The 2013 World Champion Red Sox have turned back into a pumpkin in 2014, and even after a sweep of the Kansas City Royals to finish last week and a blowout over the Blue Jays to start that series, they still sit 8.5 games back in the AL East with seven teams in line ahead of them for a Wild Card spot, not including the current division leaders.
With the July 31 trade deadline just over a week away, the Red Sox find themselves in a difficult position. They have played well lately and they have a very talented roster but Baseball Prospectus currently puts their chances of making the playoffs at 5.8 percent and gives them just a 0.4 percent chance at repeating as Champions. If we are being rational about those odds, the Red Sox should be selling. This certainly isn't how Ben Cherington and company hoped the season would go, but this is where the team is now and it is important to make the most out of the situation.
Fortunately, the Red Sox have everything they need to emerge as the big winners on the seller's side at this trade deadline. Many contending teams would love to get their hands on a top-of-the-rotation arm like Jon Lester or John Lackey (who also has a year of team control at league minimum to boost his value) and many of those same teams could also be content with a lesser arm like Jake Peavy or Felix Doubront. On the offensive side, the Red Sox don't have nearly as much to offer, but expendable pieces like shortstop Stephen Drew, outfielder Jonny Gomes and backup catcher David Ross all have value on the trade market. That is a wide range of pieces that can all help a team looking to make a run into October this year and now is the time to take advantage of that desperation and make a trade that otherwise might not be possible.
You don't have to look any further than the Cubs' recent trade with the Athletics to see exactly how well this July could work out for Boston. Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and former-assistant GM Jed Hoyer turned a year and a half of Jeff Samardzija and half a season of Jason Hammel into Addison Russell, a shortstop who was just ranked the 6th best prospect in the game in Baseball Prospectus' mid-season top 50.
This trade is a big win for both sides, in my opinion. The Cubs get a top prospect to help their rebuilding process and that is always the goal of a selling team. The Athletics didn't give up Russell for just a short-term pipe dream of playoff success, however. In Samardzija, they get a very good pitcher to boost their rotation both now and in 2015, and he will almost certainly net them a compensatory draft pick when he leaves Oakland for greener pastures. Hammel is a good rental that helps boost the value up to what Russell is worth.
After watching the last trade deadline pass with few major deals, this trade might signal a new willingness among teams to part with prospects to up their odds at October glory. If that is the case, it is good news for the Red Sox, because there is no doubt that Boston can match or even exceed the package that Hoyer and Epstein used to land Russell. If there is another team out there holding onto a top prospect who also needs pitching and a few depth pieces, the Red Sox could turn their 2014 misfortune into a truly special player.
Looking at the landscape of the league right now, that player might be Reds' top prospect Robert Stephenson. Stephenson was just ranked the 10th best prospect in the game in Baseball Propsectus' mid-season rankings -- roughly the same range that Mookie Betts would have landed had he not been promoted, according to Jason Parks -- and he is one of just a few arms in the minors that has true ace potential. In his write-up on Stephenson from the mid-season top 50, Parks called the combination of his mid-to-upper nineties fastball and his big 12-6 curve "double-plus" and also noted his "plus athleticism and elite arm strength." Command has been an issue for the 21-year old as he has worked his way through the minors, and his 4.5 walk rate at Double-A this season shows that there is still improvement needed on that front. A best case scenario would have him contributing at the major league level next season, but even if he takes a little longer, his ability is going to be worth the wait.
Every team in the game would love to get an arm like Stephenson's, but the cost has to be commensurate with the talent he brings to the table and since the Reds are not the wealthiest of teams, the long-term benefits also have to be there if they are going to run the risk of losing a player who could be an ace making the league minimum for two seasons. The Red Sox can provide that value and they can do it fairly easily. They could send Mookie Betts and one of the rental pitchers they have to offer, maybe including Jonny Gomes to give Cincinnati a righty in left field who can mash lefties. However, the Red Sox are trying to rebuild in this scenario and a rebuilding team shouldn't be simply swapping top prospects for other top prospects. Considering that the Red Sox offense has been their biggest issue this year, it certainly doesn't make sense to send an MLB-ready hitter to another team for a pitcher who is a year or two away. So, can the Red Sox land a player of Stephenson's caliber without giving up Betts, Xander Bogaerts or another top young offensive player?
