Epstein keeping a healthy outlook
Red Sox general manager, like his team, isn't fazed by glut of injuries
BOSTON -- When things aren't going so well for the Boston Red Sox, general manager Theo Epstein will always step up to the plate.
Of course not literally, since his playing days ended at Brookline High School, but when he needs to address an issue, he'll put himself front and center to give an educated assessment of the Sox.
The club is in something of a state of flux with all the injuries that continue to pile up, but the Sox continue to find ways to win despite all the adversity. It's becoming a common theme this season.
With the club returning home for its current five-game homestand, Epstein decided it was time to address a few issues and give his State of the Team address Tuesday afternoon at Fenway Park.
"I thought it would be a good day to check in with you guys because there's nothing going on," he said to a horde of local media surrounding him in the Red Sox dugout a couple of hours before the first pitch.
On its recent interleague road trip, Boston saw its M*A*S*H unit continue to grow with injuries to catcher Victor Martinez (fractured thumb) and second baseman Dustin Pedroia (fractured left foot), both resulting in trips to the disabled list. Pitcher Clay Buchholz is nursing a hamstring strain, but he should be able to make his next start on either Monday or Tuesday.
Those injuries came about in a matter of three days over the weekend in San Francisco. What about everything that been going on since spring training?
Already the Red Sox have lost key members of the team, including pitchers Josh Beckett (back strain) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (neck strain) along with outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury (ribs), Jeremy Hermida (ribs) and Mike Cameron (groin/hernia), and infielder Mike Lowell (hip strain).
The injury bug has bitten the Red Sox something fierce. It's so bad the surgeon general should come up with a brand name -- maybe CL1MP (Can't Lose One More Player).
"It's unfortunate, but it's part of the game and part of our season from day one, really," Epstein said. "This group is used to dealing with it and it's been part of the character of this team, having guys step up and fill in for injured starters and injured stars. We've been getting contributions from unlikely players, so we hope that trend continues."
Epstein was quick to point out that the adversity has been a little easier to deal with because the Sox are still in the hunt for the top spot in the A.L. East despite a horrid start to the season.
After Tuesday's 8-5 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway, the Red Sox find themselves only one game behind of the Yankees in the A.L. East. Not bad for a club with so many lineup changes this season.
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"We've been playing good baseball for a long time now and we're right in the middle of it and right where we want to be," he said. "We're well-positioned for the rest of the season if we play well. This really would have been hard to take if we were still scuffling at 8½ or 9 games back when hit with these types of injuries. It would have meant the season."
During the offseason, Epstein & Co. run through every possible situation when it comes to injured players at every position and create a depth chart.
"You run through your whole roster that way and when you end up saying you're in a bit of trouble is when you get to the middle-of-the-field impact-type players, and we had two of those players go down in three days," said Epstein. "It's those middle-of-the-field guys who really make an impact offensively that are the toughest ones to replace."
And that's why the Red Sox rely on depth, their farm system and minor league free agents. All of the above have been needed at some point this season.
Epstein will continue to monitor the current roster, and if everyone else can remain healthy and productive, he'll re-examine the landscape before the July 31 trade deadline.
"We'll keep relying on players who may not be household names to most of our fans, but are here for a reason," Epstein said. "We'll continue to find ways to win and there's a really good spirit about this club and everyone is pulling for one another and we've thrived on getting those contributions from some unlikely sources. We need to keep that going."
So here's Mr. General Manager's State of the Red Sox:
If the Red Sox do anything major, it would have to make sense for the present and future, according to Epstein.
He doesn't want to jump the gun and panic about the injuries because if the Sox can maintain their current course, it might be good enough until everyone returns.
"You don't want to make a major trade that all of a sudden three or four weeks later doesn't fit," he said. "We'll be on the lookout for something more like that. We'll continue to see how this group of players performs and we'll continue to be on the lookout for upgrades."
