BY PAUL KENYON
BOSTON -- As they were last season, the Red Sox expect to be "selective shoppers'' on baseball's free market this winter.
Sox officials like the state of their organization, general manager Theo Epstein said Monday. That means they can be picky about chasing players from other teams.
"I think we're at a point now, as an organization, where we're not desperate to improve in any one area,'' Epstein said at a press conference at Fenway Park.
He went over his team position-by-position, saying in almost every instance that he feels the Sox are in good shape.
"We can bring back the same group in any one area and I think be solid, have all our bases covered,'' Epstein said. "We can now pick our spots and look for areas to improve. We can be selective shoppers in free agency.''
The organizational depth, which has been improving every year, had its best year ever, according to the general manager. Considering all the injuries the team had, the promotion of players like Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson, among others, was pivotal to earning another playoff berth.
"I was thrilled with where we were, depth-wise as an organization, for the year. I think that's why we were playing in October,'' Epstein said. "I think we had as much depth as anyone in baseball and that's what helped us get through all the attrition.
"There was so much attrition, even after September 1 when the postseason rosters were locked, that by the end a lot of the players were running on fumes. We lost [Mike] Lowell after the postseason rosters freeze. We lost [Julio] Lugo, who we thought was coming back in September. He had another setback. Not to mention some of the pitchers hitting a bit of a wall towards the end."
He went on: "This was a great year for our organizational depth. Next year we might be stretched a little bit because we don't have quite the players in the upper minors ready to step in, maybe its three or four months removed, a half-season removed. So we might have some vulnerabilities in the first half of the season. We'll look to augment that part of the depth this winter.''
The overall depth does not mean the team will avoid free agents. The organization will begin meetings Tuesday to devise its strategy for the next several months. The team actually was going to begin doing that yesterday, but delayed it because manager Terry Francona is ill.
The team does not have to rush into anything.
"Last offseason was great because we didn't have to be desperate in free agency. We've built up the organization to a point where there is no desperation with free agency," Epstein said. "I think that's the same approach we'll take this year. It will be about being smart, finding value and being selective. Maybe being aggressive in some areas, but being selective at the same time.
"The same in the trade market,'' he went on. "We don't feel like there's anything we absolutely have to do, but there are going to be a lot of opportunities out there. Teams like a lot of our players. We like a lot of other teams' players. Maybe there will be a fit out there.
"Sorry I can't give you one theme that 'This is what we need to improve.' I think we're pretty solid. But we need to get better, too. Looking at the caliber of play in our league and our division reinforces the notion that we always have to strive to improve,'' he said. "It will be essential that we can continue the process we started several years ago of getting younger and more dynamic.
"These days if you're not getting younger and more dynamic, you're probably falling behind some other organization.''
While falling short of a third World Series title, Epstein said the organization will have plenty of good memories from 2008.
"Resiliency, character, overcoming obstacles. Those characteristics are what I'll remember from the season,'' he said. "It seemed like we were having to deal with one thing or another . . . A lot of players rose to the occasion and played through pain.
"The minor-league system, our scouts and player development staff, all deserve to be applauded,'' he said. "Player after player came up and contributed to fill holes. Players came from outside our organization and did a great job integrating themselves into our culture and performing well on the field. The manager and coaching staff did a phenomenal job keeping the team focused and afloat through all of this.
"It was a display of resiliency that was impressive, I think, throughout most of the year and probably symbolized best by the comeback in Game Five [of the ALCS, when the Sox rallied from a 7-0, seventh-inning deficit for an 8-7 victory], which I think none of us will ever forget. At this moment, it's bittersweet because of falling a couple runs short.''
Hopefully, Epstein said, fans will remember the comeback as the defining moment for this season.
"What happened in Game Five changes the tone at the end of our season,'' he said. "It doesn't change what we are, where we need to improve and how we stack up against our competition. It does change a little bit the tone at the end of the season. That will maybe help people sleep a little better at night, maybe help our fans realize the fight this team had.''