The situation looks bleak.
The Red Sox possess one of the worst-performing bullpens in the majors. As a group, the team's relief corps has hardly been worthy of the name, with a 4.30 ERA (26th in the majors, 13th in the AL), 14 blown saves (sixth most in the majors) and a 55 percent save conversion rate (28th among 30 teams). The state of the bullpen has been unsettling for a team.
And it just got considerably worse.
Now, in addition to that statistical struggle, the Sox are dealing with the loss of one of their foremost late-innings weapons. Left-hander Andrew Miller, who at times seemed capable of striking out everyone he faced, is expected (pending a second opinion) to require season-ending surgery to repair ligament damage in his left foot, suffered on Saturday night. A part of the team (already depleted by the early-season loss of Joel Hanrahan) that had been flailing in the water now faces the onset of waves at high tide.
"Given the way he's pitched, the importance of that power left-hander in a bullpen, it is [a significant loss]," manager John Farrell acknowledged ruefully to reporters.
Time for the Red Sox to rush into the trade market in hopes of addressing their plight?
Maybe. Maybe not.
"I guess you lose a guy, he has to be replaced somehow," Red Sox GM Ben Cherington told reporters in Seattle prior to his team's 11-4 loss to the Mariners, in which relievers Alex Wilson and Jose De La Torre combined to permit six runs in three innings. "We still think we have some internal options we can consider. We may take a look at some of those in different ways over the course of the next few weeks. We've got to have an open mind.
"The players and the staff have done a great job putting us in this position working so hard, so we have an obligation to help them if we can. Losing Andrew is not something we were planning on. We'll have to react and try to find solutions," he continued. "We have to fill that somehow. Hopefully that's from within, but we'll keep an eye open to other possibilities, too."
There is a difference between "[keeping] an eye open" and going elbows deep into the trade market, however. And there is obvious reason for caution regarding a dive into the relief trade market, where miscalculations can be devastating for the long-term.
A few noteworthy points of historical reference with regards to the reliever trade market:
The Red Sox, of course, have a fairly dismal history of trading for relievers in the last decade. In 2007, the team acquired Eric Gagne -- who nearly sabotaged the team's march to an AL East title -- for David Murphy (a valuable contributor to World Series-caliber Rangers teams), Kason Gabbard and Engel Beltre.
The decision to part with Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland for Mark Melancon after the 2011 season blew up in the team's face, as did the decision to deal Melancon (along with Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus) to the Pirates for Hanrahan (and Brock Holt) this past offseason, as did (to date) the decision to deal Josh Reddick, Miles Head and Raul Alcantara to the Athletics for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney.
The Rangers might like a do-over on their commitment to shore up their bullpen at the 2011 trade deadline. They acquired Koji Uehara from the Orioles for 2013 first-half MVP candidate Chris Davis and right-hander Tommy Hunter (now a dominant force in Baltimore's bullpen), while landing Mike Adams from the Padres for promising rookie starter Robbie Erlin and another potential starter in Joe Wieland (currently recovering from Tommy John surgery).
Going back in the Red Sox archives a bit further: Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson. Heathcliff Slocumb for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.
The evidence of the steep, sometimes devastating, cost of bullpen moves borne of necessity is considerable. Meanwhile, there are noteworthy examples of the value of defying the evident "need" to address the bullpen by making a move.
One such example: In 2005, the Red Sox bullpen was atrocious. At the trade deadline, the Sox scavenged for relief help. The Twins, who had one of the deepest bullpens in the majors, were willing to deal an arm like J.C. Romero, but at a cost of third baseman Kevin Youkilis, then on the season-long shuttle between Pawtucket and Boston. The Sox stood pat, kept Youkilis and, in mid-August, moved Jonathan Papelbon to the bullpen. Those two players represented vital cogs in the team's championship two years later.
Of course, that likely comes as little consolation to a Tigers team that suffered a pair of late-innings losses to the Giants in last year's World Series. But realistically, even if Detroit had addressed its emerging closer woes at the trade deadline, it was unlikely to make a difference in last year's Fall Classic, insofar as Detroit was swept due to its inability to hit against the Giants.
