The deficiency is obvious. The solution is not.
The Red Sox offense sank to new depths on Monday night. The team was shut out, 4-0, by the White Sox and undecorated pitcher Scott Carroll, matching a season low with just two hits. Last year's best-in-the-majors offense now stands alone as the worst offense in the American League at 3.75 runs per game.
With a lineup that has numerous holes, the Sox are short on game-changers who can alter the course of a contest with a single swing of the bat. The team has 66 homers, tied for the second fewest in the American League. David Ortiz (19 homers) and Mike Napoli (10) represent credible middle-of-the-order threats, but aside from those two, only one other player on the club (Xander Bogaerts) has as many as six homers. The Sox are tied for the fewest players with at least six homers.
There is a glaring need for power.
"This team definitely needs to go out there and get some power," said David Ortiz. "There's no secret about that. There's no question about that. We need to go out there and get some power somewhere, somehow."
Easier said than done, of course. Baseball is in a period where pitching has become dominant, resulting in fewer and fewer players with the hitting ability to let their raw power play. That has coincided with a time when the policing of PEDs has diminished raw power.
The result has been a time when the true masher seems to be going the way of the dodo bird. In 2013 there were just 14 players who had 30 or more homers in all of baseball -- the fewest in a non-strike season since 1992 yielded just 10 30-homer hitters.
So, if you are the Red Sox, with a glaring need to add power, what do you do? Where can teams go to find power?
"No idea," said one evaluator, only slightly exaggerating the plight of the industry.
What possibilities exist for the Sox to add thump to the middle of their lineup? And what opportunities did the Red Sox miss to do so last offseason?
JOSE ABREU AND THE CUBAN POWER CHARGE
No one has been more powerful in the majors this year than White Sox slugging first baseman Jose Abreu. The 27-year-old first baseman has jumped into the big leagues from Cuba and immediately slammed 27 homers in just 76 games; he's second in the big leagues in long balls.
Abreu was available to the highest bidder this offseason, in a blind bidding process by his agent, Barry Praver. Industry sources say that Chicago outbid the Red Sox, Astros, Rockies and Brewers to acquire a player who featured what most scouts described as 80-grade power (on the 20-80 scouting scale) but who represented a risk based on the drastically different level of competition in Cuba vs. the United States.
Abreu's ability to hit big league pitching was in legitimate question. He has answered that question emphatically to date, and the White Sox couldn't be any happier about the early returns on their investment.
"One of the attractive things about Abreu was the scarcity of power in the game today. We saw a guy we felt we could plug into the middle of our lineup for an extended period of time," said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn. "Another part of the appeal was the fact that we were going to get him for ages 28 through 32, which, obviously, traditionally is the prime of a player's career, perhaps a little bit different in his first year in the States, but still the sweet spot for what we were looking for.
"And I did find myself at times, along with [executive vice president] Kenny Williams, arguing to [owner] Jerry Reinsdorf, it's just money," added Hahn. "It wasn't going to cost us any players in a trade. It wasn't going to cost us any draft picks. And while there was a risk, given the combination of a potential impact middle-of-the-order bat in the prime of his career just risking cash, it was a risk that we needed to take to get to where we wanted to go."
The immediate impact of players like Abreu and outfielders Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes -- and the fact that players who defect from Cuba at the age of 23 or older are indeed, as Hahn suggested, true free agents who don't require teams to give up a compensatory draft pick to sign, suggests that the market for a potential middle-of-the-order bat will only intensify.
The recent defection of outfielder Yasmani Tomas to the Dominican could thus create a frenzy (though one evaluator suggested that Tomas has roughly 60-grade power, a considerable step below Abreu's top-of-the-charts (or even off-the-charts) ability to send baseballs into orbit). Alfredo Despaigne, a 28-year-old who is still in Cuba (after being banished by the Mexican League for playing with a fake passport), likewise represents a source of considerable intrigue given what the same evaluator described as 70-grade power.
FREE AGENCY AND THE NELSON CRUZ QUESTION
Who's ahead of Abreu for the major league lead in homers? That would be Nelson Cruz, who launched home run No. 28 for the Orioles on Monday.
Like Abreu, Cruz was available to the highest bidder this winter. Unlike Abreu, there was virtually no market for his services.
The combination of the fact that Cruz had a 50-game suspension for his connection to Biogenesis and the fact that teams looking to acquire him would have to give up a top draft pick (in the case of the Red Sox, it would have been a first-rounder; for the Orioles, it was a second-rounder after they parted with their first-round selection to sign right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez) chilled his market to the point where the 34-year-old remained unsigned until the end of spring training.
Ortiz made no secret about his hope that the Sox might add a slugger like Cruz.
"I talked about Nelson this offseason because what he's doing right now is what he's been doing his whole career. What he's doing right now doesn't surprise me," said Ortiz. "I know he went through the PED thing, this and that, whatever, it ain't my business, but it's over. It's over and he's doing it again. Bottom line is, in the game in today's day, you care about who's going to help you win ball games. And there's a reason why the Orioles are in first place right there. My boy [Chris] Davis is struggling a little bit. He'll be fine. But last year he carried that ball club. This year Cruz is carrying that ball club.
