WHERE DO SOX GO FROM HERE?

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WHERE DO SOX GO FROM HERE?
Unquestionably, The Offense Needs To Be Addressed This Off-Season

This is the story I was hoping I wouldn't have to write. Even after the Dodgers were eliminated from the NLCS, I still had hope that the Red Sox might prevail as the American League Champs. But it was not meant to be.

The reality is, Manny Ramirez was better off with the Red Sox, and they were better off with him. The Red Sox were undoubtedly a superior team to the Dodgers; they played in a tougher league, in a much tougher division, and had a much better record. The Red Sox won 95 games, while the Dodgers won just 84. The Mets, Cardinals, and Astros all had better records than the Blue Crew, and yet none made the playoffs. The Yankees had a better record too, and they finished third in the AL East.

As amazing as Manny was after his arrival in LA -- and he was truly remarkable -- it wasn't enough to get the Dodgers over the hump. They just weren't that good. But Manny did everything humanly possible -- almost superhumanly -- to make an average ball club a playoff-caliber team.

Manny hit .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 53 regular-season games for the Dodgers after being acquired on July 31 from the Red Sox. It was a mind-boggling level of offensive production. Then the slugging left fielder hit .520 with four homers, 10 RBIs and 11 walks in eight playoff games; also truly incredible.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox offense clearly struggled in the post-season without Manny. In the ALDS, the Sox scored an average of 4.5 runs per game. In the ALCS, the Sox averaged 4 runs per game, including two 1-run games and one 2-run game. However, the Rays averaged just over six runs per game, despite being blanked in Game 1.

Without Manny, the Sox just couldn't generate enough offense. Jason Bay is a terrific player, and I'm very happy that he's a member of the Red Sox; I just wish he was the center fielder and that Manny had been patrolling left and batting cleanup at season's end. Yes, Manny is a total mental case, but he is a savant with a bat in his hands. The Sox needed him -- at least until they could address their offensive needs this offseason. And in retrospect, he clearly needed them, as well. Both were better of with each other. It was an imperfect marriage, but one of convenience to both parties.

The Red Sox shortcomings are certainly not the fault of Jason Bay, and he did an admirable job in the post-season. In the ALDS, Bay hit .412, with 2 homers and 5 RBI. But in the ALCS, Bay declined to .292, with one homer and four RBI in seven games. Simply put, he was merely good when the Sox needed him to be great. Why? If not him, who was going to step up and fill the rather massive void left in Manny's absence?

Kevin Youkilis had a break out year at the plate and became an All Star for the first time. He was the Sox only true, and consistent, power threat, helping to carry the team down the stretch. He led the team with 29 HR and 115 RBI. For the first time this decade, no Sox player hit as many as 30 home runs. And Youkilis was the only player to reach at least 100 RBI.

That may be somewhat misleading since Jason Bay finished the year with a combined 31 HR and 101 RBI between the Pirates and Sox. But it's just conjecture; we won't know until next year how he'll fare over a full season in the AL. However, I figure he'll do quite well.

Clearly, one of the Sox' primary problems is offensive production. The Sox hit a total of 173 home runs this year, after hitting just 166 last season. They have traditionally been viewed as a power-hitting team, and they certainly lived up to that reputation in this decade, hitting 238 homers in '03; 222 in '04; 199 in '05; and 192 in '06. As you can see, they've mostly been in decline in tis category for the past six years.

In fact, you have to go back to 2000 to find a Sox team that lacked home run power to the degree this one does. That year, the Sox hit 167 home runs.

But it's not home runs that win games, it's runs. And the Sox have been an offensive juggernaut this decade. But they have suffered from an unbalanced attack that relied too heavily on just two players -- Ramirez and David Ortiz.

But Manny is now gone and, rather suddenly, Ortiz looks old, slow, overweight, and hobbled by injuries. However, Ortiz doesn't even turn 33 until next month and should still be in the prime of his career. But he has to lose weight. Just imagine if the guy actually had to play in the field each day? As it is, all he does is take about 4-5 at-bats per game and it looks as if it's become a burden on him.

The name "Big Papi" was given to him for his big hits. These days, he just looks plain big -- too big. Some people even refer to him as "Big Sloppy." His bat speed has been slowed significantly, and the former clutch hitter was a bust in the playoffs, going .235, 0 HR, 1RBI in the ALDS, and .154, 1 HR, 4 RBI in the ALCS. That's ugly for a one-time Super Man.

The Sox had no power and no punch in the playoffs. They simply couldn't generate enough runs to win. The diminutive Dustin Pedroia led the team with three homers in the ALCS. Youkilis (2) was the only other Sox player with more than one homer. When a 5'5", 150-pound second baseman is your deep threat, you've got issues. Jason Bay and JD Drew were the only Sox players to homer in the ALDS. Personally, I think the Sox got lucky in that series. I thought the Angels should have won; but they choked -- again.

