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PHILADELPHIA -- The Boston Red Sox are three games away from the season's midway point, five games away from the end of what has become an annoying interleague exercise and just more than a month away from the July 31 trading deadline.
For the better part of six weeks, they have played great baseball. For the past week, they have been an easy mark for two soft touches, the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates, and on Tuesday night, they were no match for Cliff Lee, who would be a recurring nightmare if he'd chosen more money from the New York Yankees over the comfort of pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies (and their mountain of cash).
Are there changes in the offing? One in the short term, for certain. While manager Terry Francona claimed he had yet to make out his lineup card after Tuesday night's 5-0 loss to the Phillies, David Ortiz confirmed that he will indeed be playing first base Wednesday night. No word yet on whether that means Adrian Gonzalez sits or plays right field (presumably the latter), but Ortiz joked that the club will be losing little defensively with "Big Papi" at first base.
"Those golden hands never leave you,'' he said.
Beyond that, he said he had little to add.
"What am I going to talk about?'' he said. "I haven't played in a month. OK, I'll talk to you tomorrow after I hit a bomb. How about that?''
The Sox have been held to four or fewer runs in six straight games, their longest such streak of the season and a drastic departure from the rest of the month, one in which they have scored 10 or more runs five times and averaged nearly 6 ½ runs a game.
Having Ortiz back should give everyone a lift.
|Jacoby Ellsbury and the Red Sox have been held to four or fewer runs in six straight games.|
But his presence doesn't resolve the other issues that take on greater urgency as the trading deadline approaches, namely the season-long absence of a productive right-handed outfield bat. Mike Cameron is batting .149. Darnell McDonald is batting .122. Between them, they have seven extra-base hits and 12 RBIs in 143 at-bats. The left-handed hitting J.D. Drew, meanwhile, has nine extra-base hits and 18 RBIs in 190 at-bats.
The Sox have another issue at shortstop, where it will be weeks before Jed Lowrie returns from a damaged nerve in his left shoulder, and Marco Scutaro has his own ongoing shoulder issue, one that has taken a clear toll on his arm strength.
There also is one in the rotation, where John Lackey is trying to pitch through elbow problems and personal issues that have made him an uncertain contributor at best.
What are identified as problems now, general manager Theo Epstein noted on the Sox pregame radio show with Joe Castiglione, tend to change by the time the trading deadline approaches. Injuries happen. Someone fights his way out of a slump; someone else goes into one.
But what is clear, after the Red Sox invested $296 million in two players, Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, is that the Sox do not intend to be big players at the deadline. It doesn't matter that the Mets might shop shortstop Jose Reyes or outfielder Carlos Beltran. The message coming from Yawkey Way is that the Sox won't be picking up those kinds of contracts or any others with any heft. They might have some flexibility at the deadline, but not the kind that in the past has yielded such prizes as Victor Martinez and Jason Bay.
Don't expect headlines, in other words. The Sox will be working on the edges, which means a Michael Cuddyer from the Twins doesn't qualify. How many more chances the Sox give Cameron and McDonald remains to be seen, but Epstein almost certainly will be rummaging through the bargain bin for help. Cameron is 38, his skills eroded by age and his heroic efforts last season to play with a hernia/groin condition that ultimately required major surgery. The magic that McDonald intermittently produced last season has not been in evidence this go-round.
Shortstop? The Sox are likely to turn to an internal solution, such as Yamaico Navarro, if the need arises and Lowrie's return is delayed indefinitely. Jose Iglesias is still too raw, the hype having outstripped his need for more seasoning. He still has just more than 500 professional plate appearances; he might need double that before he is ready.
The Sox are certain to become stronger after Crawford and pitcher Clay Buchholz come off the disabled list, although neither is likely to be activated when they become eligible this weekend in Houston. Francona ruled out Buchholz pitching against the Astros and said he didn't know how realistic it was that Crawford would play Sunday, when he can come off the DL.
As for the rotation, it's pointless to worry which starter will be bumped when Buchholz does come back. There are no plans to send left-hander Andrew Miller to the bullpen, and with the uncertainty surrounding Buchholz's back, Lackey's elbow and Tim Wakefield's age, someone is liable to go down, leaving plenty of work for all six starters.
So there will be tweaking, but likely nothing major, although owner John W. Henry has authorized surprises before. This would not be the first time the Sox have sent out signals they don't expect to be major players at the deadline.
The current downturn is a temporary glitch. If Ortiz delivers that bomb he was talking about Tuesday night, it might be temporary indeed.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.