The Red Sox enter the start of the second half with the best record in the American League, a mark built upon solid across-the-board performances that have made it seem as if the team doesn't have a glaring deficiency at any single position. Indeed, the fact that the Sox have already demonstrated in-season depth for players who landed on the DL at a number of positions (catcher, third base, shortstop, right field, starting rotation, bullpen) suggests a fairly healthy outlook -- the Sox have a demonstrated ability to remain competitive even when key pieces are missing.
Still, the team has areas of concern where underperformances or injuries could expose a lack of reliable depth. That explains why the team will explore the trade market thoroughly for any conceivable upgrade, foremost in the bullpen, at third base (a third base/corner infielder would be ideal) and/or in the rotation.
Here is a position-by-position look at what the Sox have received in terms of production from every position, relative to league average, and a look at what kinds of needs they face leading into the July 31 deadline for non-waiver trades.
AL average: .244/.313/.398
Red Sox: .251/.328/.438
What happened: Jarrod Saltalamacchia delivered standout production behind the plate (.266/.341/.453), closing on a career-high in walks (he's at 30, approaching his career standard of 38 set in 124 games last year). While he's homering with less frequency (8 so far), he's already set a career-high in doubles (24), suggesting that he still has plenty of pop. David Ross hit for power and drew walks early but his season has been put on hold while recovering from a second concussion.
Best-case scenario: Saltalamacchia keeps raking and some of those doubles start clearing fences. Ryan Lavarnway starts making an impact in his roughly two games a week until Ross returns.
Risk: Saltalamacchia's numbers took a hit down the stretch last year (albeit while he was DH-ing for much of the time), and given the rigors of his position, it's certainly possible that another second-half decline could occur. Still, there's a chance that his gains this year reflect an emergence at age 28 as one of the better offensive catchers in the game, with an improving defensive reputation to boot. How Ross is able to contribute for the rest of the season is a bit of a mystery, even if the Sox are confident in his return.
Beyond 2013: Unsettled. Saltalamacchia is producing a compelling run in his contract year. For several years, it seemed as if Ryan Lavarnway was emerging as the heir apparent, but his limited workload behind the plate (9 games so far) has not permitted him to make a discernible impact, and given that he's now in his second straight year of showing diminished power from what he demonstrated from 2009-11, it seems fair to wonder whether the team still sees him as capable of taking over for Saltalamacchia. Both Christian Vazquez in Double-A and especially Blake Swihart in High-A look like potential big league starting catchers a couple years down the road. So, even while the roles of Saltalamacchia and Lavarnway with the Sox are not clearly defined beyond this year, that seems unlikely to impact the Sox at the trade deadline.
Trade need: None. With Ross expected back, however, something that -- along with the defensive abilities and solid offensive approach being shown by Dan Butler in Triple-A -- permits the Sox comfort with their depth behind Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway. Certainly, if the Twins want to make Joe Mauer available, the Sox would investigate the possibility of a deal, but absent that, there's probably no move to be made.
AL average: .261/.336/.451
Red Sox: .266/.359/.470
What happened: Mike Napoli, by his own admission, enjoyed one of the best offensive stretches of his career in April. And, by Napoli's own admission, he's a streaky player, and so it's not necessarily shocking that he went into a funk, hitting .253/.355/.387 over his last 52 games of the first half, getting on base at an above-average rate but hitting for little power. It was noteworthy that Mike Carp saw an increasing volume of playing time in the final days of the first half. It would appear that the door is ajar for Carp to stake out a larger role, given that Napoli hasn't added the expected right-handed thump the Sox expected when they signed him. He's hitting .259/.343/.448 while leading the majors with 123 strikeouts.
Best-case scenario: Napoli, who has a history of excellent second halves, returns to something like his April form as a force in the No. 5 spot, not only giving the Sox right-handed power and patience in the middle of their lineup but also dissuading opposing pitchers from working around Ortiz.
