BALTIMORE -- Deadline fever infects players, too.
The obsession with what will happen between now and July 31 at 4 p.m. is not limited solely to those outside of the Red Sox clubhouse. There is a reason why an increasing number of players can be caught coyly scrolling through MLBTradeRumors.com on their phones and iPads, and why manager John Farrell is talking to GM Ben Cherington (by the manager's reckoning) four to five times a day.
After 106 games, the Red Sox -- following an impressive 5-0 win over the Orioles on Sunday -- are back in first place in their division, possessing the best record in the American League and the most wins in all of baseball. (The Cardinals have a higher winning percentage.) The players see possibility.
Yet the potential to get better remains tantalizing. And there is concern in some corners of the clubhouse that inactivity at the deadline will represent something of a letdown, that, at a time when other teams are gaining reinforcements, standing pat could not only narrow the gap between the Sox and the field but also take the wind out of the proverbial sails of the team.
The opinion is far from unanimous. There are plenty of team members who express the feeling that the same group that has won up to this point can keep winning. But others see deficiencies -- both actual and potential -- in multiple areas, and so they would consider inactivity a missed opportunity and a disappointment.
Here is a reset of the Red Sox' current position with two days left before the deadline.
NEEDS/POTENTIAL AREAS FOR UPGRADE
Starting pitching: Even without Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox rotation has been a source of stability. Since June 9 (the day after Buchholz last pitched), the group owns a 4.06 ERA, sixth best in the American League.
Because John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront and Jon Lester have been healthy, and Lackey, Dempster and Doubront have been tremendously consistent in providing at least competitive starts during Buchholz's absence, the need for the rotation has been something other than acute. Still, there is a sense of vulnerability. Brandon Workman's promising contributions have been meaningful, but the team still senses that it's one normal set of aches and pains from being left to scramble.
This is not 2011, when the team arrived at the deadline with nothing but question marks after its two top-of-the-rotation starters (Lester and Josh Beckett).
"We're in a better place," Lester said of how this rotation stacks up to the group that proved the undoing of the team two years ago. "I feel like we're in a better spot, one through five."
Yet there is that sense that there are traps that must be navigated, and that the addition of a veteran starter (who would replace Workman in the rotation for now, with a decision down the road -- whenever Buchholz is ready to return) would offer a meaningful insurance option.
"I feel like everyone in this clubhouse feels like we can win with who we've got. But there's always -- you can never have enough starting pitching," said Lester. "There's still that question mark with [Buchholz]. Any time you keep saying is it going to be this week, is it going to be that week, and it gets longer and longer, that's where I feel like sometimes you miss out on getting somebody. And it's like, oh, shoot, he's not getting back 'til September.
"Like I said, there's always going to be that time when you have bumps and bruises and you skip a start," he continued. "If somebody goes down -- knock on wood that it doesn't happen -- there's always that need or room for improvement in the starting pitching. You can't not have enough."
Players would love to see the Sox pursue one of the high-end starting options. There is general fascination with whether the Phillies might make Cliff Lee available (the signing by Philadelphia of Cuban right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was seen by some as a prelude to a potential deal involving Lee, whether right now or in the offseason) and the potential boost offered by a pitcher like Jake Peavy also has been observed.
Reliever Matt Thornton offered this scouting report on Peavy based on their time together as teammates with the White Sox since 2009.
"Jake has been a leader in terms of his stuff and preparation and competitive nature. He's awesome. He's a great pitcher, great competitor. He's adjusted himself from what he was five, six, seven years ago when he was 97 mph with a filthy slider. He has a game plan out there, he executes it and he sticks to it," said Thornton. "There's one thing that will drive Jake Peavy nuts and that's walking someone. He doesn't care what it is in a situation. He'd rather give up a homer than walk a guy. It's just the way he's built. He goes out there, continues to attack people with quality stuff. It's not like his fastball is straight or anything like that. He's a great pitcher. He's got great stuff, but he won't walk people. He refuses to."
That, of course, sounds like a pitcher (like Lee) whose approach would be well-suited for the AL East.