By the deadline the Red Sox should have some players back from the DL, including Martinez, who could be back just after the All-Star break. The good news for the Sox is they have a darn good backup in Jason Varitek, who is well-rested and healthy and has been hitting the ball this season. Until Martinez is healthy, Varitek will share time with newly promoted Gustavo Molina.
While Epstein praised the abilities of Varitek and Molina, he knows why he'll stick with what's in house.
"There aren't many trades to be made right now for catchers," Epstein said.
Of course, there's still the possibility Lowell gets moved.
Boston's bullpen has been good, but Epstein believes it can be better. He says the boys in the 'pen are reliable and he has confidence in them, but don't be surprised if the GM finds help for the likes of Scott Atchison, Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Jonathan Papelbon, Ramon Ramirez and Dustin Richardson.
"When those guys pitch well, we have a really, really good bullpen," said Epstein. "Every contending team could always use another useful reliever. It's always something teams are looking at and we're no different. It's not a condemnation of our current 'pen, but you have to be realistic about it and if you can add another good reliever it always makes your team better."
Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury has spent two stints on the DL with a rib injury he suffered in a collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre on April 11 in Kansas City. His presence, speed and abilities have been missed as he continues to rehab at Athletes' Performance in Arizona.
Ellsbury is making progress every day, and his symptoms are subsiding -- a really important element because he can't start baseball activities until he's symptom-free, according to Epstein. There's no definitive timetable, but Epstein believes Ellsbury is getting closer to a return.
Before that happens, Ellsbury will need to increase his physical activities, participate in baseball activities and go through a minor league rehab assignment.
Thank goodness for Nava
Daniel Nava has made a huge impact for the Sox since his big league debut on June 12. By now everyone knows about his grand slam on the first pitch in his first major league at-bat, but he's been much more than a flash in the pan.
He's taken the unlikely road to the majors after going undrafted, getting released from his independent team, being acquired by the Red Sox and rising through the organization to perform consistently at the highest level for Boston.
"We wouldn't have called him up if we didn't think he could contribute," Epstein said. "We're pleased, but not totally shocked that he's made the contributions he's made given how well he played through our minor league system."
Nava provided an RBI single in the sixth inning Tuesday night for his 11th of the season to go along with his .291 average with one homer in 15 games since his call-up.
Boy, could the Red Sox use Jed Lowrie right now with Pedroia expected to be out of the lineup for at least six weeks with a fracture in his left foot. Lowrie, who battled a wrist injury for the past two seasons, arrived at camp healthy but has been slowed by a bout with mononucleosis. He has seen specialists and experimented with natural substances in trying to get healthy.
"He fits in if he can get healthy and he's making a lot of strides," Epstein said. "He'll be a very useful guy to have around right now. It's been a long road for him, getting over the mono and he's a week away from starting a rehab assignment if things continue to go well."
As welcome as Lowrie's presence would be in Boston, he needs to stay on course so he doesn't suffer a setback.
Signs of 2006
Injuries happen. They're part of the landscape. How you deal with them can mean the difference between winning and losing. The Red Sox have done a solid job of withstanding the adversity and performing to their capabilities, which is completely different than 2006.
That season the Sox missed the postseason, finishing in third place in the East with an 86-76 record. They suffered significant injuries to pitchers David Wells, Matt Clement and Tim Wakefield, along with position players Trot Nixon, Varitek and Alex Gonzalez late in the season.
Boston couldn't recover.
Epstein doesn't believe that will be a problem this season.
"To me, it really feels different," Epstein said of the two seasons. "Somebody brought it up internally the other day and I said, 'Well, it's different this year because we have a chance to write a different ending.' It seemed like when it happened right around the beginning of August four years ago, it was so sudden and so much depth to the injuries, we didn't have a chance to recovery."
Epstein said he believes once everything falls back into place for the Red Sox, and everyone is healthy, the club will be able to feed off the success it's had during these difficult times and come out stronger when it counts most.
"When we get fully healthy later in the year we should be a force to be reckoned with," Epstein said. "I admire the way we have played in the face of all these injuries."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.