Risk: Napoli, who has played more than 113 games just once in his career, is either physically worn down or is simply unable to return to the form that allowed him to excel earlier. If that happens and Carp's remarkable early-season production likewise proves unsustainable, then the Sox could go from what has been a position of slightly above-average production to one considerably below it. That said, at the least, even when he doesn't offer power, he has sustained strong on-base numbers while seeing a lot of pitches.
Beyond 2013: Unclear. Napoli is signed only for this year; he's eligible for free agency in the winter. Carp and Daniel Nava are both under team control beyond this season, so conceivably, one of them could emerge if Napoli doesn't make a compelling case to be brought back. Still, given the offensive demands of the position (though it's worth noting that first base production has clearly taken a hit around the game), it's possible that the Sox will need to go outside the organization for a first baseman after 2014, particularly given that Travis Shaw has struggled all year in Double-A Portland.
Trade need: Conceivably, the Sox could trade either to address their short-term or their short- and long-term needs for production at the position. The problem is that the available options aren't good. Veterans like Justin Morneau have struggled this year.
AL average: .268/.328/.392
Red Sox: .319/.396/.436
What happened: Dustin Pedroia overcame a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb (suffered on Opening Day) top lead all AL second baseman in average and OBP. His power has been down for much of this year, but he's still offered terrific offense and incredible, game-changing defense.
Best-case scenario: Pedroia remains one of the most impactful second basemen and indeed players in the American League, with some power coming to permit him to play at a superstar level.
Risk: If Pedroia gets injured, then the dropoff is extreme -- though at least the Sox now have Jose Iglesias, Brock Holt and (perhaps at some point) Xander Bogaerts as options for the position. Otherwise, while Pedroia is likely to play hard enough that he'll experience subsequent bumps and bruises, if he stays in the lineup, he'll still probably find ways to make an impact.
Beyond 2013: Pedroia remains under team control for two more years on his current contract, assuming that the Sox' decision to exercise his 2015 option is indeed a no-brainer.
Trade need: Barring an injury to Pedroia, none.
AL average: .266/.325/.432
Red Sox: .251/.293/.405
What happened: Will Middlebrooks struggled and got injured. Those two events opened the door for Jose Iglesias, who delivered shocking production (.367/.417/.461) in 52 first-half games, with roughly half coming at third and half at short.
Best-case scenario: Someone from the group of Iglesias, Middlebrooks or Xander Bogaerts produces.
Risk: While the Sox possess a wildly talented trio of potential third basemen, the absence of meaningful big league track records for any candidates for that position suggests it's difficult for them to say with any certainty what they'll get from any of the three going forward. Middlebrooks' struggles this year serve as a cautionary tale regarding the production of Iglesias, and indeed, Iglesias' own struggles on the West Coast road trip to end the first half also suggest reason for the Sox to have some anxiety about what they might get from the position down the stretch.
Beyond 2013: The Red Sox have an enviable wealth of talent at the position. Iglesias, long-term, should return to shortstop, but Middlebrooks, Bogaerts and Garin Cecchini give the Sox plenty of options at third. So, while there's short-term uncertainty for the Sox at third, there's a promising outlook for the team at the position.
Trade need: The Sox have prioritized the addition of a reliable veteran third baseman with a strong track record. In an ideal scenario, that player would likely offer some right-handed thump and be able to play first base at well. Michael Young, hitting .288/.344/.414, hits all of those checkmarks while in the final year of his five-year deal.
AL average: .250/.301/.362
Red Sox: .256/.332/.403
What happened: Stephen Drew, though not hitting as expected (.234/.314/.411) has nonetheless outperformed the American League average at the position and, given his track record, seems likely to continue to do so, at least against right-handed pitchers (his numbers against lefties suggest someone who should be in a platoon). That, coupled with excellent defensive work this year, means that he delivered solid all-around impact for the Sox when healthy in the first half. He was limited to 65 games prior to the All-Star break, but Iglesias hit extremely well in his stead while also playing outstanding defense.
Best-case scenario: Just as was the case last year when he returned from a broken ankle, Drew grows stronger down the stretch and ends up being one of the better all-around shortstops. He's supplemented by either Iglesias or Bogaerts against left-handed pitchers.
