With just over two weeks remaining before the July 31 trade deadline, the Red Sox are in very foreign territory as to how to proceed. They view themselves as contenders, yet their plans of how to sell seem more defined than those of how they might buy. Though the team does seem eager to use the forthcoming 15 days to reinforce the roster, it remains very much amidst a period of self-evaluation to determine how they’ll proceed.
On the one hand, that seems difficult to fathom. There’s more than a half-season’s worth of evidence on the table to suggest what the Sox do and do not have. On the other hand, the team is in the process of a fascinating period of change, particularly with regards to a) getting some key contributors back on the field and b) figuring out how real one very intriguing recent development is.
Meanwhile, the Sox are navigating a trade deadline landscape that has been altered dramatically by the new collective bargaining agreement. The rules of engagement are different than they’ve ever been.
It all makes for an intriguing picture of a team still awaiting definition over the coming two weeks. Here is a look, based on conversations with team and major league sources, at where the team stands as the deadline approaches.
FORGET BLOWING IT UP
There is no plunger waiting to be pushed. The team does not consider the roster flawed to the point where drastic measures -- chiefly, taking a wrecking ball to the core of the roster in order to commence an extreme renovation -- need to be contemplated.
Indeed, for now, it appears that while the team isn’t ruling anything out (“You never say never to anything,” general manager Ben Cherington said in St. Petersburg last week), the team continues to consider its roster core a very talented (even if, in some areas, an underperforming) one that is a winning streak away from asserting itself as a frontrunner in the race.
With Sunday’s 7-3 win against Tampa Bay, the Red Sox find themselves 1½ games out of the second wild card spot, one of seven American League teams that is between one and four games over .500. The team is not looking to step backward between now and the deadline.
“We're always going to do whatever we can to give ourselves a chance to win,” Cherington said. “There's no such thing as taking a year off in Boston. We feel like we're right in it and have as good a chance as most teams to be there at the end. But we have to play well and give ourselves that chance, and we'll do everything we can to improve the team in the meantime.
“Every year in Boston is too important. We're focused on winning this year, and still believe we can,” he added. “I don't think blowing it up makes sense for where we are. There's a lot of talent on the team. We're right in the thick of the wild card chase. We've played very well since the beginning of May aside from the last week. I just think it would be foolish to start doing things that got in the way of giving us a chance this year.”
The so-called “blow it up” strategy likely would have competitive consequences not just for 2012 but also beyond; the Red Sox are a flawed team with very real warts, but they are too close to contention this year and too driven to contend year after year to detonate their core.
OF THE NON-BLOWING-UP OF THE STARTING ROTATION
The Red Sox rotation has been presented as a villainous group, and it’s not too hard to understand why. The residue of last September’s collapse and subsequent revelations of clubhouse misdeeds lingers, amplified by the fact that as a group the Red Sox starters have a 4.77 ERA that ranks 27th among the 30 major league teams.
The four pitchers who have spent virtually the entire season in the Red Sox rotation -- Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront -- all have ERAs that are worse than league average. The team does not have a pitcher performing at the level of an ace, yet Beckett (four years, $68 million) and John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million) are both being compensated as such, while Lester (getting paid $7.625 million in the fourth year of his five-year, $30 million deal) is seeing his salary bump up.
The topics of Beckett’s intransigence and Lester’s apparent unhappiness -- as well as the underperformances of both -- have led to speculation about the wisdom of trading one or both. Yet the reality is that the Sox probably don’t have that luxury.
First, the team still thinks that both can be effective starters, perhaps even quite a bit more than that. Beckett has managed to adapt to his declining stuff in what the team considers effective fashion, figuring out how to add and subtract to his repertoire in order to give the team more quality starts (9) than might be expected from his 4-7 record and 4.43 ERA.
Lester (5-6, 4.49) has seen his strikeout numbers take a hit this year (7.5 per nine innings, his lowest rate since 2008), the third straight year of decline from his peak of 10.0 per nine innings in 2009. His velocity has been down a tick, and the once-lethal cutter hasn’t been the same swing-and-miss weapon that it’s been in the past.
Still, the team sees in the 28-year-old someone whose stuff isn’t that far removed from being at or close to its peak form. Over his last eight starts, he did have 53 strikeouts and just eight walks in 51 1/3 innings; he bordered on dominance, but for the fact that he had a batting average on balls in play of .370, a number that is drastically higher than his career norms and that represented, at least in part, some poor luck.
Beckett and Lester both represent relatively proven commodities in the rough-and-tumble AL East. The fact that they’ve been passable rather than dominant has created the public dialogue about the wisdom of trading them, but the reality is that if the Sox traded either, the challenge of replacing them could be monumental.
Therein lies the chief flaw in the blow-it-up strategy. How do you rebuild from the wreckage? Particularly when it comes to starting pitching -- at a time when teams almost invariably are locking up young, controllable starters early in their careers, at a stage when they are most dominant -- how does a team upgrade over pitchers like Lester and Beckett who are underperforming this year but who have enjoyed tremendous success fairly recently?
