It now looms in plain view, growing ever larger on the horizon. The baseball calendar has now arrived at its annual month of mayhem, with frenzied discussion of the trade market for players bound to consume the game with growing intensity through July 31.
The Red Sox own the best record in the American League at 50-34 with the best run differential in the league to boot, having outscored their opponents by an 80-run margin, enjoying a 2½-game lead in the American League East over the Orioles. That guarantees nothing regarding where the team will end up, but it does mean that, in contrast to a year ago, the team knows on which side of the buyer vs. seller aisle it is sitting.
Last July, the Sox' trade discussions took place on two tracks, with the possibilities of adding and subtracting from the big league roster both considerations. Ultimately, that ambivalence played out on July 31, with the Sox trading one big league reliever (Matt Albers) for another (Craig Breslow).
This year, the Sox know where they stand. While it remains to be seen whether the team actually makes a deal or deals to address needs this month, there's not much question about what the team will try to accomplish given its record.
"When we're winning in Boston we have an obligation to do what we can to help the team," general manager Ben Cherington wrote in an email. "We're still mostly focused on finding that help from within but we'll be talking to other teams and stay up on possibilities as we get through July. Our job is to find the best way to help this year without altering the longer-term outlook."
The latter component is important. After all, the Sox approached last offseason with a stated goal not simply of reasserting themselves in 2013, but of laying the foundation for a sustainable culture of winning for the long haul. That is best accomplished by maintaining the team's best prospects and seeing them impact the team at the big league level, rather than moving those players for short-term assets.
The team has seen some promising steps toward that goal. The renewed commitment to preparation has contributed to perhaps the most dramatic yet underappreciated change in the operations of the Sox, chiefly that the chronic underperformances of a year ago have yielded largely to players performing to (or, in some cases, beyond) their track records and/or capabilities. The resurrection of a grinding lineup has allowed the team to enjoy the most productive offense in the American League, even without a prototypical middle-of-the-order complement to David Ortiz. Though the team's pitching staff has the highest walk rate (3.6 per nine innings) in the AL, that's been offset to a degree by the considerable swing-and-miss stuff (8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, second in the AL) and execution (something that relates back to preparation) to yield 4.18 runs per game, a mark that ranks sixth among the 15 teams in the American League.
So, beyond the record, there's been progress. But, obviously, the Sox, like every other AL contender, are an imperfect team, with identifiable areas for upgrade.
The team is likely to take an opportunistic approach to the trade deadline. Its willingness to improve comes not just in the pursuit of reinforcements in area of weaknesses but also to add to strengths if that is where the acquisition cost makes the most sense. Still, while the Sox will respond to what the market has to offer, there are two areas where, in the short term, the Sox are most eager to achieve stability.
"We've had some turnover at [third base] and in [the bullpen]," Cherington noted, "but right now we believe there is a good chance the solutions are internal. We'll keep an eye out in these areas and any other that crops up between now and the deadline."
Using Cherington's mention of third base and the bullpen as points of departure, here is a look at potential Red Sox needs building up to the trade deadline and the likelihood of finding an internal solution.
The struggles this year of Will Middlebrooks turned what the Sox hoped would be a cornerstone position, one featuring a much-needed power bat, into an area of uncertainty. Middlebrooks' struggles -- a .192 average, .228 OBP and .389 slugging mark in 53 games -- opened the door just enough for Jose Iglesias to come crashing through.
Iglesias' emergence has been little short of stunning. The 23-year-old is hitting .409/.455/.530 in roughly a quarter of a season (39 games) while displaying incredible confidence and an unexpectedly excellent approach at the plate.
Still, there's an air of uncertainty about what that might mean going forward. Iglesias' track record entering this incredible performance in the big leagues -- a .135/.210/.203 line in 35 big league games before this year, a career .257/.307/.314 line in the minors that included a dismal .202/.262/.319 line in 33 games this year in Pawtucket -- mean that the Sox cannot take as a given the notion that he'll remain an above-average, or even an average, offensive performer. After all, Middlebrooks' track record entering this year offered more grounds for comfort than does Iglesias' now.