Risk: Drew is either injured or underperforms. In the absence of his production, Iglesias likewise continues to struggle and Bogaerts proves unready for the big leagues in his first exposure to the game's highest level.
Beyond 2013: They're in good shape, given the potential or likelihood that either Iglesias or Bogaerts represents a viable everyday shortstop for next season.
Trade need: Barring injury, the Red Sox seem very comfortable with where they are at the position.
AL average: .255/.319/.406
Red Sox: .265/.344/.425
What happened: Daniel Nava (.288/.374/.429) delivered consistently good at-bats, with strong OBPs, throughout the first half. Though his slugging percentage has gone down every month of the season to date, between Nava and the thump provided by Carp and Jonny Gomes in part-time roles, the Sox have had solid production at this corner outfield spot.
Best-case scenario: It is perhaps Gomes who gives this position its greatest upside. While he's delivered timely hits, and has been heating up since early June (.329/.347/.557 since June 6), he has yet to start collecting homers in bunches. If Nava can continue to deliver a valuable, versatile asset throughout the lineup, primarily against righties, and Gomes goes on a power binge, the Sox will have good production at the position.
Risk: Nava has struggled with injuries and performance in the second halves of his two big league campaigns. Perhaps Gomes doesn't have a hot streak in in him.
Beyond 2013: Both Gomes (in the first year of a two-year deal) and Nava (under team control for four more years remain under team control, as does Jackie Bradley Jr. if the Sox make a move to retain Jacoby Ellsbury. Bryce Brentz also represents a potential corner bat in the system. While there's a considerable element of the unknown with some of that group, there's enough volume of options that the Sox can make a credible case that they have the needed in-house alternatives to feel comfortable in left going forward.
Trade need: Left field falls into the category of a position where the Sox will explore market possibilities but likely without having any real sense of urgency. There's comfort with in-house options even as there is room for an upgrade.
AL average: .264/.327/.419
Red Sox: .299/.360/.424
What happened: Interestingly, AL center fielders are outperforming left fielders. The Red Sox have nonetheless cleared the bar for the league-average standard thanks to Ellsbury getting scorching hot in late-May and remaining locked in. Jackie Bradley Jr. offered hints that, if Ellsbury goes down due to injury, he can offer competitive at-bats in his place.
Best-case scenario: Ellsbury -- who has squared up pitches with tremendous consistency starting in late-May but produced solid line drives rather than homers -- remains locked in and the power numbers start coming, offering reminders down the stretch of his 2011 form.
Risk: Ellsbury tails off or gets injured, with Jackie Bradley Jr. proving unready to step into an everyday big league role.
Beyond 2013: Ellsbury's status, of course, remains unresolved beyond this year, but if the Sox don't re-sign the impending free agent, Bradley should be ready to be tested as a big league regular by the start of 2014, following a full year spent in Triple-A and the majors.
Trade need: None.
AL average: .261/.320/.420
Red Sox: .275/.337/.394
What happened: Victorino has delivered roughly league-average offense in right (.294/.340/.413), making up for what he hasn't offered in terms of power with his ability to hit for average and get on base while delivering standout defense -- when healthy. He's been limited to 59 of the team's first 97 games, however. Nava has given the team some depth in right. Jackie Bradley Jr. offers one depth option, with minor leaguers Alex Hassan (an on-base machine) and Bryce Brentz (who has impressive power but who is prone to inconsistency in his approach, resulting in streakiness) looming as options in the minors, though Brentz is currently sidelined by a knee injury.
Best-case scenario: Victorino stays healthy and keeps doing what he's been doing.
Risk: Victorino loses a few too many battles with walls, and so the Sox' depth at the position is tested.
Beyond 2013: Victorino remains under contract through 2015, and Brentz is on the horizon as one potential corner option with power as a compelling carrying tool. The Sox could entertain the possibility of moving Bogaerts to right field if Iglesias sticks as the everyday shortstop and Middlebrooks proves ready to return.
Trade need: The Sox likely will see if there's an available star on the market for the position -- think Mike Stanton -- but this isn't an area of obvious immediate need.
