 2004, after the Red Sox lost the first three games to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, then-manager Terry Francona was asked about juggling the Boston rotation. Francona dismissed the notion. Francona suggested the Red Sox’ goal was to win the series, not merely to extend it, and so winning a game or two served them no purpose. Lose in four or lose in five. What’s the difference?

On a grander scale, Cherington now finds himself in a similar predicament. Are the Sox looking to extend their season or to win it all? If the answer is the former, Cherington might want to give serious consideration to an aggressive shakeup, particularly when one considers the longer term.

Don’t look now, folks, but the Red Sox have little in the way of financial flexibility this coming offseason. The only major contracts potentially coming off the books are David Ortiz ($14.5 million) and Daisuke Matsuzaka ($10 million cash, $8.7 million against the luxury tax). Cole Hamels is already off the market and there are more pitchers available now (including Matt Garza) than there will be then (Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster). And based on both the past actions of Sox officials and the performance of Ortiz this season, one cannot help but wonder if the Sox are inclined to bring back Ortiz anyway.

Translation: the Sox are not going to be able to do much during the offseason that they cannot do now. They won’t have a ton of money to spend. They will have the same players (or even fewer) to trade. All of that is incentive for Cherington to act now unless the Sox somehow believe they are capable of winning a championship.

Interestingly, the Sox today seem to find themselves in the same position they did during the winter of 2005-06, when their pitching failed them. Those Sox had an obvious need for an ace at the top of their rotation, a fact that inspired president Larry Lucchino and then acting general manager Bill Lajoie to pull the trigger on the trade for Josh Beckett. The dominoes from that deal have all now fallen, Hanley Ramirez ending up in Los Angeles, Anibal Sanchez in Detroit and Beckett somewhere between the top of the Boston rotation and the bottom.

In the current adaptation of major league baseball, after all, the balance has swung back to the pitchers. The Tigers have Justin Verlander. The Angels have Jered Weaver. The Yankees have CC Sabathia. The list goes on and on. The Red Sox simply do not have the kind of top-end presence that challenges the truly elite pitchers in the game anymore, and Cherington needs to make that his focus while the Sox wait for someone like, say, Matt Barnes.

In that way, independent of the entire series against New York, Saturday’s outing from Jon Lester should be the focus of the weekend. Unlike Beckett, Lester will have far more bearing on the long-term success of the Red Sox. In some ways, it would mean more for the Sox to have Lester pitch well and lose 2 of 3 than the other way around. Beating the Yankees for the sake of beating the Yankees simply means nothing to this team at this moment, because the Red Sox have far bigger things to worry about.

Like, for example, their future.

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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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