What has to be frustrating for Theo Epstein is that the plan was on its way to working.
After an offseason of fending off the naysayers, their mockery of the "bridge" and perceived offensive futility, the one thing that we now know is that the Red Sox, as currently constituted, would have most likely been good enough. And, as the late-summer hourglass picks up steam, that should be a reminder heading into the trade deadline. A tweak here or a tweak there is always welcome. But if you're looking for the acquisition that is going to splash smiles and optimism throughout the Red Sox' clubhouse, it isn't necessarily coming from Florida, Colorado, Toronto, Milwaukee or Philadelphia.
The Red Sox are worthy of postseason conversation, they're just running out of time to prove it.
When looking at how the master plan unfolded, sure, there are warts. You have an underperforming John Lackey, a bullpen that has seen some members lose their reliability and the injury-related less-than-expected output of newcomers Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro.
But, at the end of the day, are you going to argue that if health returns to the Red Sox, and they find themselves with the framework of their Opening Night roster, they wouldn't be in conversation for one of the Power Rankings' top spots?
Remember the areas Epstein identified as needs for this year's edition of the Red Sox? Some of priorities have been managed, while others (largely due to injury-induced roster-finagling) have remained a roadblock.
Better hitting on the road: The Red Sox are first in the majors in road OPS (.796), with the second-most homers of any team away from their home park (62). And one of the team's solutions for the problem, Adrian Beltre, hasn't disappointed in this regard, currently carrying the second-best road batting average in the majors (.365).
Better team defense: This hasn't worked out quite as planned, with the Sox currently ranking 12th in the majors with a .984 fielding percentage. (Last season they finished seventh in this category.) And while the stat isn't the be-all, end-all when judging fielding acumen, it does point to one of the unexpected hiccups in the plan, Beltre. The third baseman is second in the big leagues with 15 errors, one shy of Nick Green's team-leading total of a year ago. (By the way, it could be worse. The Red Sox could have Washington's Ian Desmond's 22 errors.)
The idea was to give up less runs and that also hasn't exactly matched up to the blueprint. Despite scoring more runs than any team in baseball, their run-differential is still just a plus-61, not that impressive when considering the second-most prolific offensive team, the Yankees, carries a run-differential of plus-123. (The Sox finished last season having surrendered the 10th-fewest runs in the bigs, while scoring 138 more runs than they gave up.)
Their designated hitter becoming a force: You could say that David Ortiz has accomplished this goal to a large degree, currently ranking only behind Vladimir Guerrero among OPS for designated hitters (.912), although his current numbers are pretty much on pace for what he did a year ago. Still, the fact that Ortiz has 18 home runs in 73 games is most likely along the lines of what Epstein was looking for when throwing out the "force" comment.
There is a caveat in Ortiz' presence, however. He is hitting just .180 against left-handed pitching, with just one of his homers coming against a lefty. Since lefty-killer Victor Martinez exited the lineup on June 29, Ortiz has just four hits in 30 at-bats (.133) vs. southpaws, which isn't the kind of "force" needed when looking to fill in a fractured-thumb-induced gap.
So, as happens so often, some of the plan went astray. (Who would have ever thought the San Diego Padres would have allowed the fewest runs (322) -- by far -- in the majors?) But at the end of the day it is hard to argue that -- seeing what we have seen -- a healthy Red Sox team couldn't have matched up with the big leagues' best.
And because of that, fans should be smacked in the face with the reality of what should and shouldn't be done at the trade deadline. What should be done? What can be done? Think about it …
Catcher: If Martinez is indeed ready to return shortly, as his batting practices and games of catch suggest is the case, then this isn't an area necessitating panic. Now, if you want to secure a Chris Ianettta or Chris Snyder as "break glass in case of emergency" kind of options as protection against another Martinez set-back, then fine. Or if the Red Sox see the opportunity to offer a solution to their 2011 catching tandem, that is understandable as well. But with Martinez' health taking a turn for the better, this is not a priority.
Infield: People underestimated the value of Jed Lowrie when looking at the Red Sox' stretch drive. He is playing healthy, and it shows, swinging a much more impressive bat from the left side than he had since spring training in 2009. Meanwhile, though Bill Hall's presence is welcome because of his ability to play in the outfield, the .203 average against left-handers is tough to swallow. Simply put, if Lowrie plays like he did in 2008, he becomes the Red Sox' most valuable utility infielder, and another "trade deadline acquisition" that might be as good as any outside-the-organization option.
Outfield: This all hinges on Jacoby Ellsbury. If Ellsbury is able to return and present the kind of dynamic offensive option the Red Sox were banking on until Game No. 6, then the need for allocating prospects to this position doesn't seem warranted. A David DeJesus would be a fine addition, but at what price? No Ellsbury, sure. Make the move. Same with Florida's Cody Ross. Maybe if there is worry that Jeremy Hermida won't be able to pick up the slack left by Mike Cameron's abdominal pain, than such a move becomes more a priority. Or maybe J.D. Drew's woes against lefties offers impetus for securing the right-handed hitting Ross.
And then there is Jayson Werth. It would surprise nobody if the Sox made a strong push at Werth this offseason. But should they dip into the top layers of their prospect pool to get a sampling of Werth for the final months to A. Help the here and now; and B. Keep him away from Tampa Bay? You could get the two draft picks if he leaves for another team, but we're probably talking about giving up at least one major league contributor from your farm system for such a right. (Did anybody notice the Phillies are closer to the Wild Card than the Red Sox are?)
Bullpen: Now we're talking. This is a legitimate area of need. The guess here is that Michael Bowden is going to play a fairly major role in the bullpen going forward, but the Red Sox need more than that. Both Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard have been excellent this month, combining to allow just three hits in 11 2/3 innings. But the uneasiness that has come with Hideki Okajima's performance and back has translated to just a total of two innings pitched in July (4 hits, BB), not the kind of output usually seen from a late-inning option.
But it has been said time and time again: You don't want to have to get a late-inning reliever at the trade deadline. You always end up overpaying (see Scott Downs, whose value is only increased by the fact he will most likely be a Type A free agent), and the certainty of what you're getting back is very low (see Scott Sauerbeck in 2003, considered at the time of his acquisition the best lefty specialist available). But there is no way around it -- the Red Sox need to bite this bullet.
Starting pitching: All set. The question is what they do with Felix Doubront. He has become a legitimate safety net for injured big league starters, while offering perhaps one of the more valuable trade chips at the deadline. But where Doubront may prove most valuable is in the bullpen as a hard-throwing lefty, although that most likely wouldn't be made an option until it was determined by the organization that there was no more need for his services as insurance in the starting rotation.
The answers are there. It's just a matter of whether the time is as well.