BOSTON (AP) – Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has a message for the fans who dissect every move he makes: This time, you’re right.

“This is one of those years when I tend to agree with our critics more often than usual,” he said after the Red Sox missed the playoffs for the first time in his tenure. “We have elements of a very, very good baseball club here but there is no doubt in the world that we need to do better. … I need to do a better job.”

The Red Sox wrapped up their second season since their 2004 World Series title with an 86-76 record that left them 11 games behind the rival New York Yankees in the AL East and – more disturbingly – a game behind the Toronto Blue Jays.

Boston had finished second in the previous eight years. But it went 9-21 in August, including the Yankees’ five-game sweep at Fenway Park that essentially ended any hopes of a fourth consecutive playoff appearance.

“We had some weaknesses. It was an imperfect team, to be sure,” Epstein said. “Those weaknesses were not revealed in the first half when we were fresh and playing well. … But they were exposed in the second half and that’s our fault.”

Among the weaknesses were depth in the starting pitching and bullpen, where Jonathan Papelbon (35 saves, 0.92 ERA) was the biggest highlight. Curt Schilling (15-7, 3.97) and Josh Beckett (16-11, 5.01) were solid, but not the co-aces the team needed to make up for its shortcomings elsewhere in the rotation.

Those problems were exacerbated when Tim Wakefield, David Wells, Matt Clement and Jon Lester were injured. But it also didn’t help that Epstein traded away Bronson Arroyo (14-11, 3.29 for Cincinnati) – who would have provided important pitching depth – in the spring.

Although David Ortiz continued to drive the offense, leading the AL with 137 RBIs and a franchise-record 54 homers, Manny Ramirez (.321, 35, 102) could be on the trading block again this offseason. Catcher Jason Varitek (.238, 12, 55) was ineffective and injured and backup Doug Mirabelli (.193, 6, 25) – ransomed back from San Diego just to catch Wakefield’s knuckleball – offered little, even less when Wakefield was injured.

“Jason’s had a tough year,” Francona said in his office on Monday, an quiet clubhouse beyond his door. “He said, ‘I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.’ That’s good news, because he’s a good worker.”

Varitek’s injury was devastating because it happened hours after the trading deadline, and he couldn’t be effectively replaced. But neither Epstein nor Francona was ready to blame injuries for the team’s disappointing finish.

“You can either handle it or you can’t. At times, we weren’t able to,” the manager said. “I think it’s too easy to say it was just injuries. We have to look further than that if we want to get better. The American League is so strong this year that if you have flaws it gets exposed pretty quick – like if your bullpen’s a little beat up.”

The Red Sox have already decided that Papelbon will be a starter in 2007. Epstein said pitching on a regular schedule will cause less strain on Papelbon’s shoulder.

But still unresolved are:

-Second base, where Mark Loretta is a free agent and prospect Dustin Pedroia is waiting.

-Shortstop, where Alex Gonzalez is a free agent after providing stellar defense all season.

-Centerfield, where Coco Crisp (.264, 8, 36) didn’t perform up to expectations or his predecessor, Johnny Damon. Crisp had surgery last month on a broken left index finger that is expected to be healed by the spring.

-Left field, where Ramirez will be shopped – again. Finding a team to take on Ramirez’s quirky persona and the last two years of what started as an eight-year, $160 million contract will be the tough part.

-Closer, where Keith Foulke has struggled since starring in the championship season.

The overhaul began on Monday when the team decided not to renew the contracts of pitching coach Dave Wallace and hitting coach Ron Jackson. Francona said the team was not trying to blame the two, but merely to bring in a new “voice” that would be more effective.

“Please don’t write that I think it’s their fault,” Francona said. “It’s not a very fun decision to make.”

Al Nipper, who filled in for Wallace while he had hip surgery, will be a candidate for the job full-time. The former Red Sox pitcher was also the pitching coach in Boston and Kansas City in the 1990s.

“I think we have an obligation to see who is available,” Epstein said. “Nip is right on that list.”

Also Monday, Epstein said Victor Rodriguez had been hired as minor league hitting coordinator. Bench coach Brad Mills and third base coach DeMarlo Hale will be back.

Bill Haselman is deciding whether to return as first base coach or try to manage in the minor leagues.

AP-ES-10-02-06 1758EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.