Meanwhile, Beckett’s contract (with just under 2 ½ seasons remaining) minimizes his trade value to the point where it’s difficult to imagine a taker without the Sox absorbing a significant chunk of it. Lester, on the other hand, remains an incredibly valuable commodity for the Sox if he can be a No. 3 starter or better, given that he counts for just $6 million against the luxury tax threshold based on his average annual value.
The Sox want to be an organization of homegrown pitching, but their homegrown starting prospects are not currently knocking on the door. Matt Barnes, after a dazzling debut, has been working through recent struggles in High-A Salem. Anthony Ranaudo’s year has been mixed with injuries and ineffectiveness in Double-A. Drake Britton has shown interesting flashes in Salem and Portland, but it will take some time for the left-hander to cement the gains he’s made to the point where he can be considered a rotation candidate.
The Sox do not want to repeat the sins of the recent past with weighty long-term contracts to free agent pitchers through their years of decline. The quality of starters on the market is limited. In other words, if the team guts its pitching staff or even trades just one centerpiece, it could set back its competitive ambitions through at least 2013.
Moreover, even if the Sox believed in addition by subtraction with regards to members of the rotation, the idea of selling low on Lester and/or Beckett (and thus necessitating a “buy-high” reaction) makes little sense.
THERE IS A BLOW-IT-UP CAVEAT
The Sox don’t intend to drastically alter their roster now, but if the team continues to underperform for the rest of this year and misses the playoffs, and if the club has reason to believe that players who are viewed as potentially key contributors are going to fall short, then this offseason could be a wild one for the team.
There’s not a ton of flexibility in the current roster. And so, if Adrian Gonzalez or Dustin Pedroia (when back from the DL) fail to return to form, or if Carl Crawford continues to struggle, or if Lester and Beckett and Buchholz look more like back-of-the-rotation than front-of-the-rotation pitchers, then the Sox may have to consider more drastic measures during the offseason to create the necessary payroll space to redefine the core group.
That being the case, the next two and a half months, in many ways, could be pivotal for the direction of the franchise for the next several years. But for now, the composition of the team will remain fairly stable.
THE TEAM WILL SELL SELECTIVELY
It would be extremely surprising if, sometime between now and July 31, the Red Sox didn’t make at least one deal to clear surplus inventory. There are multiple areas from which the team has a degree of comfort about its ability to sell.
Most obviously, there’s the outfield. The team is listening while receiving a number of calls about a position where it’s suddenly stacked with major league-caliber players, at a time when Jacoby Ellsbury has returned and where Carl Crawford is now set to follow him back to the big leagues.
With the need to take players (most notably, Crawford and, in the not-too-distant future, Andrew Bailey) off the 60-day disabled list comes a need to clear players from the 40-man roster. A trade of an outfielder could help address that situation, and so the team is listening to inquiries about Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Daniel Nava and Ryan Kalish as well as Scott Podsednik.
None of those players are signed beyond 2012, even though Sweeney remains under team control through 2013 and Nava (five years) and Kalish (six years) both are nowhere close to free agency. As such, the Sox believe that they are in excellent position to capitalize on other teams’ needs for outfield reinforcements when the trade deadline arrives, given that they have a diversity of players whose contracts are anything but onerous.
The same is true, to a lesser degree, of the bullpen, though it’s worth noting that the placement of Scott Atchison on the disabled list diminishes the team’s depth. Still, not only has the major league relief corps been surprisingly deep and effective, but the team also has Bailey coming, a pitcher like Rich Hill potentially on the horizon, Clayton Mortensen and Junichi Tazawa performing well while being shuttled between Boston and Pawtucket and Alex Wilson starting to look like a pitcher whose major league future is getting close.
And, the team is open to dealing from its catching inventory, even if likely more reluctant to do so than it is to deal an outfielder or reliever. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Lavarnway give the organization three legitimate big league catchers, all of whom are performing at extremely high levels this year. The team would move one for the right offer (with Shoppach, under team control only for this season, representing the easiest piece to move), but given the inherent vulnerability of the position and the recent lessons in 2010 and 2011 for having legitimate three-deep catching in the organization, the team would have some pause before moving some of its catching inventory.
THE TEAM WANTS TO BUY, BUT THE SHOPPING LIST IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
The Red Sox do want to bolster their roster if possible. The question is, what does the team need?
Starting pitching is the screaming need given the performance of the staff. But where is there an obvious upgrade over a Lester or a Beckett or even a Buchholz or Doubront, particularly given the steep cost of acquiring a starter midseason?
Matt Garza represents an obvious answer given his track record of success in the AL East and postseason, but the Cubs plan to get a ton back for the right-hander, as would any team looking to move an elite starter who remains under team control beyond 2012. Other pitchers like Wandy Rodriguez and Jason Vargas have iffy stuff for the AL East.
At the same time, the early returns on Franklin Morales’ move to the rotation have been nothing short of remarkable. In five starts, he has a 3.42 ERA with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings (and 2.7 walks per nine). The Sox need to use the next two weeks to determine if that performance is real, because if so, it’s almost impossible to find a mid-year upgrade over what Morales has delivered to date as a member of the rotation.