"It's not like I marched up [to the front office] demanding [that the Sox sign Cruz]. I know how crazy this division can turn. Our GM didn't make that move. He has reasons why. I'm pretty sure he would have loved to, but it's not as easy as it looks. There was a first-round pick involved, this and that, blah blah blah, all the B.S. that goes with it. It makes it a little more complicated than usual."
Cherington recently told WEEI's Dennis & Callahan show that, based on the information the Sox had at the time, he "can’t really look back that one and think we'd have done it differently."
Cruz will be a free agent once again this winter, and it will be intriguing to see whether the Sox make a hard play for him or another of the potential middle-of-the-order bats on the market -- virtually all of whom would appear to be on the back nine of their careers.
Cruz will turn 35 next July 1, but as an outfielder, the Sox could find a spot for him in the lineup while also having him available as a depth option behind Ortiz.
Hanley Ramirez turns 31 this winter, and he represents more of a 20-25-homer threat at this point than a player capable of 30-plus homers. (His last -- and only -- 30-homer season came in 2008 with the Marlins, though it's worth noting that he's spent his entire career playing in offense-depressing home parks.)
Victor Martinez is on pace for his first career 30-homer season at age 35, though as a player who has become almost a pure DH at this point, he seems an imperfect fit for the Red Sox. Left fielder/first baseman Mike Morse is enjoying a rebound season at age 32 in which he's once again showing middle-of-the-order power, but his age and checkered health history make him a considerably risky investment.
It seems likely that all of these free agents will receive qualifying offers from their current clubs if they sustain their current production, meaning that it will cost a signing team a draft pick to add any of them. That can be a tough pill to swallow given the advanced age of most of these prospective free agents.
Indeed, this class of "sluggers" underscores the market reality that middle-of-the-order hitters in their primes are virtually never available via free agency. That is part of what drove the White Sox to Abreu, given how rare it is to be able to sign a player whose best years are ahead of him rather than in the rearview mirror.
"With many young players signing extensions, the pool of available talent has gotten smaller and older in free agency," said Hahn. "Ultimately [to acquire a slugger in his prime] it's about signing and drafting them, or if you don't have them internally, going out and trading for them."
BUT WHO WOULD TRADE POWER?
Looking for the next homegrown Red Sox 30-home run hitter? If it's not Xander Bogaerts or Will Middlebrooks, then barring a surprising Brandon Moss-ian emergence from a player like Bryce Brentz or a player like Sean Coyle hitting on his upside, the next candidates to achieve that status are years away from the big leagues. The players who show the most pure hitting ability in combination with legitimate middle-of-the-order power potential are first baseman Sam Travis, a second-round pick currently in Short-Season Single-A with the Lowell Spinners, and third baseman Rafael Devers, currently in the Gulf Coast League in his first pro season. So, in all likelihood, aside from Bogaerts or potentially Middlebrooks, the Sox are looking at years without a homegrown power hitter.
So are there solutions on the trade market? In all likelihood, not in a conventional sense. Players with present middle-of-the-order power in the primes of their careers rarely get dealt. As much as the idea of a deal involving a player like Giancarlo Stanton is tantalizing, it almost never happens because of how scarce such players have become.
Adrian Gonzalez has been involved in a pair of blockbusters, the first after his age 28 season, the second during his age 30 season. Ramirez was dealt from the Marlins to the Dodgers in a salary dump. Wil Myers was acquired by the Rays from the Royals as the centerpiece of the deal that sent James Shields to Kansas City.
Beyond that smattering of deals?
"It's rare," Hahn said of trades involving established power hitters either in their primes or whose prime years are ahead.
In fact, most trades involving potential power hitters don't come from players with track records but instead those with unfulfilled potential. And when one examines the power landscape, there's a surprising wealth of players who moved before they grew into their abilities.
Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were both exposed to waivers before emerging as the middle-of-the-order pillars around whom the Blue Jays have been built. Chris Davis was a lottery ticket when the Orioles acquired him from the Rangers for Koji Uehara. Brandon Moss signed two minor league free agent deals on the way to becoming a beast for the A's. David Ortiz, of course, was released by the Twins before finding his way to modest success with the Red Sox.
So power is out there. But it often requires a considerable amount of good fortune to uncover it.
BUT TRADING FOR AN ESTABLISHED POWER HITTER?
Think a draft pick is costly? Think about what it cost the Braves to acquire Mark Teixeira from the Rangers in 2007: Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison all played in All-Star Games for Texas, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia eventually emerging as an above-average catcher for the Red Sox and Marlins. Atlanta got about a season's worth of Teixeira's production, missed the playoffs in 2007, and dealt Teixeira for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek prior to the 2008 deadline, when Teixeira was a few months from free agency.
It's a safe bet that if the Marlins ever deal Giancarlo Stanton, they'll expect multiple prospects with All-Star ceilings in return. Of course, that format of deal yielded a core that resulted in a pair of World Series appearances for the Rangers, while the Braves are now 14 years removed from their last appearance in the Fall Classic.
In other words, it's one thing to diagnose a gaping hole in the Red Sox' production. It's far more challenging to address it, with the path to doing so fraught with considerable but unavoidable risk.