AL Average: .246/.326/.416
Red Sox: .311/.400/.584
What happened: David Ortiz was, and is, a bad, bad man.
Best-case scenario: David Ortiz continues to be a bad, bad man.
Risk: David Ortiz's ability to be a bad, bad man is impeded by injury (you may recall something along those lines happening July 16). If that happens, then the dropoff would be precipitous. There is not another David Ortiz available on the trade market. The Sox could, as they did at the start of the season, hope for the production of others in their deep lineup (Ellsbury, Gomes, Napoli, Carp, etc.) to pick up in his absence, but the team might also explore a run prevention model along the lines of what it pursued with Jackie Bradley Jr. in the lineup to start the year when Ortiz missed most of the first three weeks of the year.
Beyond 2013: Ortiz is signed to be a bad, bad man through 2014.
Trade need: In all likeihood, any Ortiz insurance would have to come from the current active roster.
AL Average: 4.28 ERA, 7.1 SO/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9
Clay Buchholz: 1.71 ERA, 8.6 SO/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.2 HR/9
John Lackey: 2.78 ERA, 8.3 SO/9, 2.1 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9
Felix Doubront: 3.91 ERA, 8.5 SO/9, 3.9 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9
Ryan Dempster: 4.24 ERA, 8.5 SO/9, 4.1 BB/9, 1.6 HR/9
Jon Lester: 4.58 ERA, 7.8 SO/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9
Alfredo Aceves (as starter): 4.45 ERA, 5.3 SO/9, 5.9 BB/9, 1.8 HR/9
Allen Webster: 9.57 ERA, 7.2 SO/9, 4.8 BB/9, 2.4 HR/9
Brandon Workman: 2.84 ERA, 7.1 SO/9, 1.4 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9
What happened: Buchholz was spectacular but has been sidelined for most of the last two months with his shoulder injury. The fact that the Sox haven't been derailed by the absence of the pitcher who was more dominant than anyone else in the American League this year is somewhat staggering, particularly given the struggles of Webster in his time in the rotation.
John Lackey's ability to conjure dominance not seen since his prime with the Angels is a development of staggering import; he's become an innings-eating horse again, with tremendous stuff to boot. Doubront shows signs of emerging as a solid mid-rotation starter, given his strides in terms of pitch efficiency in recent weeks. Right now, aside from Buchholz, Doubront may have more industry value than any other pitcher in the Sox rotation. That includes Jon Lester, whose 4.73 ERA since the start of 2012 ranks 103rd among 112 pitchers with at least 200 innings logged during this span. A compelling case has been made that he's pitched better than his ERA -- his walks per nine certainly compare favorably to Doubront and Ryan Dempster, and his homers per nine compare favorably to Lackey and Dempster -- but he's no longer the strikeout-an-inning dominator that he was from 2009-11.
Dempster's been solid, a steady source of six-plus competitive if rarely overpowering innings, though if he starts giving up homers with men on base, his ERA could balloon quickly. His high walk rate also would appear to represent a vulnerability going forward, particularly in stretches against the deep lineups of the AL East.
The Sox' depth is a question mark. Workman had a great first big league start, but so did Webster before the game got away from him. Alfredo Aceves is off the 40-man roster, a reflection of the idea that he's been largely removed from the depth equation. Webster has great stuff but his execution has been lacking to the point where he does not yet appear big league ready.
Best-case scenario: Buchholz gets healthy and dominates, Lester reclaims the form that had him ranking back among the AL's elite at the start of the season, Lackey and Doubront maintain form and Dempster remains solid to round out one of the top rotations in the AL.
Risk: Buchholz's return keeps getting pushed back, Lester's struggles continue and Lackey returns to earth, with the talented crop of upper levels starters (Workman, Webster, Rubby De La Rosa) unable to avoid a considerable speed bump in their transitions to the big leagues.