So, what does that mean? Unclear.
Between Iglesias, Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts, the Sox have multiple potentially attractive options for third base. Still, the key word there is "potentially." None of those players has the track record to know what they will be in the second half of 2013. And so, the Sox will explore the market for players capable of manning the hot corner, but with the caveat that the potential internal solutions could permit the team to go with the proverbial hot hand from that group of homegrown options. In other words, while the Sox likely would prefer more predictable production from third base, the organization offers enough potential solutions that the need is unlikely to be so acute as to force the Sox to deal regardless of the cost in a trade.
Worthwhile tangent: While there is uncertainty about what the Sox might get from third base, the team appears relatively comfortable with what it expects Stephen Drew to deliver going forward. The team views Drew as an above-average defensive shortstop whose modest overall offensive numbers (.233/.313/.409) bely the fact that he has a) offered reliably good at-bats and solid production against righties (.255/.344/.435) and b) been an above-average performance at his position, given the American League-average shortstop line of .251/.304/.365.
The Sox find themselves in precisely the position they'd hoped to avoid. The offseason acquisitions of Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara were meant to provide the Sox with enough relief depth that they wouldn't have to be in the trade market for bullpen help come July.
Obviously, that's not exactly how things have played out. With Hanrahan done for the year, Andrew Bailey having struggled and Uehara now relocated from middle relief to the ninth inning, the Sox have spent much of the year trying to plug a succession of leaks in a late-innings dam. And so, the Sox will need reinforcements.
As is the case with third base, the Sox hope that there are internal avenues to getting better. In particular, a compelling case can be made that getting Bailey back to career form -- some facsimile of what he did in April prior to landing on the DL with biceps tendinitis, the return from which has shown diminished velocity that has made him vulnerable -- is as critical an issue as the Sox face.
Regardless of whether he closes or not, the Sox would look drastically different if they could rely on him at some stage of the game to shut down opposing right-handed hitters. That's part of the reason why the team was encouraged by Bailey's most recent outing on Saturday, when he showed improvements in fastball velocity.
"Getting [Bailey] back on track is one of our main goals right now," acknowledged Sox manager John Farrell after Sunday's win. "It would give our bullpen a huge lift and this team a huge lift."
At the same time, even if Bailey returns to form, the Sox' late-innings vulnerability to home runs -- and the shortage of options capable of coming in to elicit grounders -- would remain in place.
"We have fly-ball pitchers in that bullpen. In this ballpark, it can be risky," said Farrell. "We can’t ask guys to change their style or be something that they aren't. We might not be a perfect team, but we sit at the top of the division right now. We know where our challenges lie, and we're doing everything we can to improve in any way we can."
In terms of internal options, the Sox may be inclined to give another look to right-hander Jose De La Torre. The 27-year-old has a 1.69 ERA, 45 strikeouts, 19 walks and a .152 batting average against in Pawtucket. Right-handers are hitting .169/.277/.225 against him with three extra-base hits and no homers in 83 plate appearances; he's getting ground balls in bunches (3.1 groundouts per flyout) against right-handers.
There are no immediate plans for the team to move Triple-A rotation members Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa or Alfredo Aceves to the bullpen. Still, while the Sox view all three as potential big league starters and potentially important rotation depth options, they haven't ruled out moving any of those arms to relief as dictated by need at some point this year.
Though the Sox lead the majors with seven blown saves in the ninth inning or later, the team seems inclined to focus its attention on adding overall late-innings depth rather than seeking a closer, per se. And on that front, it's easy to understand the team's leeriness.
After all, past deals for the likes of Eric Gagne (requiring the Sox to send David Murphy, Kason Gabbard and Engel Beltre to the Rangers), Mark Melancon (who cost the team Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland), Bailey (Josh Reddick, Miles Head, Raul Alcantara -- with Ryan Sweeney also coming back to the Sox) and Hanrahan (Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus -- with Brock Holt also coming back to the Sox) have been akin to a firecracker that blows up in the face of the person lighting it.
