Epstein setting up Red Sox to win now and later

They were hitting .223 for the month, and .200 for the current road trip, during which they had yet to score more than four runs in any one game. For just the second time all season, they had lost consecutive series on the road.

Their OPS had gone steadily down in each of the first four months of the season and their lead over the second-place Yankees had vanished.

Clearly, something had to be done.

So Wednesday, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein made the most prudent deal he could, obtaining Adam LaRoche from the Pittsburgh Pirates for two minor leaguers — shortstop Argenis Diaz, a defensive whiz with a suspect bat, and 20-year-old righthander Hunter Strickland.

LaRoche wasn’t the biggest impact bat available, but he was affordable in terms of acquisition cost — the Sox liked Diaz for his glove but, counting soon-to-be signed Cuban émigr é Jose Iglesias and recent Dominican free agent Jose Vinicio, was no better than the fourth-rated shortstop in the system — and helped address two immediate needs — corner infield depth and a lefty bat to help against right-handed pitching.

The Sox may have gone into yesterday fourth in runs scored in the American League, but they were also ranked fourth in their division in OPS against righties. LaRoche can hit righties, and his history suggests that he’s a far better offensive player in the second half with a .923 OPS after the All-Star break in the last four seasons.

Obviously, this deal can’t come close to rivaling the deal Epstein made at the deadline five years ago, when he packed off Nomar Garciaparra, remade the Red Sox infield and spurred the team to a run which resulted in a World Series win. But Wednesday’s deal is similar in this respect: Once again the Sox were unsure what they could get from a key member of their infield.

In 2004, Garciaparra was limited physically and warned the Sox that he couldn’t be counted on to play every day; this time, it’s Mike Lowell and his surgically repaired right hip. After getting an injection of a lubricant into the hip joint and draining fluid from the area, Lowell spent the final two weeks of the first half on the DL, with an eye toward readying for the second half.

Epstein watched the team in Toronto last weekend and while Lowell was able to grind out some quality at-bats, he was limited in his range at third and painfully slow on the bases. Realizing that Lowell would need periodic rest — not unlike Alex Rodriguez — over the final 10 weeks, Epstein knew an upgrade was in order.

Manager Terry Francona could go with a strict platoon if he chooses, with Lowell at third and Kevin Youkilis at first against lefties and, against righties, Youkilis at third and LaRoche at first. Meanwhile, if David Ortiz slumps again or gets hurt, the Sox could have Lowell DH full time, thus saving wear-and-tear on his hip, while losing nothing at the position defensively.

“This was a chance,” said Epstein of the trade, “at a reasonable acquisition cost, to help us against right-handed pitching, help our depth and leave us in a position to (make another move).”

By making the move nine days before the trading deadline, Epstein probably paid a higher price than he would have next Friday, when the Pirates, desperate to unload LaRoche’s $7 million salary, might have taken less in return.

But by obtaining LaRoche now, the Sox upgrade their lineup option for an extra week, send a message to the clubhouse that a need has been addressed, and perhaps most critically, leave themselves in good position to make another move.

It’s hard to envision them putting together anything to tempt Toronto for Roy Halladay, since, by definition, any AL East team would have to pay an even higher premium for the pitcher.

Victor Martinez intrigues them, but not at the current asking price (Clay Buchholz). Their top choice would be Adrian Gonzalez, whom they’ve coveted for years, and who could be a lineup centerpiece for a long time. So far, they’ve been rebuffed by Padres GM Kevin Towers, but in the event Towers changes his mind in the next week, the Red Sox could put together an intriguing package.

As always, Epstein is attempting a difficult multi-task: win now, with an eye toward contending in the long term. As currently constituted, the Sox are a team in transition, with a young nucleus (Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia) surrounded by important but aging parts (Lowell, Ortiz, Jason Varitek). Landing a hitter in his prime like Gonzalez could set them up for a long run.

Epstein makes no guarantees.

“Those trades are hard to make,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean we won’t pursue them.”

On Wednesday, the Red Sox got a little better. More to the point, they didn’t hurt their chances of getting a lot better by next Friday.