And so, finally, the end is nigh. One of the most dizzying stretches of the decade for the Red Sox will reach its conclusion around 4 p.m. EST on Friday, when the deadline for trades not requiring waivers will finally pass.
The Sox remain aggressive in pursuit of a deal that will change their complexion, not just for the rest of 2009 but beyond. The same names keep surfacing as apples of the team’s eye: starter Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays, catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
It would be difficult to identify an area of primary need for the Red Sox at the moment. Though the team often suggests it is important to avoid overreacting to short stretches of the season, the dreadful start to the second half (5-8 record) has exposed numerous limitations.
Among them: the lineup has been wildly inconsistent. Both Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis are amidst season-long downward trends (as documented in Thursday’s Five Things We Learned).
David Ortiz, despite yesterday’s vintage performance, is also a question mark over the longer haul.
Yet the needs do not stop there. The rotation has its fair share of question marks due to age (42-year-olds John Smoltz and Tim Wakefield), health (there is not yet a timetable for Wakefield or Daisuke Matsuzaka’s return), inconsistency (Brad Penny) and youth (Clay Buchholz).
The defense, meanwhile, has rated as one of the worst in the game this year.
So what to prioritize? The answer seems straightforward enough: everything.
Padres first baseman Gonzalez is a Gold Glove defender with big-time power. Despite his West Coast obscurity, his game is described as being very similar to that of Mark Teixeira, the player whom the Sox tried to sign this past offseason.
Gonzalez is hitting just .252, but his OBP is a hearty .394 with a .536 slugging mark. He’s already hit 28 homers, a remarkable total given that he plays his home games in the homer graveyard of San Diego’s Petco Field.
“I think he’d be an MVP candidate if he were in a different park,” said former teammate Scott Hairston, who was traded from San Diego to the A’s just before the All-Star break. “His numbers would definitely be better. You could probably tack on another 10 home runs to his stats, and RBIs, about 20. His average would probably go up 20 points as well. It really plays a difference because Adrian hits a lot of deep flyballs. I think people are starting to realize that.
“His glove work at first base is great, too. It’s really consistent. He makes a lot of plays that other first baseman don’t make. He was kind of overshadowed by the ballpark. He’d be a superstar in a lot of other cities.”
Gonzalez is also ridiculously affordable, as he is owed roughly $12 million between now and the end of 2011. If the 27-year-old is indeed a player like Teixeira, he is not paid like him: the Sox were prepared to pay the Yankees first baseman roughly $40 million more between now and the end of 2011 than they would have to unload for Gonzalez.
If there is a player for whom you skim the cream of a prospect pool crop, it is Gonzalez: cheap, able to impact a club for several years, able to positively impact the Sox’ run prevention and run scoring. With all due respect to Halladay – who would unquestionably represent a rotation upgrade – and Martinez – who would help the offense but do little for the defense – they simply don’t offer comparable value to Martinez.
Naturally, the Sox retain flexibility in their explorations. If either Halladay or Martinez is available for a price the team deems reasonable and Gonzalez does not enter that category, then a deal for an alternative player might become more likely. But no acquisition would so dramatically impact the Sox in the short- and long-term as Gonzalez.
Some additional thoughts:
YOU ONLY GET A CHANCE TO DO THIS ONCE EVERY FEW YEARS
If a deal becomes available – perhaps for, say, Martinez – that does not require the Sox to part with their top prospects, and instead allows them to offer a package of quantity just beneath their elite surface, they can act with little hesitation about what they would give up.
But if they must raid a multitude of their very best prospects, the matter becomes entirely different. The issue is not merely the lost contributions those players could have made in Boston. It is also a matter of the team using its prospect reserve to address the most pressing long-term need.
Every once in a while, a team can part with what G.M. Theo Epstein has referred to as a “generation of talent.” The Sox did it in the deal for Josh Beckett, when they parted with Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and two more minor leaguers. They came close to doing so with Johan Santana, but stopped just short.
The thing is, even if the Sox are confident in their ability to replenish their prospect pool following such a deal, it takes time – years, even – to do so. For that reason, teams typically can make prospect-heavy blockbuster deals only once every few years. And so if the Sox do make such a deal, they’ll need to make sure that it is for the most pressing area of need, not only for 2009 (when they have across-the-board limitations, even on a team that is currently positioned to reach the postseason) but for years beyond.
