BALTIMORE – So, yes, it is the final two weeks before the trade deadline, and the inevitable debates will occur with increasing passion.
A right-handed hitting outfielder! A shortstop! A starter! A reliever! This is the time of year at which opinions about a team’s needs become inflamed, sometimes out of proportion with the reality of the situation.
Yet the Red Sox find themselves in an enviable position as the July 31 deadline for non-waiver trades nears. According to major league sources both in and out of the organization, they are looking at ways to improve in the coming weeks, exploring any number of avenues by which to reinforce a team that already appears extremely well positioned.
But the Sox face a situation of opportunity rather than necessity. Right now, there is no single area that represents a potentially fatal weakness. As such, the Sox can approach the deadline looking for the best available deal – if one exists – by which to get better.
That stands in contrast to a number of previous seasons under GM Theo Epstein. In 2004, the four-team trade that sent Nomar Garciaparra packing and brought Orlando Cabrera to the Sox was made because the team’s defense was viewed as a devastating shortcoming.
In 2008, the team needed to part ways with Manny Ramirez while finding a suitable replacement. In 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2010, the Sox recognized that they needed to upgrade their bullpen (whether externally or via trade) or else risk a quick playoff exit. In 2008 and 2009, the Sox reached a point where they needed to find a form of duct tape in order to patch together their rotation; in both years, Paul Byrd proved the answer.
This year? Rather than weighing the team’s individual needs, it is worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.
The Sox, after their 15-10 win over the Orioles on Monday (recap), are 58-36. They are on pace to go 100-62. They own a 1½ game lead in the AL East.
More significantly, even if they were surpassed by the Yankees in the division, the Sox own an eight-game lead over their closest potential competitors (Tampa Bay and the Angels) in the wild card race. Even if they do not make a move, their chances of reaching the playoffs are excellent (coolstandings.com gives the Sox a 93.4 percent chance of reaching the playoffs).
The Sox are averaging 5.5 runs per game, most in the majors. As a team they lead the majors in average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS. They just got Carl Crawford back after he missed the last month, and the left-fielder immediately helped them to their second highest runs total of the year on a night when David Ortiz was out while serving a suspension.
Can they upgrade their offense? Certainly. Whereas the team had enjoyed a remarkable midyear roll against left-handers, the absence of Jed Lowrie and struggles of their corner outfielders against southpaws have created the potential for improvement.
But the situation is hardly desperate, particularly at a time when Josh Reddick is hitting .347 with a .402 OBP, .653 slugging mark and 1.056 OPS and Darnell McDonald (.261/.346/.609/.955 in his last nine games) is starting to show an impact against lefties.
The Sox have and will explore virtually everyone available – Carlos Beltran, Ryan Ludwick, Jose Reyes, bench bats and more – to see if there is an area of potential improvement, and if so, how steep a price (in money and prospects) they must pay. But they are in a position where they can comfortably walk away from position players should they find the cost unpalatable.
Bullpen? Even with Bobby Jenks on the DL, the Sox appear to have a number of viable options that aren’t reflected fully by the team’s 3.46 relief ERA (6th in the AL, 14th in the majors).
The anchors of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard give the Sox security at the end of the game. A pair of right-handers on whom the Sox bought low – Matt Albers (2.37 ERA) and Alfredo Aceves (4-0, 2.13 ERA in relief) – has been consistently excellent. Dan Wheeler, in roughly two months since coming off the DL early this year, has a 2.11 ERA, 17 strikeouts and four walks in his last 21 1/3 innings.
The team is more unsettled in its left-handed options. That said, Franklin Morales – who struck out the side in a perfect ninth inning on Monday while showing explosive stuff – has allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out six in 6 1/3 shutout innings (spanning eight games) since coming off the DL in late-June.
The rotation, meanwhile, is fluid, particularly at a time when just two (Josh Beckett, John Lackey) of the Sox’ five Opening Day starters are healthy. The manner in which the Sox view their need for starters can change on a week-to-week or even day-to-day basis.
Right now, the situation for the Sox appears manageable with their current ensemble of arms. Jon Lester is slated to return from his lat strain on Monday. Clay Buchholz does not have an identifiable timetable for his return, but he is making progress back to the mound, having extended his throwing program out to 120 feet on flat ground, with a session on the mound representing the next step.
Sox starters this year have a 4.14 ERA, a mark that ranks 22nd in the majors and 10th in the AL. But given Beckett’s dominance (8-3, 2.12), if Lester (10-4, 3.31) and Buchholz (6-3, 3.48) return at something approximating their first-half levels, then the team will feature a front three that can compete with any.
Between the potential starters currently in the majors (Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, Alfredo Aceves) and others in Triple-A (Felix Doubront, Kevin Millwood), the Sox believe that their pitching depth is adequate in the absence of a move.
Again, starting pitching is an area where the Sox can and should investigate available options. If a price proves palatable for an arm that represents a clear improvement over what they have, they can pursue an upgrade. The team will kick the tires on starters to see if there is a match, both in terms of a pitcher who would represent an improvement over the arms that the Sox have and one who comes at a tolerable cost.
Yet given the state of the team, it is entirely possible that, as was the case a year ago when the Sox’ only deadline move was for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, their focus will be less on immediate needs and more on future ones.
Typically, the Sox are reluctant to give up top prospects for rental players unless they will either acquire players for multiple seasons or they can get draft picks should a rental player depart in free agency. The team follows a mantra of keeping one eye on the current team and another focused on the future, even at a trading deadline that is more often driven by where a team resides in the standings.
On the surface, that would appear to be a limiting factor in the team’s interest in Carlos Beltran (who will be a free agent after this year, and has a contract clause stipulating he cannot be offered salary arbitration), though depending on how much of his contract the Mets would be willing to pick up, that could change. There is, after all, a reason why the team has long been enamored of the switch-hitting outfielder, and why they have made numerous inquiries on him through the years, dating to his time in Kansas City.
In all, it’s a less anxious position for the Sox at the deadline than the one that they typically face, and the one that many other contenders will confront.
There have been years when the trade deadline has appeared the equivalent of a trip to the dentist, with team officials having to decide between filling a cavity, getting a root canal or risking crumbling tooth decay.
This year, the dental work is intact. And so, the Sox are simply left to decide what kind of cosmetic improvements, if any, they would like to make.
The front office is not so arrogant to believe that it cannot upgrade its team. The Sox are actively exploring available trade options, and ideally, they would like to improve. Any time the potential exists to better situate a contender -- and the trade deadline represents one of the few such times that focuses dialogue -- the Sox want to take advantage of it.
But with 12 days left to the deadline for non-waiver trades, the Sox are in position to pick and choose what kind of reinforcements they will seek.