While the cost for such a pitcher would be extremely high -- reports had the White Sox wanting a better haul than the significant prospect package the Cubs landed for Matt Garza -- he would a) be under contract not just for this year but also for next and b) unlike a rental pitcher, who cannot be offered a qualifying offer as a free agent in the season in which he is traded, be a pitcher who could net a draft pick were he to leave as a free agent following the 2014 season.
Moreover, the acquisition of a starting pitcher could also strengthen the bullpen, since a move for an extra rotation member would allow Brandon Workman to move to relief. Moves to shore up the bullpen, on the other hand, would not have such tangible benefits for the rotation.
While Peavy and Lee represent the high-end of the starting pitching market, the recent excellence of Jon Lester (who delivered seven shutout innings on Sunday in Baltimore, and has a 2.29 ERA in his last three starts against playoff-caliber teams) could allow the Sox to aim a bit lower. He is showing glimpses of being a front-of-the-rotation starter again.
“A Jon Lester pitching to his capabilities is going to be one of the better pitchers in the league,” said manager John Farrell. “He’s shown it the last couple of times out.”
If the Sox believe that is what he will be, then they could focus on adding a depth starter who could allow the Sox to move Workman to the bullpen while offering back-of-the-rotation stability and an insurance policy should Buchholz return but another starter go down.
Right-handed bullpen help: The Sox don't need a closer. Koji Uehara has been dominant in that role. But the relievers skew left-handed with three southpaws (Craig Breslow, Matt Thornton, Drake Britton) now in the bullpen, and with primary right-hander Junichi Tazawa not exhibiting dominance against righties. And so, the team would like to upgrade with a right-handed relief option capable of shutting down opposing righties.
Workman, who was similarly effective against righties and lefties in the minors this year, could be part of the solution if the Sox acquire a starter. Alternately, the team could entertain a deal for a right-handed setup man or middle reliever. That could come at the cost of prospects, or, with the recent emergence of Britton, the team could consider flipping Thornton just a couple weeks after acquiring him if it can find a match in the form of a club that has right-handed relief depth but lacks options from the left side.
Third base/right-handed bat: The team's offensive woes at third base are becoming increasingly acute. In 19 games since July 5, Jose Iglesias is hitting .169 (sixth worst in the majors) with a .211 OBP (seventh-worst), .169 slugging mark (second worst) and .380 OPS (second worst). He is the Sox’ best defensive third baseman (or, in all likelihood, defensive anything), but the Sox are facing an increasingly stark decision between offense and defense when putting him in the lineup.
While the temptation is to view someone like Will Middlebrooks or Xander Bogaerts as the solution, the absence of established big league track records for both means that there would be uncertainty to going in that direction (assuming that Iglesias doesn't reverse his struggles). Hence, the team's interest in seeing if there's a right-handed bat on the market who can offer them a stabilizing presence at third -- even if it entails a compromise of the sensational defense that Iglesias offers at the position. Call it the Michael Young model.
The interest in offensive upgrades has become even more pronounced in recent days and weeks, with the Sox enduring fallow stretches. The Sox are second in the AL with 5.0 runs per game, but at a time when David Ortiz is the only true middle-of-the-order presence on the club, the team's depth model has been compromised recently, creating the view that an upgrade is possible.
"Everybody always goes for help at this time of year," said David Ortiz. "The way your team is playing, that's how you know what's needed. It's always good to get some help. Our offense is off right now. Go out there and get something. It's going to be hard. It's not like you're going to go out there and get a 30-home run hitter right now. Pretty much every 30-home run hitter is locked up. But there's always something out there that can help. Our pitching's been doing great, I think. We just haven't been able to hit."
Still, given what the team has done over the course of the year, and that Napoli is showing some signs of emerging from the funk that characterized his performance in June and some of July, Ortiz's concerns about the offense were not universal.
All the same, unquestionably, there are vulnerabilities in different areas of the roster. Realistically, the Red Sox won't be able to address all of them. That being the case, the team's guiding mandate between now and Wednesday at 4 p.m. is fairly straightforward: Get better.