The Sox have big decisions to make this offseason; what do they do with Tim Wakefield and Paul Byrd? Wakefield is 42, has a career ERA of 4.32 and has been injured in each of the last two seasons. He lost more games than he won for the second time in three years and is, at best, a #5 starter.

Meanwhile, Byrd was 11-12, with a 4.60 ERA this year (4-2, 4.78 with Sox). He'll be 38 in December. But even so, he pitched more innings than Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka this year (180). And he is a control pitcher, tying Beckett for the fewest walks among Sox starters (34). He should come cheap, and seems to like playing in Boston for a contender. Most importantly, he would provide insurance. Will Clay Buchholz bounce back this year, regain his confidence, and realize his potential? Will Justin Masterson start, or remain in the bullpen? Who knows? But by now we've learned that the Sox will surely need more than five starters each year.

Jason Varitek -- the captain, the heart and soul of this team -- is a free agent. He'll be 37 at the start of next season (ancient for a catcher) and has been in steady decline. Varitek looked old and washed up at the plate all season. When he steps into the batter’s box, he now amounts to an almost certain out. The Captain my call a good game and be a master of preparation, but he is a disaster offensively. This year, Varitek couldn’t even bat his weight (.220), and only managed to drive in a meager 43 runs—both career lows with a minimum of 250 at-bats.

The Sox should ceremoniously retire Wakefield, and with him the need for a personal, or speciality, catcher. Guys like Roger Clemens Pedro Martinez, or Greg Maddux deserved a personal catcher -- not Tim Wakefield. I love him and all he's meant to the team, but he's just not that kind of pitcher. The Sox offense has struggled because of it, and he would need an ERA under 3 to justify it. If the Sox can resign Varitek to a two-year pact, and deal for a solid offensive catcher who can split time with him, it could benefit Tek and extend his career. He could then help groom and develop his successor, whoever that happens to be.

The Sox need to address the issue of run production. Where will the runs come from? Sean Casey (0 HR, 17 RBI), Coco Crisp (7, 41) , Mark Kotsay (6, 49), Jed Lowrie (2, 46), and Jacoby Ellsbury (9, 47) are not exactly offensive powerhouses. The five players combined for a grand total of 24 homers and 200 RBI this season. That’s one more homer than Ortiz had in an off year, and fewer RBI than the combination of Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis.

The Sox need juice. They also need Mike Lowell, JD Drew and Ortiz to remain healthy next year. Anyone willing to lay odds on that? It's certainly not a bet I'm willing to make. All three players are over 30 and have a history of injuries.

Lowell and Drew are un-tradable. No one would touch them, or their contracts, given their age and injury status. Youkilis and Pedroia are the team's best young players and its future. They are untouchable.

Bay is a very good, 30-year-old player who is under contract for next season. That's the good news.

Julio Lugo will be traded, but for what? Who wants an under-performing player who earns $9 million in each of the next two years? That signing definitely goes in the category of "Epstein's Folly."

Jed Lowrie started hot, then cooled considerably, hitting a miserable .111 in the ALCS.

The only reasonably attractive trade chips the Sox possess at the Big League level are Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury. They are essentially the same player at the same position. That needs to be addressed. Neither hits well, neither has power, but both are exceptionally fast and are great defensive outfielders. Ellsbury is younger and would seem to have more upside after stealing 50 bases this year. Does that make him a keeper? The Sox weren't willing to part with him as part of a package for Johan Santana last winter. Are they even more in love now? He would certainly be a more attractive trade chip than Crisp, who interested absolutely no one this year when made available.

A case could be made for trading Manny Delcarmen as well, who seems to have either regressed or to have been over-rated from the beginning. He's young, but how desirable he is to other teams is anyone's guess. Do you really want him pitching in a critical situation? Neither does Terry Francona. Delcarmen spent the playoffs mostly siting down, pitching a total of 4.1 innings in 11 games.

As is often the case, the Sox have big decisions to make in the coming months. They are a team comprised by a mix of older veterans and more youthful players. Trading the younger players could irrevocably alter the team's future. Yet those are the types of players that other teams covet; younger, healthier, cheaper, and with greater upside.

Some decisions will be easy, such as trading Lugo. But the Sox will pay him to play for another team, just like Edgar Renteria and Manny. That has become an ugly precedent. Other decisions, such as saying farewell to Wakefield, Varitek, or Ellsbury, for example, will be more difficult.

But this is a "change" year, and like it or not, change is coming.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.
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