CHICAGO – This was a win-now move, the decorative flourish on top of a cake that was already nearly done.
The Red Sox did not need a trade to put themselves in position to have legitimate World Series ambitions. Their play ever since a 2-10 start already ensured that, barring a stunning development, they will cruise into October and be viewed as one of the most formidable entrants into the playoff tournament.
The Sox just put the finishing touches on a 20-6 month, the team’s most wins in one turn of the calendar since 2007, with a .769 winning percentage that ranked as the club’s best ever in July. They are on pace now for a 103-59 record this year, with a 2.0 game lead in the division and, should they cede first in the AL East to the Yankees, an 8.5 game lead over the Angels in the wild card race.
And yet even while pitching injuries have not derailed them – the Sox are 25-13 since Clay Buchholz landed on the DL, a stretch that included three weeks without Jon Lester – the front office did not want to be left kicking itself in October for its inaction at the trade deadline.
Though they have, far and away, the best offense in the game (leading the majors in runs, runs per game, average, OBP, slugging and OPS), the Sox explored any available avenue for improvement, looking at the top position players on the market (Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence). Though they have a deep bullpen that has been among the best in the majors for the last two months, they examined the market for relievers.
But with Buchholz’ return looking increasingly uncertain this season, the Sox felt they needed to make a move to deepen a starting staff that features a pair of aces at the top in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett but potential question marks (John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller) behind them. The team’s starting ERA of 4.11 is worse than the AL average mark of 4.01, and so the quest to add a starter took place in earnest.
“We felt, looking at our club, like we certainly needed to add a starting pitcher, if nothing else, for depth purposes. We felt like that was the best way we could impact the club right now,” said GM Theo Epstein. “We like the starting pitching that we have. But there’s the health question mark with Buch, and we felt like adding another arm who, when he’s right, can go out and beat anybody, would be a really nice way to improve the club.”
Erik Bedard, based on what the Sox had seen from him since spring training, fit that profile, even if he wasn’t necessarily the team’s first choice for its upgrade. The Sox looked into Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, the one pitcher who moved this deadline season whose contract status would have allowed him to impact the Sox for 2011 and beyond (Jimenez is locked up through 2013 on a very affordable deal).
But the cost in prospects of acquiring him would have been huge -- indeed, it is not clear whether the Sox had a match with the Rockies -- for a farm system that already gave up its top pieces in the deal to land Adrian Gonzalez in December. Hiroki Kuroda of the Dodgers represented a pitcher who is consistently dominant and healthy who was signed to a short-term deal; however, the right-hander informed Los Angeles that he was unwilling to waive his no-trade clause.
And so, the Sox ended up looking at a pair of pitchers with top-of-the-rotation stuff but checkered health records. They had a deal in place with the Athletics for Rich Harden, only to have it unravel when a review of the oft-injured pitcher’s medicals resulted in some unexpected questions about whether the right-hander would be able to make enough starts to justify the deal.
Once that deal blew up, Bedard represented the last remaining option who fit the profile of what the Sox were looking for. For the year, his 4-7 record in 14 starts obscures a 3.45 ERA, including a two-month stretch from April 27 until June 27 in which he had a 1.77 ERA in 11 starts.
And while he has been oft-injured in his career, he has also been very good when on the mound. Since the start of the 2006 season, among major leaguers who have thrown at least 500 innings, Bedard ranks 15th in ERA with a 3.41 mark, slightly ahead of Matt Cain (3.43), Dan Haren (3.44) and Zack Greinke (3.45), and just behind Cole Hamels (3.40). As a pitcher with nearly a strikeout an inning in his career, he represents the sort of power pitching option that teams want to have in October.
As the final minutes leading up to the deadline ticked off, it became clear that either the Sox would strike a deal with the Mariners or they wouldn’t have a deal at all. There was no one else of his profile who remained available.
And even though Bedard had been hit around in his return from the DL on Friday, and even though his own medical dossier is the equivalent of “Ulysses” to Harden’s “War and Peace,” his stuff (swing and miss fastball and curve) and major league track record suggested that so long as the Sox can keep him on the mound, he will represent a clear upgrade to their rotation going forward.
“We were out looking at basically every available starter, and we were in on a number of starting pitchers,” said Epstein. “When it doesn’t line up, you move on to the next one. … We’re very happy with where things ended up and very happy Erik’s a Red Sox.
