The Red Sox would seem to be in a bind.
We aren't talking about the fact the Sox find themselves eight games in back of the first-place Yankees, or five behind the Wild Card-leading Rays. No, this is about forming a strategy in this, the final week before the non-waiver trade deadline.
The Red Sox had, and have, their targets prior to July 31. The team's 4-2 loss to Seattle Sunday afternoon didn't change that. There is a report that the team was heavily entrenched in the pursuit of Kansas City outfielder David DeJesus before his season-ending meeting with a Yankee Stadium wall. And tires have been kicked on catchers, presumably from Toronto to Colorado.
But while many of these potential transactions would be welcome additions to the Red Sox roster as currently constituted, there is only one area that must jump to the head of the line when it comes to prioritizing fixing what ails this team.
As Sunday reminded us, the Red Sox need a relief pitcher who they are confident will gets outs in the seventh or eighth inning.
In other words, the Sox are in the most uncomfortable spot in which a team can find itself at this time of year.
This isn't a late-July cold bucket of water. Ask any member of the Red Sox decision-making group back in April and they would have told you that whatever breath was to be held might be reserved for hoping they wouldn't be in this position. No team wants to be put in the position of finding a set-up man at this time of year.
You always overpay. You rarely get what you expect. And you ride out all of this sort of acquisition for two months, or what can often be translated into nothing more than 18 2/3 innings (using Eric Gagne's 2007 stint with the Red Sox as a jumping off point).
But here the Red Sox are, undeniably back in a hunt they were hoping not to partake in.
The Sox tried out reuniting Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima with key spots might rekindle confidence in one or the other. Instead, the duo combined to allow six runs on nine hits over three innings.
Sunday presented the most painful reminder of what the Sox are working with. Red Sox manager Terry Francona brought Daniel Bard into the game in the seventh inning for just the 11th time this season, hoping he could cruise through a quick frame still in good shape to leave just a smattering of outs to be had before calling on closer Jonathan Papelbon. But after two quick outs, Bard labored a bit more in getting the final out of the seventh, forcing the fireballer to finish the inning with 15 pitches.
Four pitches to lead off the home half of the eighth and Bard was done, finishing with 18 pitches. It was a number the reliever had only eclipsed five times in 46 appearances. That led to what Francona deemed the next best option at the time, Okajima. And that paved the way to where exactly the Red Sox can go from here.
There are three routes:
1. SCOTT DOWNS AVE.
This is the classic road many fans want their teams to take, yet don't take two seconds to realize it is by far the most treacherous.
You can't blame the Blue Jays for asking for the likes of Jose Iglesias and Casey Kelly for Downs. Yes, he he may be the epitome of a seventh-inning reliever, but he is a really good one (a rarity) who hasn't surrendered a run since June 6. He also projects to become a Type A free agent, which means if the Jays did hold on to the 34-year-old lefty it could deliver them two coveted draft picks if they offered him salary arbitration (though it is worth noting that Type A middle relievers have often accepted arbitration, since other clubs are reluctant to give up a top draft pick to sign such a free agent).
And when scouts and executives analyze the trade market, it is Downs they point to as a perfect fit for all contenders with holes in their late-inning bullpen rotations. They also point something else out: That doesn't mean he will be worth the investment.
This isn't even Gagne. He was a closer who cost a lot to set-up Papelbon. We're talking about a pitcher who most likely isn't even going to be the bridge to the closer, but rather a bridge to the pitcher who pitches just before the closer. And still, because of the demand, Downs will most likely cost the equivalent of what the likes of Gagne represented in years past.
2. MICHAEL BOWDEN WAY
This has been the most effective route for the Red Sox in years past. The problem is that finding this path will be appreciably more difficult than it was in 2005, '08, and '09.
In '05, Jonathan Papelbon not only had history as a reliever, but also possessed the kind of make-up that made his late-season ascension into the role as the Red Sox' most reliable bullpen participant hardly a surprise.
Justin Masterson was more of the same in '08, a pitcher with amateur experience as a closer who used a dominant sinker, and a resistance to pressure, to become a perfect fit for the Sox during their run through to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
And last year it was Bard, whose stuff merged perfectly with a steady demeanor, leading to the image of the righty excelling in the Sox' most pressure-packed inning of the postseason (seventh frame of Game 3 in the ALDS).
Bowden is the best option this time around, but it simply isn't the same as the previous go-rounds. The righty is a work in progress when it comes to relieving. And while the early returns are positive, he wouldn't have been sent back down to Triple-A Pawtucket if he warranted the kind of late-inning faith Papelbon, Masteron and Bard had earned during their initial pennant races.
Another option might be Felix Doubront, who could emerge as a David Price-esque secret weapon in late Sept. or even Oct. thanks to a plus-fastball coming from the left side. But for now Doubront will stay as the starting rotation's back-up plan, serving as insurance in case the Sox find themselves with a hole in their starting staff.
3. JOAKIM SORIA ST.
This is the most unlikely road for the Red Sox, but undeniably the most intriguing. While it would cost coveted pieces of the Sox farm system -- many of which might be saved for Adrian Gonzalez-esque moves in the offseason -- the investment might make more sense than some think.
A pitcher like Soria would cost a ton, partly because of his performance, but also due to his relative financial friendliness. The Kansas City closer is under the team's control through 2014, making no more than $8.75 million.
Marlins' closer Leo Nunez offers another example of a pitcher who might just be worth allocating a top prospect for. The 26-year-old has 23 saves after totaling 26 a year ago and will be heading into second year of arbitration after avoiding his first go-round via one-year, $2 million deal.
While parting ways with the cream of the crop of your farm system in any deal is tough to swallow, this sort of return might just be worth it. There is a strong possibility that Papelbon will be leaving after the '11 campaign, and even before the Sox' closer becomes a free agent the team would welcome the kind of certainty that went with possessing Papelbon, Bard and one of these sorts of young closer types.
The Red Sox don't like investing heavy dollars on free agent relievers, and this would allow them to avoid that temptation as well. And with no relief-pitching prospects jumping out (unless the likes of Doubront is transitioned), it is another way to put some certainty in the uncertain future of the organization's bullpen.
There are no easy answers, and the Red Sox may once again end up having to rely on the equivalent of Bryan Corey, Terry Adams, Mike Myers or Javy Lopez due to the discrepancy between price-tag and potential.
But if there is a run to be made, the Red Sox might very well have to navigate one of these routes … like it or not.