The Red Sox are already a different team with Jacoby Ellsbury's return. How much more different do they need to be? (Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE)
The Red Sox are at a fascinating time in their history. The major contracts that this core, on this iteration of the Boston Red Sox, are likely to include are already here. Adrian Gonzalez is in the first year of an extension that will keep him in town through 2018. Carl Crawford is in the second season of a seven-year deal. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey are all under contract through at least 2014, with Buchholz's deal including the option for sticking around longer than that thanks to options.
Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales might not have the dollars of that group, but they are also around to fortify the rotation through 2014, with Doubront around a year longer than that. Jacoby Ellsbury isn't a free agent until after next season, and neither is starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. David Ortiz, despite public grousing, is likely in Boston until he (or his body) decides he's done with baseball. Dustin Pedroia is likely in Boston for the duration of Ortiz's remaining career, if not longer, as his current deal runs through 2015.
Even the bullpen is setup to be in place for the next few seasons, with all of Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Bailey, Daniel Bard, and Mark Melancon under team control as a unit through 2014, and both Bard and Melancon staying longer than that if it's Boston's wish. Throw in all the team-controlled assets in relief that have bounced between Pawtucket and Boston this year, and the Sox could conceivably get away without signing a reliever that costs actual money for years.
This is a core that's setup to win now, and in the next couple of seasons. It's a core that, despite a slew of injuries, is winning now, sitting just 1-1/2 games out of the wild card, with more than two months to go in the season, and with the roster envisioned back in the spring finally starting to take place, thanks to the returns of Ellsbury and Crawford. In many ways, this version is better, since it includes what Morales has done as a starter, in addition to a Buchholz that can miss bats and avoid walks, a bench outfield that includes a suddenly productive Daniel Nava, and a bullpen that, while lacking in full strength all year, has been mostly dominant anyway.
What do you do with a roster that's too good to blow up? That's easy: you keep it together. But standing pat at the trade deadline doesn't benefit the Red Sox, either, as there's still plenty left to do in order to get this team in a better place than they've been. Maybe it's not the sexy dream everyone hopes for on deadline day, but there's plenty of fun to be had in reality, too.
Boston's lineup doesn't need much in the way of help that it won't simply get from players returning from the disabled list. You won't see any other team picking up anyone of the caliber of Jacoby Ellsbury or Carl Crawford to shore up their outfields, and Boston is getting both of them back a couple of weeks before the deadline. Ellsbury fills the one major hole in the lineup in center, and Crawford is coming back at the right time, as the pixie dust that allowed Nava to be great rather than merely useful -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- just might have started to wear off in July.
Because of the return of the starting outfielders, the Red Sox all of a sudden have gone from having too few to roam the deep at Fenway to far too many for one roster to hold. In addition to what is the likely starting outfield of Ellsbury, Crawford, and Cody Ross, Boston also has Nava, Ryan Sweeney, Scott Podsednik, Ryan Kalish, Lars Anderson, and Che-Hsuan Lin on the 40-man. With any luck as far as health goes, the last four names won't be in Boston again in 2012, at least not until rosters expand in September. But because Crawford needs to be removed from the 60-day DL (as will others before season's end), this plethora of outfielders is also where we'll likely see a 40-man spot recovered from.
Podsednik is an 11-year veteran, one who hit .387/.409/.484 in 19 games with the Red Sox earlier this summer. He's not going to bring much back in a trade, but if all Boston needs is to clear a 40-man spot, it's likely they could find a taker who would pay more than what the Sox did to acquire him in the first place. Since all the Sox did was send the Phillies a check, that's not a hurdle that'll be tough to clear even if Boston acquires someone you've never heard of.
Nava would likely generate interest given he's inexpensive and had less than a year of service time clocked before coming up in May. But for those reasons, he's likely valuable to the Sox, as well, especially since they can control his cost from here on out based on his playing time and contributions. Kalish is in the same boat in regards to team control, but with the kind of ceiling that helped Boston be okay about sending Josh Reddick out of town, so it would likely take a legitimate return to pry him from the Red Sox. Anderson and Lin aren't anywhere near as likely to generate interest. Lin is a useful depth option to have around in Pawtucket, but Anderson is someone who could be packaged in a deal with someone else, to someone who has the roster space and ability to play this half-scratched lottery ticket. Boston tried to get his 40-man spot back last year in an aborted deal with the A's, and it wouldn't be shocking to see a similar situation play out this July.
