ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Red Sox don't get -- and don't want -- too many chances at this. A team whose performance has raised a giant, neon SELL sign has a rare midyear opportunity to use the trade market to address needs for the future.
The Sox, of course, would prefer not to be in this position. They'd much rather have the luxury of making the hard decisions about how to package their own prospects in order to address immediate roster gaps in pursuit of a playoff spot this year. But at nine games under .500 after a 6-4 loss to the Rays on Friday, and sinking like a stone in the American League East, the Sox are unquestionably in position to trade veterans, particularly prospective free agents, for pieces who can help the team recover from its dreadful season.
A year ago, the Red Sox were defined by the idea that the whole was greater than the sum of the team's parts. Right now, the opposite would appear true -- the Sox' greatest chance to be good is by breaking up the whole and selling off pieces.
But how do the Red Sox turn this moment into the greatest possible impact? There are a few possibilities:
TRADE THE CENTERPIECE
This is the most obvious scenario for the acquisition of a key talent. If the Red Sox deal Jon Lester, potentially the most marketable trade candidate between now and July 31, the team would be in position to acquire an elite young talent.
Though Lester is eligible for free agency, recent history suggests that the team could still net a considerable return for the left-hander. (Lester's strong outing on Friday -- a six-inning, two-run effort against the Rays in which he punched out seven, his ERA rising ever so slightly from 2.50 to 2.52 -- will do nothing to diminish his value.) A few recent precedents for the value extracted for rental players:
2011: Mets trade OF Carlos Beltran to Giants for RHP Zack Wheeler
Beltran couldn't be offered salary arbitration by the Mets, so New York was motivated to move the outfielder to ensure that it wasn't left empty-handed by his departure in free agency, something understood as a fait accompli. The team secured a pitcher in Wheeler who was viewed as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter, ranked at the time as the No. 35 overall prospect in the minors.
Lester likely would be able to fetch a more significant return for a couple of reasons. First, every contender can use pitching; not everyone needed Beltran, a corner outfielder.
Secondly, the Mets weren't in a position to be able to net a draft pick for Beltran because, by the terms of the contract to which they'd signed him, they couldn't offer him salary arbitration. By contrast, the Sox, in theory, could hold onto Lester for the duration of the season and get a supplemental first-round draft pick -- and the draft bonus pool money that goes with it -- if he left as a free agent. So his value to the Sox exceeds Beltran's value at the time to the Mets.
Finally, the addition of the second wild card since that deal means that there are more buyers and fewer sellers. The scarcity of a trade candidate like Lester has grown greater.
2012: Brewers trade RHP Zack Greinke to Angels for SS Jean Segura and RHPs Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena
Segura represented a top-60 prospect, a player who looked like an everyday middle infielder who wasn't far from the big leagues, a hard-throwing 6-foot-9 giant with a projection of anything from a late innings arm to a No. 2 starter (Hellweg) and another likely late-innings arm who was further from the big leagues (Pena). Segura was plugged into the Brewers lineup as the everyday shortstop almost immediately.
2013: Cubs trade RHP Matt Garza to Rangers for 3B Mike Olt, RHP C.J. Edwards, RHP Justin Grimm, RHP Neil Ramirez
This is perhaps a more precise recent point of comparison: A 4-for-1 deal that saw the best pitcher on the market last summer move in exchange for a player with huge raw power but the possibility of poor contact rates that made him a lottery ticket with a potentially huge payoff (Olt), a right-hander with electric stuff who posted some of the best strikeout rates in the minors while in A-ball and ranked as a top-30 prospect (Edwards), a major league-ready arm who offered staff depth (Grimm) and a reliever who currently has a 1.00 ERA in the big leagues (Ramirez). Edwards and Olt both represented players with big upside, even if both came with question marks.
A survey of evaluators suggested that these trades represented reasonable benchmarks for what might be expected in a Lester deal. One evaluator said Lester should fetch two prospects and a third piece, with elite prospects such as Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson necessarily part of the conversation; one cited Wheeler as the proper baseline if Lester was being acquired as a pure rental without chance of an extension; one suggested something in between. Evaluators who cover the Sox system were fairly consistent in saying that dealing Lester represented an opportunity for the Sox to address their most glaring organization deficiency -- a corner outfielder with power.
Lester represents an obvious vehicle for making an immediate impact. Yes, he's purely a rental. But teams looking to separate themselves in pursuit of the postseason will step up with significant offers for him.