The team almost surely does have long-term lineup needs. Ortiz and J.D. Drew are aging, while Youkilis and Bay are struggling in 2009. The team only has one potential middle-of-the-order prospect in the upper levels of its minor-league system in Lars Anderson.
Yet the 21-year-old’s season in Double-A Portland (.250, .342 OBP, .717 OPS, 8 HRs) suggests that he may be both further away and less of a sure-thing than was previously thought. (For more on the Sox’ lack of internal power solutions, read this Rob Bradford story.)
Meanwhile, the team does seemingly have a long line of arms that could end up in their rotation: Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Junichi Tazawa, Casey Kelly, Stolmy Pimentel, among others.
Those long-term outlooks will also factor into the team’s activities.
WOULD HALLADAY MAKE THE SOX INVINCIBLE?
The thought is undeniably compelling. The notion of having Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester in the same rotation would seem to make the Sox an overpowering force, particularly in a short series.
But, of course, even the best starting pitching guarantees nothing. Just ask John Smoltz.
He was part of a rotation that featured a trio of future Hall of Famers, joining Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in Atlanta. The triumvirate spent 10 seasons together from 1993-2002. They reached the playoffs every one of those seasons.
“I believe I lived it. If you look back, I don’t think we could pitch, and there weren’t teams that could pitch much better, and we only had one world championship,” said Smoltz. “(A dominant rotation) certainly gives you a nice advantage and puts pressure on the other team, but by no means does that guarantee anything. It’s a nice boost of adrenaline when you get a player like (Cliff Lee) or whatever the piece is that you think is going to help you, but…if pitching guaranteed championships, we should have a lot more than we did when I was with Atlanta."
THERE CAN BE SOME COST FROM A DEAL IN THE FORM OF CHEMISTRY
There’s been an awful lot of praise in the Sox clubhouse over the past couple of days for Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell.
Those are the two players most likely to be affected should the Sox trade for either Martinez – who would get more time at catcher and first, displacing both Varitek and Lowell – or Gonzalez, who would impact Lowell’s (and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Youkilis’) playing time.
Past Red Sox deadline blockbusters excised clubhouse problems (Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, Manny Ramirez in 2008). An acquisition of a bat has the potential to create one this year – just as was the case when the Sox pursued Teixeira in the offseason.
“What are you going to do? Revamp the whole team?” wondered Varitek. “You may add guys, you may subtract guys, but you’re not going to revamp the whole team. There’s people with their names, have stuff in the back of their minds, but you can’t really control that. You can’t. You’re name has probably always been in a trade or hasn’t been at some point. We still have a job to do.”
Halladay, on the other hand, would be an easy addition. In the short-term, he presumably would replace Buchholz (who likely would be the centerpiece of any package to the Blue Jays), and so among the holdovers, there would be less hand-wringing about job security.
Of course, the Sox may also feel compelled to view winning as the ultimate elixir in creating clubhouse chemistry. Certainly, there are those who feel that way.
“I hope they get whatever and whoever and however they can get people to help us win,” said Smoltz, “whatever that means.”
WHAT ABOUT THE ORTIZ CONUNDRUM?
Is there any chance that Ortiz folds up the tent following the report of the positive test. If there is a risk of that happening, might the Sox’ hand might be forced to reinforce their lineup, rather than continuing in the Halladay sweepstakes?
Obviously, the Sox had little time to make that call once they learned of the report prior to Thursday’s game. If the initial answer proves the lasting one, however, that concern can be quickly pushed aside.
Ortiz rocketed a double off the top of the scoreboard in left on the first pitch he saw. Then, after a groundout and a walk, he stepped to the plate with two on and two outs in the bottom of the seventh against reliever Craig Breslow.
Ortiz worked to a 2-1 count, and then unloaded on a 90 mph fastball. The ball soared majestically over the Sox bullpen, just to the right of the triangle.
"He’s always been the same upbeat and team oriented guy. That didn’t change,” said Lowell. “He’s probably, offensively, the biggest key to our team. He’s that one bat that you definitely fear. If he gets going, our offense really seems to put up runs."