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Deadline day: A chance to alter the future

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 31, 2009 07:37 AM

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For more than five full seasons, even when things were at their worst, the Red Sox always had Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz to fall back on. Manny and Big Papi formed the nucleus around which the new-age Red Sox were built. And now, one year after Ramirez was unceremoniously dismissed, the legacy of Ortiz is being tarnished.

Today, amid all of this, Theo Epstein remains focused on the trading deadline, on the chance to rebuild the center of the Boston lineup and provide the Red Sox with a new core to a batting order in need of a transfusion.

"Trading Manny was not an easy thing to do, but we feel we had a thorough process and made the best possible deal at the time," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein wrote in a text message earlier this week. "We are very happy with how Jason Bay has played as a member of the Red Sox."

Today, deadline day, the original intention was to focus on the post-Ramirez Red Sox, on how things have changed in the last year, if they have changed at all. Last season, before the Red Sox dealt Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the three-team trade that brought Bay to Boston, the Red Sox scored 538 runs in 109 games, an average of 4.94 runs per contest that ranked seventh in baseball, fifth-best in the American League. Since that time, in 154 games, the Red Sox have scored 827 runs in 154 games, an average of 5.37 that leads the majors. Things indeed changed once Ramirez left. They got better.

Though there obviously were other variables during that time -- Ortiz did not play last June while Ramirez was here, Mike Lowell was injured after Bay arrived -- the greater issue should not be overlooked. Sooner or later, Ramirez and Ortiz were going to fade away, leaving the Red Sox with a rather large hole in the middle of the lineup. The question all along was how Epstein would manage to fill it, over the short term and the long.

So far?

"From a run production standpoint, I don’t think there’s been a change," a longtime major league evaluator said Wednesday morning when asked about the difference in the Boston lineup with and without Ramirez. "I think Jason Bay, from a run production standpoint, gives them everything Manny did. If you look at it strictly from a baseball point of view, then you’d have to say the deal has been very good. Is there more of a fear in the pitchers [with Ramirez]? Yeah, there probably is. But you still have to make pitches whether it’s Bay or Lowell or anyone else."

Now, amid the news that Ortiz and Ramirez both turned up positive in the 2003 survey testing for performance-enhancing drugs, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the twin powers of the 2003-2008 Red Sox were an exception in every sense of the word. We will never see anything like them again. Whatever moves Epstein does (or does not) make between now and 4 p.m., there can be no comparison to the inflated production that came from Ramirez and Ortiz. All that ever matters is where the Red Sox stand in comparison to everyone else at that precise moment in time, which brings us to today, deadline day, baseball's greatest in-season opportunity to alter the future.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Long-term, the Red Sox are in desperate need of a lineup centerpiece and they know it. That’s why they presented the biggest contract in team history last winter to then-free agent Mark Teixeira. When the Sox lost that sweepstakes, they focused on the depth of their pitching staff and on winning a different, lower-scoring brand of baseball. And depending on what happens today, the Sox may need to implement that philosophy over the longer term, too.

Getting right to the point, looking at the bigger picture, the Red Sox offense is getting old. Lowell is 35 and dealing with ongoing hip issues. With or without performance-enhancing substances, Ortiz is not the same presence anymore. J.D. Drew is having his worst year with the Red Sox. Jason Varitek will be 38 in the spring. Shortstop remains a problem. Generally speaking, the only truly reliable offensive players in the Boston lineup are Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Bay, the last of whom is eligible for free agency in the fall. (Adam LaRoche will be a free agent, too.) Lest anyone think that Bay alone is a big piece, remember that he was under contract for this season when the Red Sox pursued Teixeira. In the end, the Sox need Bay and someone else.

Thus far, to anyone’s knowledge, the best hitters available on the trade market are San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Cleveland catcher-first baseman-designated hitter Victor Martinez. For the Red Sox, for an assortment of reasons, Gonzalez is the far better fit. First, the 27-year-old Gonzalez is younger. (Martinez is 30.) Second, he is signed through 2011. (Martinez’s current contract has a club option through 2010.) Third, the lefthanded-hitting Gonzalez has more power, something the Sox have lacked from the left side since, well, the start of last season. (Martinez does get bonus points here for being a switch-hitter.)

As for the fact that Gonzalez is signed to an extremely team-friendly contract that will pay him an average of roughly $5 million over the next two seasons, that is a bonus. The Red Sox have money, though every extra penny certainly will help in re-signing Bay. On top of it all, Gonzalez is the reigning National League Gold Glove winner at first base, meaning the Sox stand to gain in a variety of ways if they can somehow convince the Padres to deal him.

If the Sox can get Gonzalez and re-sign Bay -- this is a critical piece, too -- the middle of the Boston lineup looks to be in a good shape for at least two years, potentially longer. Manager Terry Francona could go with a 3-4-5 of the right-handed-hitting Kevin Youkilis, the left-handed-hitting Gonzalez, and the right-handed-hitting Bay, giving him the kind of balance he so frequently speaks of. If the Sox can sign Gonzalez to any type of extension, that group would be in place even longer with Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia batting before them. Epstein then could focus on shortstop and catcher, positions far easier to fill because they generally lack offensive firepower anyway.

Obviously, everything comes at a price. Because the strength of the Red Sox farm system is in the pitching, the Red Sox now are faced with the reality of having to trade for hitter, be it now or over the winter. At this stage, we can all agree that hitting prospect Lars Anderson is at least a year away (and probably two) from being any kind of real presence (if he ever becomes one). Bay currently looks like the best option on the free agent market. The good news is that Epstein knew this day was coming and that he has enough pitching to buy some offense and keep the change.

Over the last year, from trading deadline to trading deadline, the Red Sox have undergone some massive alterations, some more dramatic, some more gradual. Minus the Ramirez and Ortiz of 2003-08, the brand of baseball here has changed. Maybe it has changed everywhere. The Sox of today pitch first and hit second, which is fine so long as the balance generally remains intact. Long-term, the worry is that the future of Red Sox pitching looks far more promising than the future of the Red Sox offense, particularly as current Sox players age and, in the case of Ortiz, diminish.

On the one-year anniversary of the Ortiz-Ramirez breakup, the Red Sox, it seems are still searching for a new offensive identity. Today, there is a chance to find one. And there is a chance to make it real.

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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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