Red Sox can look for answers within

Carl Crawford? Jayson Werth? Adrian Gonzalez? Prince Fielder?

After the Boston Red Sox missed the postseason for just the second time in the Epstein Era, there are scenarios placing one or two members of that group at Fenway Park in 2011.

But the top priority should be keeping one of their own: Adrian Beltre.

Beltre is a free agent again, after making good on one of the wisest one-year deals (for both player and team) in recent memory. He didn’t join the Red Sox until January but was absolutely their best all-around player in 2010.

On the team with an All-Star disabled list, Beltre was the leader in games played. He batted a team-high .321. He finished with more home runs (28) and RBIs (102) than he had in any season since 2004. He played magnificent defense.

His agent, Scott Boras, has built an empire on contract years like this.

And that is sort of the point: The Red Sox are going to spend big on someone, because, much like the Yankees after 2008, ego will compel them to ensure that they do not miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons. So why not give those millions to a player who (a) can handle playing in Boston and (b) wears out The Wall?

Beltre batted fourth and fifth for a Red Sox lineup that was (accidentally) very good. Remember: The ’10 Red Sox were supposed to rely on run prevention. Didn’t happen. They scored the second-most runs in the majors — and allowed the eighth-most.

For Boston, the 2011 season will be about trying to score a comparable number of runs while permitting far fewer. Beltre helps in both areas. Fenway Park has never been an easy place for infielders to work — ask Edgar Renteria or Julio Lugo — but it doesn’t seem to bother Beltre.

Home or road, no one handles the short hops better. And given the number of Red Sox pitchers who must improve upon their 2010 performance — most notably Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jonathan Papelbon — Beltre’s glove would be appreciated more than ever next year.

Skeptical New Englanders would point out that the last contract given to an incumbent Boston third baseman — Mike Lowell, after the ’07 World Series — didn’t turn out too well. This is different. Lowell, now retired, was 34 during the first season of that deal. Beltre won’t turn 32 until April.

With Boras at his side, Beltre isn’t going to sign at a discount. He is likely to ask for more — in years and dollars — than Lowell’s three-year, $37.5 million deal. I suspect he will get it. But he should be cheaper than Werth, who (surprise!) also happens to play for Team Boras.

(By the way, I’m not ruling out the possibility that the Red Sox could sign Beltre and Werth. Any ownership group with a spare $476 million — the purchase price of the Liverpool soccer club — should be able to add the third baseman and outfielder of its choosing.)

The chief argument against re-signing Beltre comes from the Adrian Gonzalez/Prince Fielder cheering section: Trade for a slugger to play first base, move Kevin Youkilis to third, and put on the full-court press for Werth or Crawford.

Sounds good in theory, but I have doubts about Boston’s ability to trade for either Gonzalez or Fielder — at least in the near term.

For one thing, the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, respectively, may want to hang onto their sluggers until at least the July trade deadline. If so, I wouldn’t blame them. Both teams need to sell tickets. Both teams have reasonable hopes of reaching the postseason. Why punt on first down?

I also question whether Boston’s farm system is rich enough to deal for either player without including prized pitching prospect Casey Kelly. (Even then, Kelly had a 6.75 ERA in the Arizona Fall League this year.) First baseman Lars Anderson, once viewed as one of the best 20 prospects anywhere, has been ordinary over the past two years.

Kevin Goldstein, the prospects expert for Baseball Prospectus, said the Red Sox farm system ranked fifth entering this season but has “dropped significantly.”

Baseball America also ranked them No. 5 in the spring. But Jim Callis, the Baseball America executive editor, figures they would be in the 11 to 15 range now.

“Many of their top prospects were injured or underperformed,” Goldstein said. “They have a lot of interesting and/or intriguing young players who are VERY far away — as always — but the upper levels are far thinner than they have been in the past. … I think there are a lot of other teams who could offer more attractive packages.”

There has been plenty of speculation that if Gonzalez is to be traded, Padres general manager Jed Hoyer would prefer to deal with Theo Epstein, his friend and former boss. Funny. I always figured Hoyer would do business with the GM who offered the best players.

Hoyer does have intimate knowledge of the Boston farm system. So if the value of some Red Sox prospects has slipped — as it appears — wouldn’t he know it better than anyone else?

The good news for Red Sox fans is that Epstein should have a very good sense of how available Gonzalez and Fielder are by the end of the general managers’ meetings next week. If the first basemen look like long shots, the Red Sox will have even more reason to sign Beltre.

Of course, there are whispers that Beltre is headed to a team on the West Coast, because (a) his wife is from there and (b) he owns a home there. I haven’t heard this much talk about baseball geography since Jason Bay, the Seattle-area resident who was destined to sign with the Mariners, Angels or Giants for precisely the same reasons. Lest we forget, he’s a Met.

When it comes to Adrian Beltre, the Red Sox have the money and the need. Their first move of the offseason should be the obvious one.