“The way we looked at it at the time was, a few things: First of all, we thought the American League was up for grabs. I thought there were a number of good teams. We didn’t think, at that time in July, that there was anyone elite and truly separating from the pack. There was Oakland, Detroit, Tampa, obviously Boston went on to win the whole thing,” Rangers GM Jon Daniels explained on WEEI’s Trade Deadline Show on Thursday night in discussing the decision to deal for Garza. “We felt we could truly contend with those clubs. We wanted to take a shot. We’d been to the playoffs the previous three years. Wanted to continue that. We also knew the dynamic with the club, we had some free-agent decisions coming up, and we wanted to kind of give it a real shot.
“There’s kind of a taboo on trading for rental players. Obviously, you give up a lot of years of control on the back end. I’m a little bit of the mindset that when you have a chance to win it in front of you, you’d just tasted it and come as close as we did, and knowing how special it is, how unique it is to win and have a chance, of course you’d like longer term control of a player, of course that would be preferable, but you have to take a little bit of a chance. If you’re not completely risk averse, take a little bit of a chance and give yourself a chance to win.”
And, intriguingly, if the Sox thought that concerns about whether Lester might re-sign represented an impediment to dealing him, the left-hander may have allayed those on Friday night. Lester said that if the Sox trade him in the coming days, he'd be open to discussing a return to the club as a free agent.
There is recent precedent for such a boomerang. The Phillies traded Cliff Lee after the 2009 season. One year later, they signed him as a free agent to a five-year, $120 million deal -- with Lee following a model the Red Sox say they prefer (more dollars, fewer years) to ensure his return to a place where he enjoyed playing.
But while Lester represents an obvious opportunity for the Sox to acquire potentially significant talent, there are other avenues that the Sox can pursue to put themselves in a better position for 2015 and beyond.
ADDRESS MULTIPLE NEEDS
The Red Sox have eight prospective free agents: Lester, Koji Uehara, Jake Peavy, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew and Craig Breslow (if his option isn't exercised). Uehara is viewed as unlikely to be dealt. He and Lester could command impact players in return. But the other players would not seem to be the kind of difference-makers capable of a massive return haul.
But what if the Red Sox could package a few of those players -- while including another player under longer-term control, perhaps from an area of organizational strength (such as minor league starting pitching or one of the team's corner bats such as a Will Middlebrooks) -- to address multiple needs of a contender?
There's recent precedent for such a trade construct. In 2011, the Blue Jays and Cardinals enacted an eight-player trade that boiled largely down to the Cardinals getting a rental starter (Edwin Jackson), a rental middle reliever (Octavio Dotel), a rental backup outfielder (Corey Patterson) and a longer-term asset in left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski in exchange for outfielder Colby Rasmus.
At the time, Rasmus -- who had been a top-10 prospect for multiple years while in the minors -- was a 24-year-old in his third full big league season. He had a 20-homer season to his credit, having hit .276/.361/.498 as a 23-year-old in 2010 before regressing in 2011 (.246/.332/.420).
Still, he represented a player who had performed at the level of an average to above-average everyday center fielder with good power and defense, and some star potential. The Jays viewed Rasmus as someone who was more advanced than the prospects whom they had percolating through the system -- a potential centerpiece who might be close to completing his transition to the big leagues. Instead of dealing individual pieces, Toronto found a way to address several needs of a contender to get a player with a chance to reshape their big league roster.
In the end, the deal worked out famously for the Cardinals, who won the World Series, with Dotel and Rzepczynski serving as staples of their march through the late innings. Rasmus, despite back-to-back seasons of 20-plus homers in 2012 and 2013, has never materialized as the player whom Toronto hoped he would be.
Still, he offers an intriguing example of how a team can turn multiple players with modest value into a return of considerable value. If the Sox identified a team in need of, say, a shortstop, starter and reliever, they could package, say, Peavy, Drew and Miller in hopes of landing a young, controllable player of considerable potential impact.
The Cardinals actually represent a potentially intriguing match to attempt a revisitation of such talks. St. Louis once again has a surplus of major league-ready outfielders and corner bats (Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, prospects Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk). They need a starter; they could use a left-handed bullpen arm; they can probably use some upper level starting pitching depth (an area of strength for the Red Sox). There's a potentially interesting alignment of organizational needs.
LOOK TO THE LONG TERM
Aside from the Lesters of the world, rental players rarely will yield players who are close to the majors and ready to be central contributors. One way to acquire impact for a rental player, then, is by aiming further down in a system, looking at a player with tremendous tools who might be far from the big leagues. Teams will be more inclined to give up a potential high-ceiling prospect if he's in, say, short-season ball than if he's in Triple-A. Alternately, at a time when teams can trade competitive balance picks, the Sox could seek to improve their draft flexibility next year by seeking an early pick -- and the associated financial flexibility that would come with it.