Sweeney is the one it might be easiest to part with, as he's inexpensive ($1.75 million this year) and is under team control for 2013 as well. He can play all three outfield positions, and while he has no home run power, he's certainly not lost at the plate. Again, the return for Sweeney wouldn't be earth-shattering, but as part of a combo package to a squad that could use an outfielder and, say, a reliever, Sweeney could help bring the Red Sox something of use for their future, if not the present.
Besides the outfield, catcher is the only other place with a potential surplus. Dealing a backstop would be risky, as it would leave Boston with just two catchers who are ready for the bigs in the organization, but there's reason to consider it. Kelly Shoppach is in town just for the one season, and has hit .263/.358/.516 in 34 games and 111 plate appearances. If someone -- say, the Mets, who are rumored to be interested -- had the right kind of offer, then it'd be right to at least listen, especially since Ryan Lavarnway is at Pawtucket.
Lavarnway might not be ready to hit what Shoppach has, but bringing him up would give him the opportunity to test his progress behind and at the plate with big-league pitchers. With Salty a free agent after 2013, Boston needs to make a decision on extending him or not, so finding out a little bit more about what Lavarnway can do while you can isn't the worst idea in the world. Unlike the outfield, it's not entirely necessary to clear space here, though -- you only do it if the price just isn't worth passing up when measured against the risk.
Zack Greinke is going to be expensive, especially since the Brewers are both attempting to sign him and climb back into the wild card race in the National League. Cole Hamels has already been stated to own a price tag that's prohibitive to everyone, not just the Red Sox. Matt Garza has a year of team control left, unlike the previous pair, meaning that even though he's the least-talented of the bunch, he might end up being the most expensive. Unless you want to trade the likes of Jackie Bradley, Matt Barnes, Xander Bogaerts, or any of Boston's other top prospects, then this particular aisle isn't for you. Me? Not interested in the chance for a long-term extension for a pitcher that also costs the club a significant chunk of its future.
Boston doesn't necessarily need a starter, but there are places to look, if they're so inclined. Wandy Rodriguez is intriguing, if it can be worked out that his option for 2014 doesn't become a player option when he's dealt. If Boston absorbs all of the money, the Houston Astros might reduce the cost in prospects, allowing the Red Sox to deal more of their B-level farmhands from places of depth (such as, once again, the outfield, which has the likes of Bryce Brentz, Brandon Jacobs, and Keury De La Cruz in it, three players who might inevitably have more value as trade chips than Red Sox position players). He's just going to be a two-month rental, though, since that last year is an option, and because of the new collective bargaining agreement, a rental without compensatory draft picks.
If Boston is going to deal any prospects for a starting pitcher rental, they might want to aim a bit higher than Rodriguez. Like say, at Ryan Dempster. He currently sports an NL-leading 1.86 ERA, and is open to pitching for just about any contender, as any long-tenured Cub would likely be. He's not as good as that ERA, but he doesn't need to be: before 2012, Dempster averaged a 102 ERA+, 206 innings, and 33 starts per year. He's durable, he's talented, and because of the new CBA, he's also going to come much cheaper than the likes of Garza, Hamels, and Greinke.
If Dempster goes elsewhere, or the Cubs are just asking for too much for him (a distinct possibility, since they're rumored to be willing to eat the entire contract in order to secure better prospects), then Boston isn't in any immediate danger in their rotation. They currently are using a six-man, and someone is already going to have to be removed from it. With Morales pitching as well as he has this year, especially since Boston began to stretch him out in June -- a 2.57 ERA, five times as many punch outs as free passes, and 40 strikeouts in 35 innings since the start of June -- the Red Sox might already have their second-half boost in the rotation, too.
In this hypothetical world where I'm GM, I'm betting on Morales to produce at least as well as Dempster would the rest of the way, rather than getting in a bidding war with other teams and paying prospects for an arm that might honestly not be better than what's already in town. If one of the other starters goes down for what's expected to be a lengthy time between now and the deadline, my mindset might change. But with Morales in the rotation, Aaron Cook around if Doubront's second half continues much like the first ended, and the possibility of acquiring an arm through waivers in August still an option if it comes to it, my first instinct is to let the starting pitching market sort itself out. With the sheer volume of clubs who believe themselves still in contention thanks to the second wild card, the price for someone like Dempster might skyrocket just because, and that's not something the Red Sox should want to be involved in.
