The July 31 trade deadline was fraught with vulnerability. The Red Sox badly wanted to part ways with Manny Ramirez and knew that their options to replace him while maintaining a playoff-caliber club were limited.
The Sox faced a Bay-or-bust proposition. Two-time All-Star Jason Bay of Pittsburgh loomed as the lone outfielder on the trade market whose production could sustain Boston’s title aspirations.
The Sox knew this, as did every other club that became involved in a possible deal. Those teams believed that the decision makers on Yawkey Way were driven by a mandate of necessity. Understandably, they wanted to leverage Boston’s challenging circumstances.
The Sox had already made the concession to pick up the remainder of Ramirez’ 2008 salary. Not a single team was willing to discuss acquiring the discontented outfielder if it had to pay him. The Sox viewed the money as a sunk cost on which they might not get any return if Ramirez tanked his way down the stretch.
The team understood, too, that it would have to include prospects in a package for Bay, a player whose talents made his salary ($5.75 million in 2008, $7.5 million in 2009) a bargain. Even so, the Sox were willing to walk away from a deal if it meant mortgaging too much of their future.
EYE OF THE STOLMY
The Pirates, who require a massive overhaul of their farm system and are years from contention, insisted that any deal for Bay include a young player with huge upside in the lower minors. The Sox had just such a talent, and the Pirates pushed strongly to acquire him.
The Pirates asked repeatedly for the Sox to include pitcher Stolmy Pimentel in a Bay trade, adding him to a package that already included pitcher Craig Hansen and outfielder Brandon Moss. Boston faced a dilemma with a pitcher out of the Dominican who had shown tantalizing talent beyond his years.
At the time, the 18-year-old was 2-2 with a 3.41 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 37 innings for Single-A Lowell. The right-hander already featured a polished arsenal (low-90s fastball and swing-and-miss curveball and changeup) that, combined with a projectable 6-foot-2 frame, suggested top-of-the-rotation potential.
The Ramirez conundrum was significant enough that some members of the Sox front office were willing to include Pimentel in a deal. A spirited debate, informed by a flawed trade one year earlier, ensued.
In 2007, the Sox had tried to bolster their title hopes by acquiring reliever Eric Gagne from the Rangers at the trade deadline. Gagne’s performance was bad enough, but the acquisition cost made the deal even more difficult to swallow.
Outfielder David Murphy and pitcher Kason Gabbard were players who had been skimmed from the surface of a deep farm system. But Engel Beltre was something else entirely.
Beltre, who at 18 was the youngest position player in the Midwest League this year, demonstrated extraordinary tools this year in Low-A ball. The five-tool centerfielder hit .288/.308/.403/.711 with eight homers and 31 steals, finishing the year ranked by Baseball America as the No. 6 Midwest League prospect.
“Last year, we got burned a little by including an Engel Beltre,” said a Sox official. “We just didn't want to have that taste in our mouths again.”
Ultimately, the team decided not to deal Pimentel. That stance jeopardized the deal into the final minutes before the July 31 deadline.
“Even when it came time to blink,” noted Pirates G.M. Neal Huntington shortly after the deadline, “a large number of players were held back and they weren't made available for these types of trades.”
But the Dodgers agreed in the minutes prior to the deadline to include A-ball pitcher Bryan Morris along with third baseman Andy LaRoche. Those two were packaged along with Sox prospects Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen—drawn from organizational strengths in the outfield and on the mound—to bring the deal to fruition.
Despite an adverse negotiating position, the Sox had shed Ramirez and acquired Bay without sacrificing any of the top prospects in their system.
A BALANCING ACT
The Bay trade underscored the careful balancing act that has become a centerpiece of the Red Sox blueprint to be a perennial contender. Regardless of the circumstance, the team tries to avoid at all costs deals that address short-term needs but that might undermine the organization’s long-term health.
“You can’t replace having a healthy foundation for the long haul,” said G.M. Theo Epstein. “We keep the big picture in mind first and foremost. The way we contend in any given year is by having a healthy organization over the long haul.”
The Sox have a goal of putting a 95-game winner on the field every season. The open-ended nature of that mandate requires the team to consider the future implications of any deal that it contemplates, rather than mortgaging the future at the expense of the present.
Indeed, the Sox suggest that the very notion of evaluating trades in terms of their short- and long-term impact is somewhat misleading.
“There are trades that a team can make that on the surface be more about improving the team in the short-term and also have great long-term effect, and there can also be trades that on the surface are long term but have great short-term effects,” said Sox Vice President/Player Personnel Ben Cherington. “I don’t think it’s possible to neatly characterize a trade discussion in one way or the other.”
The potential winter deal for two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana has already demonstrated as much.
At the time, Santana was regarded as the sort of presence who would make the Sox huge favorites to repeat as World Series champs. The prospects whom the Twins sought—a list that included, at different times, the likes of Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Justin Masterson and Jed Lowrie—were seen as potential future contributors to the Sox, but with only modest short-term impact.
“When we were, last year, talking about the Santana deal, there were some people (in the organization) who were talking about that deal as the key to a dynasty,” said Epstein. “It was good to hear their perspective.”
Yet ultimately, the team placed a premium on keeping a group of players that could provide organizational depth for the 2008 season and that represented potential key contributors going forward.
Had the Sox concluded a deal for Santana that included Lester, Masterson and Lowrie, the team would have been unlikely to withstand the sweeping injuries of this season. In 2008, Boston was likely better off for the presence of players whose roles exceeded expectations. The emphasis on long-term goals improved the team’s immediate fortunes.
The Bay deal similarly presented the Sox with an opportunity to address both short- and long-term challenges. The team would replace Ramirez, an All-Star outfielder whose commitment to his club was an open question, with Bay, a player whose total skill set has neared or matched the one-dimensional contributions of his predecessor.
In the process, the Sox saved themselves a potentially enormous postseason headache. Even had they kept Ramirez at the deadline, the Sox were likely to accede to his efforts to force his way out of town this winter by declining his option.
That, in turn, would have left the team scrambling to acquire an outfielder, with Bay being at or near the top of the list of available candidates. Had the Sox been unable to use Ramirez in a three-way deal, they likely would have had to add top prospects—the likes of Pimentel, Clay Buchholz or Masterson, in addition to Moss and Hansen—to acquire a player like Bay in a trade.
In a moment of crisis, the Sox were able to address both immediate and long-term concerns without, they believe, paying a price that they would one day regret. The formula is part of a blueprint that has helped the team reach the postseason in five of the last six years, and that is meant to sustain championship ambitions in 2008 and seasons to come.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.