Epstein looks within for answers
Unable to swing deal, Red Sox GM will give rookies a chance
Now, raise your hand if you think that any of the following would make a big difference in closing that gap:
It hasn't gone unnoticed by Theo Epstein that the Red Sox have been trying to survive using Band-Aids, baling wire and Velcro strips, and it wasn't working, especially in the outfield. He also knew that his bullpen has had the consistency of cheese mold, outside of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard.
So yes, he said Saturday, he too was left with an "empty feeling" that the Sox were able to accomplish so little at the trading deadline. But he had a pretty clear vision of what the Sox were willing to do, and what he was willing to spend talent-wise wasn't matching up with what would be coming back, so he passed.
Epstein was just launching a run at Kansas City outfielder David DeJesus when DeJesus tore thumb ligaments and was lost for the season. He engaged the Phillies for the services of outfielder Jayson Werth, until the Phillies got hot and decided they would hold onto Werth after all, one Phillies official likening Boston's pursuit of Werth to "chasing a ghost.''
He also explored enticing the Royals to part with Joakim Soria, the kind of bullpen presence who would make a difference now and in the future. The Royals didn't budge. He also tried to talk Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos into lowering his asking price for Scott Downs; Anthopoulos was unyielding, not only with the Red Sox but other clubs with similar interest in the left-handed reliever.
Maybe if that gap were smaller, Epstein would have settled for one of those other names that changed teams at the trading deadline. Or if the price had been different. But once the Nationals swapped All-Star closer Capps -- who potentially is a difference-maker -- to the Minnesota Twins for a package that included top catching prospect Wilson Ramos, it became clear there would be no bargains.
"Are we going to give up our best, or second-best prospect, for what might amount to a marginal upgrade?'' Epstein said. "Probably not in any year. That doesn't have to do with where we are in the standings."
And Epstein didn't want to shop off the seconds rack.
"A lot of the guys we were in on were relievers who we felt would have been clear, obvious, definite upgrades for us, guys who would have come right into the mix and represented upgrades, guys we could have put in behind Bard and Papelbon and helped this team immediately,'' he said. "We weren't necessarily in the market just for a reclamation project or somebody that we hoped would help us."
So, on Saturday, the Red Sox launched a two-pronged approach to remain in contention, which on one hand relies on their own kids, and on the other requires a holding pattern.
The Sox called up Ryan Kalish, the 22-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder who only a year ago was playing in Class A Salem but has arrived in the big leagues well ahead of schedule. Kalish, who had two hits and drove in a run Saturday, has speed and can catch the ball, the latter a quality glaring in its absence this season. It's not inconceivable that the Sox will try to win with an outfield of Kalish, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew, with Mike Cameron rotating in as the fourth outfielder.
That could last a week, or it could last till the end of the season.
"[We're] just trying to spark the team a little bit with a young guy that we feel is just about ready, and that way we won't make a trade we'll regret,'' Epstein said. "I think Ryan is as good as some of the guys we could have acquired in this outfield market. [But] we're not looking at him as a savior.''
Kalish brought energy on an afternoon that David Ortiz brought game-saving thunder, a three-run double in the bottom of the ninth that gave the Sox a 5-4 win. It's asking a lot of a kid to step in and produce in the middle of a pennant race, and it could well be that this is a temporary solution, Epstein biding his time until he can snag an outfielder off the waiver wire that might cost him just money, not a top prospect.
That is likely to be the approach Epstein takes with the bullpen too. The Sox are converting another Triple-A pitcher, lefty Felix Doubront, into a reliever, joining righty Michael Bowden. Another lefty, Dustin Richardson, came up Saturday from Pawtucket.
It was Papelbon who said a couple of weeks ago that it takes a special rookie who can come up and contribute in a race. "Someone like me,'' Papelbon said boldly.
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It would be unfair to place the responsibility of this season on the cavalry from Pawtucket, which is why it is eminently likely that Epstein will be culling the waiver wire for relievers, especially as more teams drop out of contention. Maybe it will be Downs or the Rockies' Joe Beimel or the Angels' Brian Fuentes or the Marlins' Leo Nunez who pops free in August, giving Epstein a chance to reload.
But Epstein will have an eye on the standings before he does anything. He insists the Sox have not given up on this season, not in the midst of all their injured players returning, but notes that this team has to get hot and run off a bunch of wins to get back in it.
"We were healthy in April and didn't play up to our capabilities,'' he said. "That was a real frustration around here. Now that we're getting healthier, we get our team back on the field, there's a feeling in that clubhouse and in our front office that we have the ability do what we didn't do in April, and that's run off a bunch of wins in a row. And that's what it's going to take to make up this ground.
"We still have a feeling that that has a good chance of happening. That's why we're going to continue to be aggressive looking for help in August."
Maybe that won't fly with a fan base that sees the Yankees adding Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood, the Phillies dealing for Roy Oswalt, the Rangers grabbing Cliff Lee and even the Dodgers, eight games out, adding Ted Lilly and Dotel.
Maybe shedding Jeremy Hermida and Ramon Ramirez, calling up the kids, and adding a catching piece like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose impact won't come in 2010, is doing just enough to temper the backlash of those insisting that the Sox have given up.
Ortiz, for one, was not accusing management of laying down, which perhaps was an easier case to make in the euphoria of Saturday's comeback win.
"I keep on saying we're going to be fine," Ortiz said. "Those injuries hurt us a lot. It hurts because those are the guys you count on for the season. But we're about to be in a better situation and we've got to move on."
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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