Two weeks, folks. Two weeks and 15 games to go until the trade deadline. We often say teams have 162 games to figure things out, and a month, two months, or even three months are too small a sample to really tell us anything concrete. But the thing is, the season is really two seasons. There’s the one before the trade deadline and the one after. Before the deadline is, as Billy Beane is famously quoted as saying, an evaluation period. The time leading up to the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline (and to a lesser extent the waiver trade deadline 0n August 31st) is the time to improve the roster, and then September and October is the time you cross your fingers and hope the tension doesn’t make you vomit.
The Red Sox are getting to the end of that first stage, but the strange part is we don’t really have a handle on what that first stage has told us. This makes it difficult to know how they should handle the second stage. Boston sits last in the AL East, but only 6.5 games behind the first place Yankees. Then again, Boston’s run differential is -43. Then again, based on the track records of the players on the team, there’s reason to believe that figure doesn’t accurately represent the quality of the team going forward, only what they’ve done to date. You can already see the problem.
It’s not just idle speculation and fanboyism that leads someone to say the Red Sox still have a shot. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both publish team projections for the remaining games on the schedule. Both see the Red Sox as one of the best teams in the AL: FanGraphs has them in first outright and BP second to the Angels by a half game. But even so there are clearly a number of holes on the team, and a crunchy roster that doesn’t quite integrate as well as you’d like. Ben Cherington has talked about approaching the deadline not as a buyer or a seller, but as a team looking to improve itself long term. That makes sense, but it’s also a bit of a copout. What team doesn’t want to improve itself long term?
Short term, as in this season, the Red Sox have three main issues: they need to assemble a starting rotation, they need to find someone who can produce at first base, and they need a better bullpen. The problem is the way they approach those problems will vary depending on whether they are in a position to push toward the playoffs. For instance, you wouldn’t trade a significant piece to upgrade the bullpen while letting first base languish. Now, if there is a long term solution at first base COUGHTRADEEVERYTHINGFORGOLDSCHMIDTCOUGH then maybe you make that move and then if the market for relievers is insane you move on and try to patch from within or take a look again at the waiver deadline in a month. There are degrees here, for sure.
Then again, we’ve seen what straddling the line has looked like before. In 2014 Boston sold hard at the deadline, but they didn’t do it in a traditional vets-for-prospects type of way. They did deal Andrew Miller for Eduardo Rodriguez, and that deal has paid dividends already, but they also dealt arguably their two best starting pitchers in John Lackey and Jon Lester for players already on major leaguer rosters, i.e. not prospects. Not even a year has passed and already those deals look awful. You couldn’t give Allen Craig away (we know because the Red Sox tried) let alone use him as a piece to acquire John Lackey, and Joe Kelly is hilarious on Twitter and also in Triple-A. Oops. Yoenis Cespedes came back for Lester and this off-season, instead of holding on to Cespedes, Boston dealt him to Detroit for Rick Porcello after signing Hanley Ramirez.
The Lester and Lackey deals look rotten now, but was there anything intrinsically wrong with the thought process behind them?
All those deals look rotten now, but was there anything intrinsically wrong with the thought process behind them? Is continuing down that road wrong at its core? It’s difficult to say. It seems that last year wasn’t a case of the Red Sox front office misevaluating players so much as playing the lottery on what the players they acquired would become (with the exception of Craig). You wouldn’t condemn Ben Cherington if Yoan Moncada failed to reach his potential, for example. The Red Sox looked at him, believed in his talent, and paid what it cost to acquire him. After that, you try your best, but if it doesn’t happen, what are you gonna do? The same scenario applies to Kelly and, to a lesser extent, a post-injury Craig. That they turned out badly doesn’t necessitate a bad pre-trade thought process. Cespedes was different in that he was a known quantity. They didn’t get any discount on him when they acquired him either. But Craig and Kelly were both available because their value was down. They were upside plays, an attempt to get better players than might normally would be available in such a deal by accepting the risks that acquiring those specific players required.
Those risks haven’t panned out and it seems reasonable to criticize the Red Sox front office for taking those risks in the first place. The Red Sox aren’t typically the kind of team that needs to take expensive risks when it comes to players. They can pay more to minimize risk, and indeed Cherington has done exactly that when it comes to free agent signings (Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley) and player extensions (Porcello). Perhaps that’s the lesson of the 2014 deadline: don’t accept damaged goods just because you get a better price. Instead, acquire the best players you can and let that be your legacy.
With the roster in its current state, it seems the Red Sox are set to make deals again this deadline. The difference is, unlike last season, it’s hard to see who Boston would part with. Craig, Napoli, Daniel Nava, and Kelly have no trade value. Clay Buchholz is hurt. Koji Uehara has another season at $9 million due, which at his age and with his injury history likely hurts his trade value significantly. Maybe trading Junichi Tarawa would make sense, except the Red Sox bullpen needs Junichi Tazawa next season. Unless Boston is willing to sell core-type players or really shake up the roster by dealing guys they just acquired last off-season, there doesn’t seem to be much on the roster or even in Triple-A that can help a contending team. Which is a weird statement to make about a roster that projection systems are still saying is the best in the American League.
So in the end, we’re back at something like a grey area, at least from an outsider’s perspective. Boston can be both a buyer and a seller in that they need players and are also not particularly close to a playoff spot at the moment. They can also not be either as there are reasons to see the team as not good enough to make the playoffs and with a roster full of undesirable players to teams with rosters good enough to make the playoffs. Weird season, huh? The only thing is to hope, whatever the true takeaway points were from last season’s deadline deals, that Ben Cherington and company took them away. The Red Sox need a win at the deadline. The season may be drawing to a close.
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