Contention for the Red Sox seems hard to fathom. As they prepare to kick off the second segment of the season on Friday night, they reside in a tie with the Rays at the bottom of the American League East, a colossal 9 1/2-game canyon separating them from the first-place Orioles. The team is eight games behind the Mariners in the wild card, with six additional teams standing in their way.
Yet, for now, with the benefit of a four-day midsummer break, the team still is undecided as to the proper course to follow with regards to the trade market. Though just 13 days remain before the July 31 deadline for non-waivers trades, the Sox acknowledge that they're in a relatively unfamiliar position of still trying to decide whether to commit further to the 2014 season or to look beyond this year to join the limited ranks of sellers.
The unsettled shape of an American League East -- which sees the Orioles without Matt Wieters for the rest of the year, the Blue Jays pitching staff decimated by injuries and the lineup currently without Edwin Encarnacion, the Yankees gasping to stay above .500 and and now facing the possibility that Masahiro Tanaka has been lost for the year, and the Rays having been without key players such as Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson and Wil Myers for a significant chunk of the year -- leaves the door ever-so-slightly ajar.
And so, for just the second time this century, the Sox remain on the fence about how to approach the trade market with the deadline just two weeks away. The results of individual games will thus be magnified over the coming days as the Sox try to chart their course for the duration of 2014 with implications that likely will be felt beyond the current season.
"I don't think any of those final decisions have been made," Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen said on WEEI's Trade Deadline Show on Thursday night. "Look, I think this division is wide open. We've seen that. It's been decimated with injuries to some level -- not necessarily to us, by and large, but to our competitors -- and this team is still a pretty talented team as far as I look at it. It hasn't come together in the exact same way as it did last year. We didn't do as good a job in the offseason to put all the people together to see this team go out there and perform the way we wanted it to.
"But you watch these guys prepare, you watch the staff go about it, getting these guys ready to go, it's very much like it was in 2013. The attitude every day in the clubhouse is the same that it was in 2013. The results have been different. There have been a lot of close games that we just haven't come on the right side of, and I think one good run here, coming up in the next 10 days, could change dramatically. So we just need to be prepared, for those of us underneath [GM Ben Cherington] and others, we just need to be prepared to move in any direction, whatever's decided."
The only comparable situation the Sox faced in July under the current ownership group came in 2012. Then, the Sox were 43-43 at the All-Star break, tied for last in the division and 9 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East. But they were just 2 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot, with a clearer sense that a decent push could vault the team the shorter distance into contention.
Yet the need to clear the bar in a high jump has changed to a mandate for a standings pole vault in 2014. And so, as the Sox prepare to open the second half against the Royals with trips next week through both Toronto and Tampa Bay, the season is at a pivot point. Any loss pushes the Red Sox a bit closer to the tipping point where the illusions of contention become harder to sustain.
Given where the Sox are, it seems worth asking why the team hasn't committed to the idea of turning its focus beyond 2014. With a different group -- one that didn't feature so many key elements from a recent title run -- the Sox may have already reached the conclusion that, given how few teams there are that have committed to making players available, they could get a jump on the market by committing to sell at the trade deadline.
But despite the absence of sustained traction this year, the still-fresh memory of what was accomplished last year has left the team wanting to wait as long as possible before making a decision about how to proceed.
"The second wild card is what's changed everything," said Hazen. "So many teams have avenues if they go on a run to get into the postseason, and getting into the postseason is the ultimate. It's all any of us want to do. If you see that avenue, and it's available to you, even to get into the second wild card, which wasn't available to us a couple of years ago, I think that's changed the direction of the trading deadline more than anything else. There are so many fewer sellers than there used to be. That sucks up the supply a little bit that's out there for teams making a run or needing to add pieces to make a run. I think that benefits us, too, because we have a pretty strong core on our club to move forward for the next three months."
It is worth noting that the Sox' needs if they are to make a push for 2014 and their long-term outlook would take them to a largely similar pool of players. Presumably, the team isn't going to make deals for rentals regardless of whether it makes a slight move in the standings in the coming days, instead preferring to secure the services of players who would remain under team control at least through 2015.
The need for additional offense is obvious given that the Sox entered the All-Star break with the second-lowest runs-per-game average in the AL. But the Sox find themselves in an interesting position in which they can afford to be opportunistic about the position where they'd seek a short- or long-term upgrade given that Brock Holt (everywhere except catcher), Mookie Betts (second, center, right) and Xander Bogaerts (short, third) provide the club with the ability to adapt the roster as needed.
"Long term, you're always opportunistic looking to add offense any way you can," said Hazen. "Bogaerts, Betts, Holt, these guys can play all over the place, which allows you the flexibility to go find a bat that may fit in one particular position while these guys can cover you in the others. I do think that's one benefit going forward."
Moreover, the longer-term view of the team's offense may actually be better than the short-term one. Bogaerts' desperate struggles over the last five-plus weeks are generally viewed by the team as part of a learning process that nonetheless does little to detract from the long-term view of him as an elite talent. Mookie Betts might not be a game-changing impact player right now, but he's shown the ability to be that. And, despite his considerable struggles at the big league level while navigating through numerous injuries over the last couple of years, Will Middlebrooks still represents a player with considerable power potential, the ability to help address some of the missing thunder in the lineup.
"Mookie Betts actually led our organization in slugging in the minor leagues the last couple of years. Xander Bogaerts has tremendous power. Will Middlebrooks has tremendous power. I actually think we have a decent amount of it. It just hasn't come together just yet," said Hazen. "Whether that's guys coming together at the major league level, going through transition phases, I don't know that yet. We don't know that yet. There's a chance that that's part of that equation, and 365 days from now, you're looking at a couple of guys who are really driving the baseball and you say, 'Oh, the Red Sox had a lot more power than I thought they did.' "
In the short term, the team is comfortable with its rotation. Beyond this season, with questions about Jon Lester's long-term future, the Sox will need to make sure that they have enough veteran stability to complement the integration of younger rotation options to avoid relying too much on pitchers with innings restrictions at a time when they're transitioning to the big leagues.
"That stable of young pitching, we probably want to make sure that's supported the right way," said Hazen. "We'll look in those areas."
The overall picture for the Sox remains cloudy. The team is mindful of the fact that a postseason push is little more than a long shot, but as of now, unwilling to abandon that hope. The team is approaching its long-term needs somewhat opportunistically, without a single roster area that represents a desperate vulnerability. At the same time, given the performance struggles at virtually every corner of the roster, there are few areas where the team can't explore the possibility of upgrades.
The result is a team that, despite a dreadful record, has some very important baseball games immediately in front of it. The forthcoming games against the Royals (and, potentially, the Blue Jays and Rays) can alter the course of the team's present and future. With less than a fortnight to go before the trade deadline, the Red Sox front office is giving a muddling season one last chance for redefinition.