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The free agent question: David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, John Lackey, Carl Crawford and Red Sox decision-making

09.29.11 at 6:52 pm ET

General manager Theo Epstein discussed four players at some length on Thursday afternoon, two of whom have been longtime cornerstones of the Red Sox, and two of whom have been costly free agent signees who have performed dramatically below their expectations.

Designated hitter David Ortiz and closer Jonathan Papelbon represent the two most prominent members of the Red Sox who will be eligible for free agency come November. Ortiz is the defining icon of the Red Sox’ success of last decade, a middle-of-the-lineup force for the World Series champions in 2004 and 2007. For the first time since signing with the Red Sox after the 2002 season, Ortiz (who twice signed multi-year deals with the Sox before reaching free agency) will be able to test the open market, coming off a season in which, at age 35, he hit .309 with a .398 OBP, .554 slugging mark and .953 OPS with 29 homers and 96 RBI.

Papelbon, meanwhile, was a dominant force for the Sox in their march to a title in 2007. The four-time All-Star, who has a Red Sox team record 219 saves, converted 31 of 34 save opportunities in 2011 for the Sox while forging a 2.94 ERA and striking out 87 and walking just 10 in 64 1/3 innings.

Epstein praised both free agents, and said that the Sox would like to retain both of them.

‘€œI can’€™t say too much about that now expect the general and the obvious. We’€™d love to have both guys back, if there’€™s a way to do that,” Epstein said. “They’€™ve been huge contributors here not only on the field but as leaders. David’€™s been that way for a long time, been the face of the franchise and an instrumental figure in our clubhouse. I actually told Pap earlier today I think he took his overall game to a new level this year, not just on the field but again demonstrating some leadership capabilities.

“There was a time earlier in his career that I never thought I’€™d say that about Pap. He really matured, he grew up as a Red Sox and I was proud of him the way he took that next step to lead by example a little bit. We’€™d love to keep those guys if we could.”

While those two players prepare to enter free agency and could end up leaving the Sox, Epstein also offered a stark assessment about the organization’s need to get more from a pair of players whom it signed to huge free-agent deals in Lackey and Crawford.

The Sox set a club record in dollars and average annual value for a free agent when they signed Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract after the 2009 season. One year later, the team shattered that mark by adding Crawford on a seven-year, $142 million deal.

In the first two years of his deal, Lackey, 32, has endured horrific struggles. He is a combined 26-23 with a 5.26 ERA, including a 6.41 ERA in 2011 that ranked as the worst ever by a Sox starter who threw at least 120 innings in a season. He is striking out significantly fewer batters and walking significantly more batters than he did with the Angels before the Sox signed him.

Given that the team has three years and $45.75 million still invested in him, Epstein made clear that it will be a significant priority for the Sox to try to elicit greater effectiveness from the right-hander. Both the GM and manager Terry Francona said that Lackey’s demonstrative reactions to teammates’ defensive lapses was a relatively trivial concern, while making clear that his performance on the mound is a significant one.

“As far as rehabilitating John Lackey, it’s a big priority for obvious reasons,” said Epstein. “We have to attack it from the physical perspective, see if there’s things we can do different with him physically to put himself in a better position to have success on the mound. We have to attack it from a fundamental standpoint. There obviously are things we can do different with him fundamentally to get his stuff and his command back to where it was. And then, from a mental standpoint. Those are the three areas that we attack with players. So, we’re going to leave no stone unturned, really with all of our players and with the organization as a whole, from those three standpoints.

“I will say this about your comment about rolling his eyes and what not: That’s nothing new. John, he’s always been kind of emotional on the mound. He’s always been demonstrative. And it always kind of looks bad on the field. It looks as if he’s showing up his teammates. It was that way in Anaheim, too. We knew that when we signed him, and we also knew that he always apologized the next day, that he’s always a great teammate except for those times that he’s rolling his eyes, as you said. His teammates forgive him. They understand. He’s tried to change, and it’s just something you can’t change. It’s an emotional reaction. We’ll continue to work with him on it, but it doesn’t make him a bad teammate. Behind the scenes, he’s actually well-respected and well-liked. I know it doesn’t look like it on the field sometimes when he’s reacting to bad results.

“But yes, we’ll continue to work with him on that, and more importantly, address issues physically, mentally and fundamentally.”

As for Crawford, Epstein said that restoring him to the All-Star form that he displayed as a member of the Rays is also a high offseason priority for the Sox. The GM suggested that the team would try to work with the outfielder to figure out what he needs in order to recover from a season in which he hit .255 with a .289 OBP, .405 slugging mark and .694 OPS, essentially proving a disappointment in every facet of the game.

As stunned as the team was by Crawford’s underperformance in 2011, the team does believe there’s reason to trust that he is capable of moving on from his struggles.

“Getting Carl back to what he’€™s been previously in his career is a requisite for us this winter. We’€™ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about it, and we’€™re going to spend more time thinking about it. We’€™ll get together with him, put our heads together and see what can be done,” said Epstein. “He has taken, as we mentioned with [Josh] Beckett after one of his off years, he has taken responsibility for it, which I think is the first step.

“When I’€™m truly troubled about a player long-term when I know he’€™s still talented is when that player denies that there is an issue, says, ‘€˜I had a good year’€™ and won’€™t look in the mirror. Carl has taken full and very public responsibility for having a very disappointing year, and he did. That’€™s the first step. The next step is, ‘€˜What are you going to do about it?’€™

“We’€™re not going to abandon him. We’€™re going to work with him, if it takes all off-season or if it takes backing away and then addressing it later on in the offseason. We’€™ll do whatever it takes to get him back to being the player that he was. That’€™s going to be very important for us going forward.”

That said, while the Sox work with both players to improve upon their extremely disappointing results, Epstein noted that the Sox are struggling with a pattern of disappointing returns on expensive free agent signings. The pattern dates to even earlier, to the poor performances in Boston by players such as Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement and Julio Lugo after their long-term deals with the Sox.

That, in turn, will force the Sox to re-examine the process that leads them to invest in such prominent free agents.

“When I’€™m speaking about things that aren’€™t exactly the way we want them to be in this organization, our decision-making process on expensive free agents, big-ticket free agents, has not been satisfactory — not at all,” said Epstein. “That’€™s another area we have to address and look in the mirror and dig deep into the process and see what we’€™re doing wrong because the results demonstrate that that’€™s not an aspect of the organization that’€™s functioning at a high enough level to meet our standards. That’€™s something we have to own. We can’€™t run away from that. We’€™ve got to fix it.”

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