First pitch: Where do Red Sox go for power?

First pitch: Where do Red Sox go for power?
August 29, 2012, 4:24 pm
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ANAHEIM -- Across baseball, there has been almost universal acclaim for what the Red Sox accomplished last weekend.

By pulling off their nine-player megadeal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Sox not only gave their clubhouse a colonic of sorts, but also purged more than 250 million from future
payroll obligations.

Along the way, not incidentally, the Sox managed to obtain two highly-regarded pitching prospects.

But there is a caveat for some. While unloading the onerous contracts of Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, the Red Sox also had to include Adrian Gonzalez.

That leaves the Sox with a significant hole in their lineup for the forseeable future. And with David Ortiz set to be eligible for free agency, the Sox head into this off-season without having anyone under control who can be counted on to, say, knock in 90 runs next seeason.

"I understand why they did the deal,'' said one talent evaluator of the Sox. "But I'm not sure they understand how hard it's going to be to go and replace someone like Gonzalez. Guys like that are hard to find.''

And, he could have added, getting harder. Beyond front-line starters, run producers and power hitters have become the the most valued commodity in the game.

Thanks to more thorough drug-testing, power -- and offense in general -- is down throughout baseball. Now that widespread PED use is believed to be a thing of the past, so, too, are the inflated numbers they brought.

A 30-homer season is, once again, an achievement, and not, as it was a decade ago, the expected output of a No. 7 hitter.

First base is still regarded as a power position, but the Sox currently have no one on the horizon for that spot. James Loney is slilck-fielding and has an RBI in each of his first three games since joining the Sox, but he will be eligible for free agency in the fall and is unlikely to be retained.

Loney's career high for homers is 13 and after back-to-back 90 RBI seasons in 2008 and 2009, his RBI totals have dwindled.

Moreover, there's little in the minor league system at the position. Soxprospects.com features one first baseman among its list of the top 40 prospects in the system -- Travis Shaw, at No. 28, and Shaw is just 25 games into his Double A career, having spent much of his first full season in pro ball at Single A Salem of the Carolina League.

Even the most optimistic projection wouldn't have Shaw competing for a spot on the big league roster until 2014.

Of course, it isn't completely necessary to get power out of first base, especially if a team can get suitable production somewhere else in the lineup.

But here again, the Sox' system is thin. The best power hitting prospect is outfielder Bryce Brentz, and he still needs to make significant progress when it comes to making regular contact.

Free agency doesn't offer much in the way of power. Steering clear of a potential landmine like Josh Hamilton, there's no one whom the Sox could sign -- any any position -- who could reasonably expect to produce 30 homers and 100 RBI. And if such a player existed, he'd cost the Sox close to 20 million annually, the kind of contract they just strained to rid themselves of.

A more likely avenue is the trade route, but the Sox are likely to make finding a young front-line starter a higher priority. To get one of those, multiple high-end prospects will need to be sacrificed, leaving less to put in a deal for a power hitter.

Ortiz, in all likelihood, will re-sign with the Sox, either for a year or two. But Ortiz cannot do it alone. When the Sox have been an elite offensive team, they've done so with a one-two middle-of-the-lineup combo: Ortiz-Ramirez; Ortiz-Bay, or Ortiz-Martinez.

And finding the other half of that pair may prove to be almost as challenging as unloading all the salary the Sox shed last weekend.

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