“We’re really glad not to get just any starting pitcher but to get somebody who’s capable of shutting down any lineup in the league when he’s right. He’s certainly capable of pitching big games for us down the stretch and somebody with enough talent to take the mound in the middle of the pennant race or in a playoff game if that opportunity presents itself.”
This was a deal that was made with an idea towards improving at the margins. It was not a fundamental reshaping of the club. Nor was one necessary.
“I think we have a pretty good team and I don’t know if we need a boost at all,” Kevin Youkilis said of the trade. “That’s why there really wasn’t any major moves made.”
But, in a postseason context in which one inning of one game can represent the difference between advancing or going home, the Sox placed value on the potential upgrade offered by Bedard, especially in a world in which Buchholz might be unavailable. Given the Sox’ shape in the standings, this was a move whose primary motivation was for a few games in October rather than for the next two months of the regular season.
The fact that the Sox were willing to make such a move was not lost on the clubhouse.
“If we prove to them that we’re in a position to go out and accomplish the final goal of winning the World Series,” said closer Jonathan Papelbon, “them going out and getting us a little bit of extra help solidifies that we’re on the same page.”
Typically, in past mid-year deals under Epstein, the Sox have targeted players who would impact the club both in a current season and beyond. Those players took two forms.
First, there were those who were under contract on deals beyond the season in which the trade occurred (Jason Bay, Victor Martinez, Casey Kotchman, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, as well as the less-decorated duo of Jeff Suppan and Scott Sauerbeck). Alternately, there were the players who were on the cusp of Type A or Type B free agent status who would net the team one or more draft picks if they declined an arbitration offer and departed in free agency (Orlando Cabrera, Tony Graffanino, Eric Gagne).
The Bedard deal is something different. The Sox gave up four minor leaguers (outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang, catcher Tim Federowicz, right-handers Stephen Fife and Juan Rodriguez) for a player who is strictly a rental.
Bedard is a free agent at the end of this year. He will not qualify for Type A or Type B free agent status, so the Sox won’t net a draft pick assuming he leaves. His arrival in Boston is all about 2011.
While the Sox also received what Epstein described as a “big arm” in reliever Josh Fields – a Triple-A right-hander with power stuff but little command and who turns 26 this month – this was a deal that was motivated heavily by the Sox’ desire to win this year, and the team’s willingness to give up several trade chips in return.
“Most of the available pitchers were going to be free agents at the end of the year and Erik falls into that category,” said Epstein. “Most of the need is for the rest of this year and we hope into the postseason if we continue to play well and we're lucky enough to get there.
“We would not have been satisfied had we let the deadline pass without getting a starter. We were willing to dig deep into our farm system to make that happen, but we wanted to make sure that the acquisition cost was appropriate for the acquisition itself. Time will tell. We hope that was the case here.”
True, the Sox didn’t part with any of their top prospects. Chiang is having a ridiculously good season in Double-A that has elevated his prospect status. If his breakout season – which coincides with an invigorated commitment to managing his diabetes – is sustainable, there’s a chance that he could emerge as something more than a big league backup.
Still, the Sox are swimming in outfielders who are both in the majors/nearly major league ready (Josh Reddick, Ryan Kalish) or lower in the minors (Bryce Brentz, Brandon Jacobs). He was expendable, and the Sox traded him at a time when his value has never been greater.
Federowicz is a highly regarded defensive catcher whose offensive limitations suggest that he profiles as a player capable of being a very solid backup. With Saltalamacchia under Red Sox control for two more years and prospect Ryan Lavarnway emerging as an increasingly intriguing option for the position, Federowicz, too, could be moved without any pain.
Fife is a good bet to reach the majors in some capacity, but he was behind pitchers such as Kyle Weiland, Felix Doubront and Alex Wilson on the organizational depth chart in the upper levels. And Rodriguez is, like Fields, a reliever with a big arm and control issues, but who is years from the majors. âÂ¨
Ultimately, the Sox were in a position where they did not have to balk over the price of Bedard. Some of the players whom they traded might have been able to contribute at some level in future seasons, but the reality is that such future contributions were not as important as what the Sox can accomplish in the rest of 2011.
The Sox needed a starter with the stuff to win this October, and for that, they were willing to move surplus prospect inventory. For as much as the team values a deep farm system that can sustain success for the long haul, it also does not take for granted the chance to win in the present – an ambition that appears very realistic in 2011.