The head-spinning deals of Thursday now behind them, the Red Sox now have a third of a season left to play. The next two months offer a crucial window for evaluation as the team looks to position itself to contend in 2015.
There are critical decisions to be made as the team tries to figure out what it must do this offseason in an effort to position itself to contend. Here are some of the areas through which the team must sift over the next 54 games, which suddenly -- in the aftermath of the four trades completed on Thursday and the six deals in the last week -- became far more interesting than they had been:
1. CAN XANDER BOGAERTS BE AN EVERYDAY SHORTSTOP?
The Red Sox prepared Bogaerts to play short in spring training. While defensive metrics from his early-season work at the position suggested that his time there was going poorly (he graded, according to the John Dewan Runs Saved model, as being eight runs worse than a league-average shortstop, one of the worst rates in the league), the Sox saw a player who looked like he was struggling to tread water early but who had learned to swim by the time Stephen Drew displaced him in mid-June.
"I think it was starting to happen prior to the signing of Stephen Drew and the move to third base," Red Sox manager John Farrell said on Thursday's WEEI Trade Deadline Show. "Early on, yes, there was some getting accustomed to the game speed at the beginning of the season. Inevitably, that first year in the big leagues, every young player who is trying to get on that roll ... getting on that roll at the major league level that builds confidence, that allows that player to play relaxed, that's more challenging to do it your first year at the major league level that builds confidence, allows a player to relax, just because of the pitching you're facing.
"So, part of the first six weeks I think was him getting re-established back at the big league level, the speed of the game. But I felt that for the week prior to Stephen joining us, Xander played relaxed, his range -- particularly to his glove side -- was improved, he did countless hours of work with Butter to continue to refine that. We're going to get a more extended look here over the final two months.
"The best-case scenario would be this: Myself and we as a staff can say to Ben Cherington, 'Ben, this is our Opening Day shortstop. This is a guy we feel like we can win a next World Series with.' And we keep moving forward."
Of course, the question of his defensive comfort also plays into the similarly significant question of his offensive comfort. Bogaerts in recent days has looked like a player emerging -- finally -- from a month-and-a-half-long funk. Just in the past handful of games, he's been driving the ball to all fields, and he suggested that after feeling as if his swing simply hadn't been there, the explosiveness with his top hand missing, it's starting to feel present.
The Sox need to figure out if Bogaerts will be their shortstop next year. And they need to figure out what represents a reasonable baseline of offensive performance expectations for him entering next year so that they can make a determination about not only his future role, but what kind of standards they need to have in filling out the lineup around him.
2. IS WILL MIDDLEBROOKS PART OF THE SOLUTION?
Is there a chance that Middlebrooks' dazzling rookie season -- the .288/.325/.509 line with 15 homers in 75 games -- was not a mirage? It's been almost impossible to know over the last two years. Middlebrooks has rarely enjoyed sustained health, going on the DL twice each both last year and this season. When on the field, he's struggled, hitting .222/.277/.408 in 115 games in 2013 and 2014.
The Sox need to know if a) Middlebrooks can be relied upon to stay healthy and b) if he is healthy, if he can produce, at the least against left-handed pitching, perhaps against all pitching. The answer will help to shape whether he is viewed as a potential everyday third baseman, a platoon option at third or neither of the above as the Sox prepare for 2014. Of course, the evaluation of Bogaerts at short also will play into Middlebrooks' future role.
3. WHICH OF THE YOUNG STARTING PITCHERS WILL BE READY FOR NEXT YEAR?
The Red Sox have volume from which to make an evaluation. Clay Buchholz will be a part of the rotation in 2014, one assumes.
Beyond that, the Sox have to use the next two months to decide which pitchers will join him. Joe Kelly, acquired from the Cardinals, seems likely to be a rotation contributor. (Still, it's worth noting that such an outcome is slightly less than certain, given that he was being squeezed out of the rotation in St. Louis, in part because he's struggled to retire lefties. That said, it's worth noting that his peripheral numbers -- strikeout rate, walk rate, ground ball rate -- looked like those of a solid back-end starter, better than his 4.37 ERA might suggest.)
Beyond Buchholz and likely Kelly, the Sox can see who from the group of Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo will be ready to open next year in the Sox rotation.
(No Henry Owens? Not yet. Owens is moving up to Triple-A Pawtucket on Friday, but the Sox will want to give him solid grounding in Triple-A -- over the rest of this year and through the early part of next -- before bringing him up, particularly given that he doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster until after 2015.)
