In 2004, the Red Sox’s general manager orchestrated a four-team trade at the non-waiver deadline, purging shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to improve the team’s defense. He also made a separate deal that day for a guy who later stole a pretty important base for the Sox, Dave Roberts.
A year ago, Epstein solved the Manny Ramirez problem by sending Ramirez to the Dodgers in a three-team deal at the deadline that brought the Sox a near-perfect replacement, left fielder Jason Bay.
The Sox won the World Series in ’04. They came within one win of reaching the Series last season. And now here they are again, their season seemingly at a precipice, Epstein feverishly working his Blackberry, his legion of assistants brainstorming in the Sox war room.
What will Theo do?
As 4 p.m. ET Friday approaches, he might not know himself.
He is looking for a shortstop. He is engaged in discussions for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Indians catcher Victor Martinez. At some level, he surely is talking about Blue Jays ace right-hander Roy Halladay, too.
Epstein, like most general managers, is constantly weighing his options, trying to determine the best fits, using a sliding scale to figure out the proper acquisition costs for players in both dollars and prospects.
It’s not as simple as “We need a bat,” or “We need a pitcher.” The idea is to outscore the opponent. It could happen through run production, could happen through run prevention. All depends upon the player. All depends upon the cost.
The Sox seem — repeat, seem — most focused on a hitter. The news Thursday that designated hitter David Ortiz tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in 2003 might further compel Epstein to add offense.
What if Ortiz grows distracted?
Gonzalez, an all-fields slugger, above-average defender and outrageously under-priced, would be ideal for the Red Sox. But if the prospect price for Martinez is significantly lower, then maybe Martinez would be a better fit.
Or, maybe the rotation — and run prevention in general — is the bigger problem.
The Red Sox are fourth in the American League in runs per game, but only eighth in rotation ERA. Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka are on the disabled list. Brad Penny has a 5.07 ERA, John Smoltz a 7.04.
After Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, the Sox wish they were the Royals.
And here’s something else that Epstein surely has noticed: his team ranks last in the majors in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of batted balls that are converted into outs.
Nick Green is actually slightly above-average at shortstop, according to the plus-minus ratings on Bill James Online. But perhaps the Sox should keep trying to get Jack Wilson, who ranks first among all shortstops in those ratings, and on Wednesday went from the Pirates to the Mariners.
Trading for Gonzalez or Martinez could help the defense, too. Mike Lowell, who ranks 35th among third baseman in the plus-minus ratings, would start playing less. Gonzalez or Martinez would play first and Kevin Youkilis third.
An even better thought: Get Halladay and shortstop Marco Scutaro from the Blue Jays, solving two problems at once in a massive blockbuster.
The price in prospects, of course, would be enormous and the Red Sox are loath to part with young, affordable talent for expensive, 30-something veterans under short-term control. But a growing number of executives are starting to figure out that the pendulum has swung too far, that prospects are almost ridiculously over-valued.
Think about it: How good is Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz, really? A No. 2 starter? Maybe. A No. 3? More likely.
Think about it: Why would the Sox not trade Buchholz and other prospects for the right superstar or two? They can simply buy more young talent by going over slot in the draft or continuing their pillaging in the international market.
Other teams wish they had Epstein’s resources — the ability to overpay players such as Matsuzaka and Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew and still maintain enormous payroll flexibility. The Sox make mistakes, lots of ’em in fact, but they are always in position to spend more.
So here we are, deadline day 2009.
The Sox are in a different position than they were in ’04 when Garciaparra needed to go and last season when it was Ramirez’s turn.
Their concerns now are strictly baseball and nothing insurmountable.
The Sox lead the American League wild-card standings. Their plus-83 run differential is the third best in the majors behind the Dodgers, who are plus-94, and Yankees, who are plus-84.
If Epstein does nothing on Friday, the Sox will be in good shape for now and great shape for the future.
If he does nothing, it will be a bigger surprise than Bucky Dent in ’78.