The team is also in a period of evaluation with regards to Ellsbury and Crawford and the shape that their team will take when approximating its offseason design. The Sox are closer to having the roster that they envisioned than they’ve been at any point this year, and so the traditional wisdom that a team figures out what it has (and does not have) in the first two months of the year doesn’t necessarily apply to this club.
IT’S A DIFFERENT WORLD, PART 1: FORGET COLE HAMELS
In the past, the Sox were more than happy to consider acquiring a rental player knowing that a top free agent could result in one or two draft picks on their way out the door, thus allowing the team to recoup some of the prospect cost of a deal. That model no longer exists.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, a team can only get draft picks for a departing free agent if that player spent the entire year with a club. Anyone acquired midseason will not be able to net the Sox two picks.
That being the case, it becomes almost impossible for the Sox to strike a deal for a free agent-to-be like Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke. If neither pitchers move, the Phillies and Brewers (respectively) would be in line to receive a pair of top draft picks for those two pitchers. They would expect a prospect package worth more than those picks if they were to deal them.
But, in a departure from the recent past, an acquiring team (such as the Sox) wouldn’t be able to get any picks after acquiring such an elite talent. And so, it becomes much harder to justify the prospect cost of a deal for such a rental player.
All of that being the case, multiple team sources suggest that a deal for rental starter -- even an elite one -- like Hamels simply won’t happen.
IT’S A DIFFERENT WORLD, PART 2: THE SELLERS DWINDLE
A year ago, the Mets traded outfielder Carlos Beltran as a rental player to the Giants for highly regarded pitching prospect Zach Wheeler. On the day of the deal (July 28), the Mets had a 54-51 record. They were 11 ½ games out of first place in the NL East, and six games behind the Braves for a wild card spot. The Nationals and Reds were likewise sellers at a time when they were flirting with .500.
But that was in the world of one wild card spot per league. Under the new format that is debuting this year, in which each league will feature a pair of wild cards who will throw down for a one-game playoff, the Mets would have been only three games out of a second wild card spot.
And so, the number of teams in a position to deal centerpiece players has gone down significantly. Teams with .500 records who were sellers in the past will more likely be in position either to stand pat or to buy come this deadline.
That, the Sox hope, puts Boston in a particularly good position given its roster depth and surplus. A team that wants to both buy and sell may prove uniquely positioned to take advantage of the current landscape. With a potential increase in the number of buyers and a potential decrease in the number of sellers at this year’s trade deadline, the value of players capable of addressing needs could go up. The Red Sox feel that they are poised to take advantage of that market dynamic.
At the same time, the increased volume of contenders means that it is more difficult to acquire players to address team needs. There will be fewer players available, and the cost to the Sox of making a move might be higher than in the recent past. So, from the standpoint of identifying the right sort of reinforcements, the challenge is now greater than it had been.
BUT THE RED SOX DO HAVE FLEXIBILITY AS THE DEADLINE NEARS
The Red Sox have the two key ingredients needed to make moves over the duration of the month: Money and moveable pieces.
The Sox still have financial flexibility achieved from the Marco Scutaro trade at their disposal. The salary relief created by the agreed-upon exit from the organization of Bobby Jenks further increases that.
Meanwhile, the team does have some players who can be moved. In particular, the surplus of outfielders on the 40-man roster merely represents the surface of the area of foremost organizational depth. While Double-A center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. might verge on untouchable in this summer’s trade market given the uncertain future of Jacoby Ellsbury, the Sox have not only Ross, Kalish, Nava, Sweeney and Podsednik as potential chips, but also highly regarded prospects like Bryce Brentz (in Portland) and Brandon Jacobs (in Salem) and Keury De La Cruz (in Greenville).
In other words, the Red Sox have a lot of the components to make a deal if they do decide to pursue such a course.
THE BIGGEST UPGRADES AVAILABLE ARE NOT VIA THE TRADE MARKET
Two factors played a huge role in the Red Sox’ decided mediocrity of the first half: Injuries and underperformance of key contributors.
The trade market offers no panaceas. If the Red Sox are to go from a head-scratching team to a very good one with ambitions to not just reach the postseason but to do some damage there, then the team must a) get healthy and b) start getting some of its key contributors to perform in line with their career track records.
Externally, the temptation to contemplate drastic roster moves – “blowing it up” or making a blockbuster deal to address a need – will always be immense. But realistically, teams (the 2011 Cardinals notwithstanding) can rarely reshape dramatically on the fly.
It is worth asking: Where would the Red Sox be right now if Crawford or Ellsbury or Bailey had been healthy? All are expected to be back and contributing in the second half. Where would the Red Sox be right now if Lester or Gonzalez had been performing at their customary levels? The team believes that both of them can be tremendous impact players in the second half.
In light of the new CBA, there may be less player movement this year than in seasons past. As such, it is almost inevitable that the biggest impact on the direction of the Red Sox’ fortunes going forward will be from players already on the roster whose contributions in the first half fell below expectations.