The Sox likely will see enough from two or three of their young starters (a designation that will include Kelly) to commit to them for the start of next year. After all, the club seemed prepared by mid-June to commit to Workman and De La Rosa. It's possible that Ranaudo or Webster pitches past them; it's possible that De La Rosa or Workman struggle in a fashion that suggests they aren't ready. Maybe all of them struggle, in which case the Sox have a mess of an offseason in front of them.
What the Sox will be missing is a reliable top-of-the-rotation starter, of course -- and perhaps two in front of Buchholz, with two young starters behind him. The team will need a top-of-the-rotation presence, someone who offers a reliable source of innings and effectiveness. Jon Lester, of course, fits such a mold, as do James Shields and Max Scherzer.
Regardless, the Sox know that they'll be diving into the free agent market, even as they use the next two months to evaluate their internal options.
"As we get a better read on the guys here and now for the final two months, we know that there might be the need, likely the need, to add to the rotation as we get into the offseason," said Farrell. "But going back to some of the initial conversations with Ben, we felt like pitching would be more readily available to be bought through the free agent market than position players. So we had to target the position players through trades, with the idea of looking for pitching through the free agent market."
4. CAN CLAY BUCHHOLZ PUT TOGETHER TWO STRONG MONTHS?
Through two-thirds of the season, Buchholz has a 5.87 ERA, a mark that ranks 124th among the 126 starting pitchers in baseball who have tossed at least 80 innings this year. That's not exactly the performance a team wants to see from its one rotation veteran.
Buchholz has shown the ability to turn on a dime in past seasons, enduring lengthy periods of struggle (as in 2012) before dominating for months at a time. He's experienced the struggle in spades so far this year, but the turnaround has yet to happen. If it doesn't ... If he looks more like an unreliable No. 5 starter (one who is subject to injuries -- although he's actually been largely healthy this year) than someone who, when healthy, looks Cy Young-ish in talent, the Sox' dive into free agent (or trade) waters may end up having to be deeper than anyone expected.
5. CAN JACKIE BRADLEY JR. HIT?
It looked for a while like Bradley was ready to assert himself as the Sox' everyday center fielder for some time to come. From June 19 to July 21, in 23 games, he hit .321 with a .369 OBP and .397 slugging mark, numbers that -- in tandem with his staggeringly spectacular defense -- offered a tantalizing glimpse of a player who could forge his spot as a center piece.
Since? He's 3-for-27 with a walk and 10 strikeouts in his last eight games. He's 0-for-13 with five strikeouts in his last four. One evaluator watched the way that the Rays and Blue Jays surgically carved him up at the plate, and simply shook his head.
"I hate his swing," he concluded.
Bradley has a strong track record dating to his amateur career, offering the basis for some well-founded belief in the Red Sox organization that he can still be a good player for them -- a great defender who figures out, at some point, a way to get on base that is in line with what he's always done, and who can collect 30 or so doubles a year while robbing just as many.
But the jury remains out about whether, in a lineup that may well have other holes, he'll be able to be a regular lineup staple or whether he'll have to be a carefully employed weapon against certain right-handers -- at least for the start of 2015. Bradley's role for 2015 likely will be determined at this point by performance, rather than potential.
6. WHAT IS BROCK HOLT?
Holt's role going forward will remain somewhat fluid, as the shape-shifter is expected to see time at short, at third and in center. If Bradley falters, Holt may assert himself as the team's primary center field option entering next year. If Middlebrooks looks like a platoon option, Holt may be the third baseman against righties and the center fielder against lefties. He may be a primary consideration for shortstop if Bogaerts looks too third baseman-ish.
Of course, the idea of Holt's tremendous value will be tied in part to his ability to show that he can keep up with the adjustments that occur while the scouting reports on him become more precise. In his last eight games he's 3-for-32, dropping his season line to a still-excellent .302/.350/.422.
7. FIGURING OUT THE BULLPEN
The Sox dealt away Andrew Miller and Felix Doubront, the first moves in what could be a significant remake. Burke Badenhop and Craig Breslow are free agents after this year (Breslow has a team option). So is Koji Uehara, but the fact that he wasn't sent packing by the deadline suggests that the Sox think there's a pretty good likelihood of retaining him. (Other teams definitely investigated his availability.) The team must decide if Edward Mujica can be anything more than what he has been in a disappointing first year in Boston.
