BOSTON (AP) – Jonathan Papelbon will be a starter, Trot Nixon may be an opponent, and Theo Epstein is a realist.

Injuries and poor play in the second half of the season kept the Boston Red Sox out of the playoffs for the first time in Epstein’s four years as general manager. He admitted Sunday that the team needs plenty of help to get back in a tough American League.

“You can’t let the injuries mask the flaws on the team and that’s our responsibility,” he said after Boston ended the season with a 9-0 win over Baltimore in a game shortened to five innings by rain.

The starting pitching needs help, and Papelbon, an outstanding closer as a rookie this season, will move into the rotation next season, Epstein said.

Nixon, the right fielder who has spent his eight full seasons with Boston, can become a free agent and may not be asked back.

“The business of baseball will dictate that this winter,” said Epstein, who cautioned that Nixon still could return.

If Nixon is at the end of his Red Sox career after hitting .268 this season, the second lowest batting average of his career, Papelbon is at the beginning.

He was 3-1 in 17 games in 2004 and figured to be in the rotation this year. But when Keith Foulke struggled early as the closer, Papelbon jumped into that role and finished with a 4-2 record, 0.92 ERA and 35 saves in 41 chances. He didn’t pitch after Sept. 1 because of a sore right shoulder.

“Jonathan Papelbon is going to enter next spring training as a starting pitcher,” Epstein said. “We talked about letting the medical issue dictate that.”

Team medical personnel feel pitching every fifth day would lessen the strain on his shoulder, Epstein said. And the Red Sox rotation needs help.

Josh Beckett had a team-high 16 wins but a 5.01 ERA in his first season with Boston. Jon Lester is being treated for anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that forms in the body’s lymph system. Tim Wakefield is 40 and was 0-3 after missing nearly two months with a stress fracture in his rib cage.

Epstein said the weak bullpen needs shoring up, especially with Papelbon becoming a starter, and the team needs depth, power and production on offense after batting just .269 this season, its lowest average in five years.

“Outfield defense is probably another area of concern,” he said, although the infield defense was outstanding.

Nixon always has been a solid, aggressive fielder whose style of play manager Terry Francona admires. Francona let Nixon take the field in the top of the fifth Sunday then replaced him with David Murphy with two outs to let him run off to a standing ovation.

Francona did the same after second baseman Mark Loretta took the field at the start of the fifth and when he removed David Ortiz for pinch runner Doug Mirabelli in the fourth.

“The last thing I want to do in the middle of the game is get emotional and it’s hard not to,” Francona said. “You get very close to these players.”

Nixon actually got three standing ovations, two of them on his first two at bats.

“I can’t thank these fans enough,” he said. “I don’t know what the future’s going to hold for me.”

Neither does Loretta, who wants to return after hitting .285 and missing just seven games in his first season with Boston.

“If this was my only year in Boston,” he said, “it was great.”

AP-ES-10-01-06 2221EDT

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