This, like the outfield, is where some of the dealing is likely to happen. If there were 45-man rosters instead of 40, Boston's hand wouldn't be forced. The 40-man setup is the reality, though, and it's one the Red Sox have to face.
These are the relievers currently on Boston's 40-man, as well as Rich Hill, who is on the 60-day DL. Andrew Bailey hasn't pitched a game in 2012, and therefore isn't listed, but he'll be part of the 40 soon enough.
Bard started in all but one of his 11 games, and is currently in Pawtucket figuring out his issues. He's a highly-talented arm, going through a rough stretch, and honestly, wouldn't be even included in this discussion were it not for his placement on the 40-man roster: his stock is too low to sell on, and his future too bright to part with given that.
Aceves, Melancon, Bard, and Bailey are likely the core of the pen going forward, and there's little reason to move any of them given how difficult it is to find relievers that are both reliable and cost-effective, as this group is. Other than that, though, it's something of open season.
Scott Atchison could have some value in a deal, for the same reasons it makes sense for Boston to keep him. He hasn't reached his arbitration years yet, and is closer to the league minimum than million dollar paydays because of it. As he's currently on the DL, he's also unlikely to be moved to a team looking to decrease the risk inherent in their bullpen.
Vicente Padilla has been everything you could hope for out of the bullpen, but with Bailey returning, and Melancon back to form, there's less reason to keep him around if someone is willing to make a deal that benefits Boston. Or, another way to put it: someone has to move, and given how great the pen has been this year, it's going to be someone who has pitched very well, regardless of who it is. Padilla, ergo, fits the bill as someone who could be moved.
Andrew Miller is the lone lefty in the pen with Morales out and Rich Hill both out and on the 60-day DL, so a deal removing him from the bullpen seems unlikely at this stage, especially after a year-and-a-half long intervention that tried to get him to stop his addiction to being Andrew Miller. He has a 143 ERA+ that he deserves, thanks to punching out over a batter per inning, and, for the first time ever, limiting his walks. The season certainly isn't over, but this is the first time in a long time you could say you feel positive about Miller without being looked at sideways. That's worth holding onto, despite the inherent risks in a relapse into Millerdom.
Clayton Mortensen and Junichi Tazawa, by virtue of most of their success coming in Pawtucket in the last year, likely have more value in the eyes of the Red Sox than they do other organizations. They could be moved, but they have options, team control, and less value in a mid-season deal than someone like, say, Padilla.
The only other obvious arm to move is that of Matt Albers. Albers owns a 2.27 ERA, but it's not entirely earned. He's struck out just 5.8 per nine, owns a 1.8 K/BB, and has a 4.77 FIP that would be the worst of his major-league career. A .214 batting average on balls in play is a large reason for this, and while Albers can get outs other ways than whiffs thanks to his grounder tendencies, he also hasn't shaken the homer problems that plagued the second half of his 2011 season. Getting this particular security blanket out of manager Bobby Valentine's hand might do the Red Sox a lot of good before deadline day, even if a pitcher like this doesn't generate a huge return. Count your blessings on escaping an FIP that's more than twice his ERA, and move on with innings from better relievers.
Keeping Padilla would be just fine by me, but moving Albers is a must. If the right price comes for Padilla, then a deal should be made, given Boston's suddenly ridiculous pen depth. Let's not forget that, if Boston so chooses, Alex Wilson can be a reliever for the last month of the season, too, if he's added to the 40-man a little earlier than he needs to be. (Wilson is eligible for the Rule 5 draft this off-season, and needs to be on the 40-man roster because of it.)
This won't be a super exciting trade deadline, but we knew that was going to be the case. The core is set to win now, and despite injuries to two of the team's four best players, a rotation that underperformed but seems to have righted itself, an early-season bullpen meltdown, backups requiring backups thanks to a full DL, a highly-disappointing 2012 from Adrian Gonzalez, and a crowded AL playoff picture, Boston is still in this thing. And now, they're likely at the strongest they've been all season, thanks to the players who have returned and those who will come back soon.
There are moves to be made, pieces to sell off in order to clear 40-man room, but nothing of major consequence is likely to go down. And that's because the Red Sox are adding more to their team -- and sans significant subtraction -- than any other club in the majors in the next few weeks. That, by itself, should do the trick for the Red Sox, if anything will, and with the bright future this team's prospects likely have, there's no reason to test other theories.