Internally, options are somewhat limited. Tommy Layne -- a 29-year-old who has been dominant in Triple-A, with a 1.50 ERA, 53 strikeouts and 20 walks in 48 innings -- is being called up. The other homegrown relief options in Triple-A -- Drake Britton and Alex Wilson -- have endured down years with the PawSox. Newly acquired righty Heath Hembree will get his look. Maybe the bullpen will be populated with some of the starters in the upper levels, whether Workman or Matt Barnes. But this is a group that will be subject to evaluation as well.
8. WHAT HAPPENED TO ALLEN CRAIG?
Allen Craig in 2011-13: .312 average, .364 OBP, .500 slugging mark, 23 homers and 114 RBIs per 162 games. Middle of the order bat who was able to move from first to right to left.
Allen Craig in 2014: .237 average, .291 OBP, .346 slugging with seven homers and 44 RBIs in 97 games.
Are his struggles this year related to the Lisfranc injury in his foot that had him hobbling (barely) through the World Series but that didn't require surgery? Is his .281 batting average on balls in play -- down from his career average of .330 -- simply a fluke, or a reflection of a guy who isn't making good contact?
The assumption would be that, at worst, he'd be a right-handed platoon option in left field, but his splits are similarly poor against both righties and lefties this year. (He has shown more power against lefties but hasn't hit for average or gotten on base against pitchers of either handedness.)
If Craig gives the Sox reason to believe that the 2011-13 player remains present, even if dormant, then the team may be in strong shape regarding its offensive remake.
Of course, the volume of inventory created by Craig and Cespedes represents an interesting phenomenon for the Sox. In Craig, Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava and Mike Napoli (to say nothing of Mike Carp or Mookie Betts or, say, Bryce Brentz or Alex Hassan), the team has five players for three corner spots. It is certainly possible that the Sox will use the coming months to figure out if there's any surplus inventory to deal.
But Craig is the one who, with three years remaining on the five-year, $31 million deal he signed with the Cardinals, could be a game-changer for the Sox for years to come (barring an extension for Cespedes, who is eligible for free agency after 2015).
9. AND WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DUSTIN PEDROIA?
There are only so many uncertainties that a team can endure in constructing its lineup. The first four months of 2014 have been an abject lesson for the Red Sox in how transitions and underperformances can absolutely cripple a team. Part of the issue has been related to the most reliable contributor on the team from 2007-13, Dustin Pedroia.
His effort level and commitment to maximize his abilities can never be questioned. But at some point, there will be questions about the abilities he has to maximize.
A player running at full throttle all the time, who approaches his undertaking with reckless abandon, risks compromise: There is excellence to be achieved, a dazzling ability to transcend what the rest of the world considered the player's limitations, but it may come at the price of longevity. Joe Hardy is not merely a whim of fiction but instead a powerful metaphor.
Kevin Youkilis experienced it, his ability to remain healthy and productive essentially having reached an end in the span of months between the All-Star Game in 2011 (when he was the most productive third baseman in the American League) to the end of that year, when he was 33. Shane Victorino's body appears to be amidst an intensifying rebellion against the 33-year-old's all-out style of play.
Is the same true of Pedroia?
Unlike Youkilis and Victorino, even as he cakes himself in infield dirt on a nightly basis, Pedroia has shown the ability to stay on the field. But for the first time this year, he hasn't found a way to delivery his characteristically elite offensive production.
He is hitting .276 with a .342 OBP and .370 slugging mark, all the worst of his career for any full season. Those aren't bad numbers, of course, and he remains a very valuable player given his elite defense. But he's not the same kind of impact player this year as he's been throughout his career while amassing a .300/.367/.446 line.
Everyone is entitled to a down year. It doesn't have to be a sign of deterioration of physical skills.
But that doesn't mean that it's *can't be* a sign of a deterioration of physical skills.
"Could he be a .270 hitter going forward? Maybe," said one evaluator. "But maybe not. You just don't know."
In the past week, Pedroia's been driving the ball more than he has in some time. Maybe he sustains that and gives the Sox reassurance that he's the same player he's always been.
But as they prepare for a critical offseason, the Sox need to know what kind of production floor they can expect from their mainstays so that they can make the necessary roster moves around them. And so, perhaps more so than at any other time since 2006, the final two months will represent a chance for the Sox to figure out what they have in Pedroia so that they can figure out what kinds of players they will need to surround him with.
The making of the 2015 team begins now.