Beyond 2013: The Red Sox hold a team option on Lester for 2014, and Dempster is under contract through next year as well. The Sox have two more years of control of Lackey, four more years of control of Doubront and Buchholz, with Webster, De La Rosa, Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes and Henry Owens representing a wave of starting pitching depth that will be big league ready in the next one to three years.
Trade need: High-end talent isn't the Sox' issue. Predictability is. That being the case, the team's focus in the trade market is likely to be on finding a reliable, mid- to back-of-the-rotation pitcher who is capable of delivering steady innings, so long as the asking price doesn't get outlandish, a player more like Dempster himself (or Astros starter Bud Norris, for instance) than the Cliff Lees of the world.
AL average: 3.70 ERA, 8.6 SO/9, 3.4 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9
Koji Uehara: 1.70 ERA, 12.8 SO/9, 1.7 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9
Craig Breslow: 2.81 ERA, 5.3 SO/9, 1.2 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9
Junichi Tazawa: 3.02 ERA, 10.2 SO/9, 1.1 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9
Andrew Bailey: 3.77 ERA, 12.2 SO/9, 3.8 BB/9, 2.2 HR/9
Matt Thornton (combined, White Sox and Red Sox): 4.08 ERA, 6.6 SO/9, 3.8 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9
What happened: A group that looked like one of the most loaded bullpens in the major leagues on Opening Day has been hit hard by attrition. Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Miller are already done for the year, while Franklin Morales remains sidelined while recovering from a pectoral injury. The result has been a steady state of flux, with the closer role shifting from Hanrahan to Andrew Bailey to Hanrahan to Junichi Tazawa to Bailey to Uehara. The result, predictably, has been instability. There have been enough moving parts to create workload concerns related to both Tazawa and Uehara -- the only two members of the bullpen who have been on the Red Sox' active roster everyday this season -- though Uehara in particular has been dazzling in his ability to get swings and misses and work incredibly efficiently. Bailey was brilliant in April, landed on the DL, got hammered upon his return but has since rebounded to enter the break with a stretch in which he looked dominant. The Sox acquired Thornton to give them a left-handed specialist for the middle innings in Miller's absence. There are potential contributors throughout the organization -- Workman, Drake Britton, Alex Wilson, Rubby De La Rosa, Jose De La Torre, Pedro Beato, Ryan Rowland-Smith, to name several -- but none with a track record sufficient to offer the appearance of stability, at least not yet.
Best-case scenario: Uehara keeps showing dominant stuff as a closer, while Bailey likewise builds on his recent dominance. The arrival of Thornton permits Breslow to avoid overuse and deliver another in a line of perennially strong performances, while the emergence of some of the minor leaguers -- perhaps Workman, perhaps Britton or Wilson ... someone -- permits the Sox both to let Tazawa catch his breath and to avoid a costly foray into the trade market.
Risk: One or both of Uehara or Bailey gets injured, leaving the back end of the bullpen in something of a mess, at a time when Tazawa might be gasping for air. The homegrown options (Workman, Britton, De La Rosa) struggle in their transition to the big leagues. A bullpen that was among the least effective in the American League in the first half (4.10 ERA, 11th in the AL; 14 blown saves, 3rd most in the AL; 59 percent save conversion rate, 14th in the AL) becomes a black hole for the team's postseason chances.
Beyond 2013: Uehara is a free agent after this year, and the Sox hold an option on Thornton. Bailey is under control through 2014. Breslow is signed through 2014 with a team option for 2015. Tazawa has three more years of control after this one. Miller remains under team control as well.
But, at a fundamental level, the bullpen is all about immediate needs, as the Sox' homegrown wealth of pitching in the system should permit a reasonable number of relievers to graduate to the big leagues in years to come.
Trade need: Relief help remains at the top of the Sox' hierarchy of needs in the trade market. The team continues to search for middle relievers (rather than closers -- an unnecessary and too-costly pursuit in light of the presence of Uehara and Bailey) who are available at the right cost. Whether supply and demand matches up will be an open question, but what Workman and Britton do in their bullpen experiments in the coming weeks will prove crucial to whether the Red Sox approach the trade market for relief arms as an opportunity or an urgent necessity.