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'Bridge year' close to ending for Red Sox; what will 2011 bring?

It's been a strange year for the Boston Red Sox.

Last winter, boy Wonder GM Theo Epstein last warned Sox fans that 2010 might be a "bridge year" as the organization waited for prospects to mature. This notion was greeted with considerable dismay by Sox Nation, so the GM changed his tune and claimed it was all a big misunderstanding.

Here we are 10 months later and 2010 indeed was a bridge season for Boston's fabled baseball team. The Sox have been in playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, but it's not happening this year. Boston's impending elimination from October ball can be blamed on a stunning spate of injuries (more than 20 players on the disabled list) and the misfortune of playing in the American League East (the Sox would be competing for first place in the AL West), but anyone who's been watching knows that the Red Sox have underachieved this year and face critical decisions as they prepare for 2011.

The Red Sox had the second highest payroll in baseball ($170 million), but John Henry's dollars did not make Boston one of the final eight teams in the hardball tournament. Don't be fooled by the Sox beating the Yankees twice in the Bronx over the weekend. Before the Sunday night epic (a 4-3 Yankee win in extras), New York manager Joe Giradi looked like he had abandoned the quest for first place.

Going into 2010, the Sox stressed "run prevention." It turned out to be a non-issue. Boston starters John Lackey (13-11, 4.51 ERA) and Josh Beckett (6-5, 5.77 ERA) were colossal disappointments, and there was no middle relief. Starting outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron were virtually lost for the season and Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia spent the second half of the summer on the disabled list. Trailing the Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees after July, the Sox never truly competed.

But they are well-positioned to get back in the hunt in 2011.

Boston has a stable of strong starting pitchers. Jon Lester is a 19-game winner (he goes for No. 20 this weekend against the Yankees, which would make him the first 20-game winning southpaw for the Sox since Mel Parnell in 1953), Clay Buchholz has the second-best ERA in the American League, and Lackey, Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka will be back to give the Sox a formidable five for 2011. They also have ancient knuckleballer Tim Wakefield who is trying to move ahead of Roger Clemens and Cy Young (192 each) as the winningest pitcher in the history of the franchise.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon had a rough season, but will be back for at least one more year and Daniel Bard has emerged as one of the best eighth-inning pitchers in baseball.

Theo's winter mound mission will be to find bullpen help to bridge (sorry about that word) the gap between the starters and the late-game tandem of Bard/Papelbon.

Boston's lineup could look a lot different in 2011 because the big guys in the middle -- Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz -- are all potential free agents. The Sox have a $12.5 million option to bring Ortiz back and will probably trigger the deal in November. Big Papi was a candidate to be released in April, but has rebounded to hit 31 homers and will finish with more than 100 RBIs. Unfortunately, he has an inflated sense of his future value and thinks he's going to get a multi-year contract extension. He'll be 35 next season and the Sox would be crazy to extend him beyond next year. His one-year renewal will make him the top paid DH in baseball. By a lot.

It's more complicated with Martinez and Beltre. Martinez is a switch-hitting catcher, which puts him on a lot of wish lists. There's well-founded doubt about his ability to manage a pitching staff and throw runners out, but he's improved behind the plate and he brings the lumber.

He's also in his prime.

Beltre took a chance coming to Boston on a one-year deal and it has worked out magically for him -- .320 with 28 homers. The Sox are unlikely to give him three or four years at big money since they think they have seen his best. They also know they can move Youkilis across the diamond to play third if they find a slugging first baseman.

Which brings us to messrs. Pujols, Fielder and Gonzalez.

Those three National League sluggers are up at the end of the 2011 season and the Sox plan to make a bid for one of them if they can survive what may be another bridge season next year. Look for Boston to make a run at Phillies outfielder Jason Werth this winter. Werth sees a lot of pitches and doesn't mind taking a walk. This makes him a Theo prototype.

Elimination will come tonight, or another night soon in Chicago. The Sox have been playing for 2011 or 2012 for a long time. Maybe all season.

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