Meanwhile, as much as the Cardinals' World Series run in 2011 was fueled by the emergence of homegrown option Jason Motte as a closer, St. Louis' championship may not have been possible without the acquisition in a July 27 blockbuster of relievers Octavio Dotel and Mark Rzepczynski (along with starter Edwin Jackson, the centerpiece of the deal).
So, getting back to the current Red Sox predicament sans Miller ... how does an often-burned Red Sox team view the trade market for relievers?
"The most efficient way to do it would be to ignore it completely," Cherington told reporters. "But then you run the risk of not having enough guys out there. We have to strike the right balance in the middle, I guess. That’s our job to try to do that. We can’t say never to a trade for a reliever just because it's hard to predict. We've got to evaluate each possibility for what it is. I do think it lends to the point that if you can find solutions internally, that’s always the better way to go."
And so, the Sox now have an opportunity to take some inventory of their minor league options -- just as they did with Papelbon in 2005, with Justin Masterson in 2008, with Daniel Bard in 2009, with Felix Doubront in 2010. Left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith represented an obvious candidate for a call-up based on his 1.03 ERA out of the bullpen, though he's recovering from an emergency appendectomy at the end of June and is unavailable.
The PawSox have also seen intriguing performances from pitchers such as Pedro Beato (3 scoreless innings in the big leagues, 2.31 ERA in 39 innings in Pawtucket), Brock Huntzinger (2.02 ERA, 0.975 WHIP since a promotion to Pawtucket) and, since late-April, Anthony Carter (2.41 ERA, 39 strikeouts and 12 walks in his last 30 innings after a rough first two weeks of the season).
But perhaps more fascinating, and more in keeping in line with the Papelbon/Masterson/Doubront tradition, is the possibility of a bullpen fix through a shift of a current minor league starter to the bullpen. While Cherington suggested that the team hadn't yet hatched any plans to shift current starters in Triple-A Pawtucket to the bullpen, he also didn't rule it out.
The team has some high-octane arms in the Pawtucket rotation who would enter a conversation about potential bullpen contributions. Left-hander Drake Britton (against whom lefties hit .187/.243/.308 in Double-A Portland), right-hander Rubby De La Rosa (holding righties to a .213/.292/.380 line and lefties to a .198/.328/.307 mark in Pawtucket) and right-hander Brandon Workman (whose .196/.246/.335 line with runners on base suggests someone who can dominate out of the stretch) all feature the sort of power arsenals that would represent intriguing bullpen options for the duration of the season.
The appeal of going the internal route is obvious. Rather than giving up a future Davis or Reddick for roughly 20 innings down the stretch, a team can instead put itself in an even stronger position for the short and long haul with a homegrown option.
"You look at the amount that [a reliever at the trade deadline] can impact the game, it's minimal. I think that's why when people look at the returns for some of these relievers, they think, 'Jeez -- it's crazy. These guys aren't impacting the game nearly as much as some of these other players are, as much as the starting pitcher is.' That's what the caution is driven by," Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen said in this Bradford Files podcast.
"Nobody wants to overpay for bullpen guys at the deadline. ... If you don't have the internal option and you're left to deal with the external option, it can be extremely uncomfortable. You don't want to be in that position, certainly. You want to have internal options. So that's why we've brought up a lot of guys so far this year like [Alex] Wilson and [Jose] De La Torre and [Alfredo] Aceves, taken a look at these guys and seeing if some of these guys can contribute to the bullpen as we go down the stretch."
Still, caution regarding the bullpen market is not the same as ruling it out.
"We're going to still explore the external market, look at the universe of relievers that are out there and see if there's a price that's willing to be paid for some of these guys who we feel like will be a good fit," said Hazen. "The American League East, where every single season seems to come down to one game, that one game that one guy pitches and blows a game or possibly keeps it close, it can be extremely important."
In many respects, the midsummer trade market represents a path of last resort. That being the case, the idea of looking at Britton and Workman and De La Rosa in relief almost certainly will be in play. And, of course, the team will look for signs that Andrew Bailey's recent progress is real, and that Junichi Tazawa's recent slide is not.
But while the Red Sox have yet to exhaust every available alternative to the relief trade market, they likewise aren't too far from doing so. And so, the team with (still) the best record in the American League and a 3 1/2-game lead in its division nonetheless finds itself tugging on its collar, in a position of growing discomfort as the countdown to the trade deadline ticks ever louder.