The potential for a deal to be horribly imbalanced -- giving up a significant long-term asset for minimal short-term gain -- probably is more extreme when trading for relievers than any other potential contributor. All of that suggests that the Sox are likely to try to avoid repeating their sins of the recent past; they won't avoid the relief trade market entirely, but they likewise will have fairly well-defined limits in terms of what kind of asset they'd consider giving up for a player who might impact them for roughly 20 or so innings over the duration of the season.
The Sox think they'll have Clay Buchholz back and in position to be a very good starter for the second half. But in the days leading up to the trade deadline, there will likely have to be a bit of a leap of faith on that front.
A best-case progression (and not necessarily the likeliest progression) for Buchholz might have him back in the big leagues either just before or, more likely, just after the All-Star break. When pitchers come off the DL following relatively lengthy absences, it's relatively common to have a tough start at the big league level. So, by the time the Sox arrive at their last week to 10 days before the trade deadline, there's a very good chance that the team won't have seen a dominant Buchholz since he landed on the DL on June 8.
Still, the team expects that the right-hander will be very good for the final months of the year. Moreover, aside from the potential pie-in-the-sky, mortgage-the-future option of Cliff Lee, there probably won't be a pitcher on the trade market who could perform to the expected level of a Buchholz.
As things currently stand, the Sox seem unlikely to make a blockbuster for a top-of-the-rotation starter. Between Buchholz, Felix Doubront and the team's wealth of starting pitching prospects (Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Henry Owens), the Sox see the makings of a rotation that is young, controllable, cost-effective and potentially very good for years to come.
In both the short and long term, as of right now, it appears there's a good chance that the Sox have more acute needs than their starting pitching. That somewhat diminished motivation, in turn, suggests there's a very good chance -- barring an unexpected injury or other unforeseen development in the rotation -- that even if the Sox kick the tires on any and every starter who becomes available, they might not be inclined to outbid other teams.
That's not to say the team won't make a move for a starter, perhaps one with a track record of consistency even if an unspectacular ceiling. Still, given what the team has with Aceves, Webster, De La Rosa, Workman and Ranaudo -- all candidates to help at the big league level this year -- there appears some comfort level with internal options and depth.
The Sox anticipated that Middlebrooks, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes would deliver right-handed home run power this year. By and large, that hasn't happened. Middlebrooks slammed nine homers but struggled to the point of being sent to the minors. Napoli started out well but hasn't gone deep in a month (since June 1), and he simply looked like a different hitter in June, when he had virtually no extra-base pop.
Still, the Sox seem to feel little urgency regarding the need to acquire a power hitter for a multitude of reasons. First, they're leading the AL in runs and runs per game thanks to an approach that's yielding high on-base percentages and tons of doubles. Second, aside from perhaps Mike Carp and Daniel Nava, virtually no one on the team is outperforming power expectations; to the contrary, most of the players have yet to deliver power up to their career track records. That suggests that there is a solid chance that the Sox see power show up -- whether from Gomes, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia or others -- in the second half.
The Sox have positioned themselves to make a push in 2013. As such, they want to find ways not merely to rest on the laurels and hope for a continuation of their performance through 84 games, but to improve upon it.
In a best-case scenario, much of that improvement would arrive internally. Still, the team will be both open-minded and flexible regarding the possibility of going outside the organization for deals. The farm system has matured to the point where the Sox do have a number of potential internal reinforcements; they also have the depth from which to deal some of those prospects without necessarily jeopardizing the team's short- and long-term depth.
There are areas of greater need or at least uncertainty (bullpen, third base). But, given the potential for internal solutions, as of right now, the team doesn't feel particularly under the gun to address a single need; instead, there is a more opportunistic outlook on the trade market, with the team looking to find the best available deal -- at the right price -- rather than feeling a compulsion to make a move.
That could change, of course, between now and July 31. An injury could alter the team's outlook and compel a deal to address a specific area of weakness. But for now, the Sox can take a more general approach, trying to find the right upgrade at the right price.