Red Sox will be facing a different fall

COLUMN

September 10, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

This week, for the first time in five years, Red Sox Nation will make its September descent on Camden Yards thinking more about crab cakes than 90-win seasons and pennant races.

The fans will still be here, wearing their bright red Big Papi T-shirts and yelling "RemDawwwwg" at obnoxious levels to get the attention of TV announcer Jerry Remy. But the feel of this week's series will be much different. Because neither team has anything to play for.

That's protocol for the Orioles now, but not for the Boston Red Sox. In fact - and try not to laugh - the Orioles might actually be in a better spot heading into the offseason than the Red Sox.

Seriously.

OK, at least sort of seriously.

Yes, Boston has more money to spend, even with the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network deal. And the Red Sox are much more desirable to a quality free agent seeking a home than the Orioles.

But Boston also has more holes to fill. The majority of the Red Sox's key players are older, and several have lingering injury concerns. They've traded away a chunk of their solid farm system. And, like the Orioles, their best trade chip to improve as a whole is a superstar whose offensive production probably can't be replaced.

One major league general manager stopped short of saying the Red Sox will be at a crossroads this winter, simply because of the money they can spend. But, he added, "They do have some tough decisions to make."

The biggest is whether to deal disgruntled left fielder Manny Ramirez, who would command a good package of players in return, assuming the Red Sox pick up some of the outstanding $38 million due Ramirez through 2008.

Ramirez, 34, is still one of the game's most feared hitters. He'll be difficult to replace - names such as the Atlanta Braves' Andruw Jones and the New York Yankees' Gary Sheffield have been rumored - and a bat like his is essential in that lineup to hit behind David Ortiz. If not, Ortiz will be pitched around game after game.

"If they trade [Ramirez], they better substitute him with Albert Pujols if they want Ortiz to get 300 at-bats," said Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar, who used to play for the Red Sox. "There are only one or two guys that you can have to make them pitch to David and Manny is one of them. Sheffield, maybe Miggy [Miguel Tejada]. Other than that, Ortiz is probably going to be close to Barry Bonds in terms of walks."

Even if they keep Ramirez, much of the rest of the lineup is in flux. Center fielder and leadoff hitter Coco Crisp has been a significant disappointment, failing to post an on-base percentage over .320 in an organization that worships OBP.

Right fielder Trot Nixon, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and second baseman Mark Loretta are potential free agents and probably won't be back.

Captain Jason Varitek, the team's glue, was struggling at the plate before hitting the disabled list with a knee injury. And he's 34, an advanced age for a starting catcher.

Ace Curt Schilling will be 40 in November. Ace No. 2 Josh Beckett, who recently agreed to a three-year $30 million extension, has an ERA over 5.00. Matt Clement's recent injuries have made him a bust.

And within the past year the Red Sox have dealt away a group of guys that could have helped now or in the future: Hanley Ramirez, Bronson Arroyo, Anibal Sanchez, Josh Bard, Edgar Renteria, Kelly Shoppach, Andy Marte.

Then there are the other significant health scares that the Red Sox have had this season: Ortiz (irregular heartbeat), promising rookie pitcher Jon Lester (cancer) and rookie closer Jonathan Papelbon (shoulder injury).

"It's been odd, but no one's going to feel sorry for anybody," Millar said. "I know sometimes it seems the sky is falling over there. But you got to fight through those times."

Certainly there have been some bright spots. Papelbon has been tremendous. Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell have exceeded expectations. Ortiz and Ramirez have been their usual productive selves. And, it shouldn't be forgotten, that this team could still finish in second place in the American League East for the ninth straight year despite all the problems.

Still, even the most ardent Red Sox fan can't say the recent trajectory isn't alarming. They finished just short of the World Series in 2003, won it in 2004, made the playoffs on the last day in 2005 and will be home for October 2006.

This is a club far removed from its incredible 2004 run. It needs to find a leadoff hitter, two good outfielders, a middle infield, effective middle relief, a starter or two and maybe even a closer if Papelbon is moved to the rotation and Craig Hansen isn't ready.

They have the resources and the reputation to do it.

But a few missteps this offseason and they could be coming back to join the rest of the non-Yankees in the AL East.

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