Because the individual evaluation of players is so important to a deal like this, it is impossible to answer that question with any real certainty, but I believe the answer is yes. The Reds are once again in the thick of the playoff hunt and even though they sit at fourth in their division, the NL Central is still quite winnable for them with just 3.5 games separating them from the Brewers at the top of the standings. Baseball Prospectus puts their playoff odds at a respectable 28.3 percent at this point and a big trade could push that number up significantly. This is a team that has made the playoffs three times in the last four seasons but has still never proceeded past the Division series. They are almost certain to lose Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos to bigger spenders after the 2015 season and they face rising costs for key players like Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco and Aroldis Chapman over the next few seasons. With pricey veterans Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto showing signs of decline and injury concerns this season, the Reds' window to win may be closing quickly. Boston is one of a few teams that can give them immediate upgrades and help their future as well.
To help them this season and next, the Red Sox can give them John Lackey, who will earn the minimum in 2015 as a result of the injury clause in his contract. There have been reports that he might not simply play for the minimum, but the power of this clause should still hold down his cost for 2015 in a dramatic way, and it is hard to imagine him simply retiring when he can still land a deal for 2016. Cincinnati is not desperate for pitching but Lackey would immediately upgrade their rotation while also shielding them from injury concerns with Mat Latos and guarding against regression from the FIP-challenged Alfredo Simon. In a playoff series, the combination of Cueto, Homer Bailey, Latos and Lackey would be formidable. Lackey's ERA is not at the same level as Samardzija's was with the Cubs this year, but his peripherals are comparable and given his potentially-reduced cost next season, he may have even greater short-term value. His age and the possible need to extend him to avoid his retirement makes the compensation pick less of a slam dunk, but that could still add even more value to acquiring Lackey if he continues to pitch well. Some salary relief might be needed to help the Reds handle the cost this year, but money is an asset the Red Sox can spare in the immediate.
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In addition to Lackey, the Red Sox can give the Reds either Felix Doubront or Andrew Miller to give them an alternative to Manny Parra for lefty relief in the bullpen. Miller is vastly superior right now, but Doubront makes more sense long-term. Miller will be a free agent at the end of the year, while Doubront has three arbitration seasons ahead of him. Both address an immediate need and would help down the stretch, but if I were the Reds I'd take the chance on buying low on Doubront. His stuff has always outpaced the results, and a move to the NL and a new organization could be just the thing for the erratic lefty. The team control he offers outweighs the more immediate impact a rental like Miller, in my mind, but there is no doubt he is a risk and if this is purely a win-now deal Miller is the better bet.
For more help down the stretch, Boston could also send two players on the offensive side to pitch in while the Reds wait for Votto and Brandon Phillips to return. Jonny Gomes is an excellent platoon partner for Ryan Ludwick's reverse-splits in left field and he has the kind of home run-power that should play well in Great American Ballpark. It can't hurt that his Grit-Above-Replacement is off the charts. Mike Carp is a solid bench player who can provide some left-handed production in Votto's absence and easy the workload that has landed on backup catcher Brayan Pena. He could then give Cincinnati a quality role player with a left-handed bat for the bench after Votto's return, something the righty-heavy Reds might benefit from more than most clubs. His skills are nowhere near the 140 wRC+ he posted in part-time duty in 2014, but his peripherals show that he is much better than his results in 95 plate appearances this year indicate. A .266 batting average on balls in play, driven by an uncharacteristic 19 percent Infield fly ball rate is mainly to blame for his .215/.337/.304 line and his strong walk rate and strikeout rate this season hint at better things to come. There is no mistaking him for an everyday player, but he is a good fit for the Reds immediate needs and his additional team control is nice, whether they seek to trade him or keep him on the bench beyond 2014.
To add a little more long-term value to the package, I would also include resurgent second base prospect Sean Coyle. The diminutive infielder has hit an eye-catching .325/.398/.558 at Double-A Portland this season but he still sits behind Dustin Pedroia and Mookie Betts on the Red Sox organizational depth chart at second. With Brandon Phillips slowing down on both sides of the ball, Coyle is excellent fit for the Reds future plans. He isn't a prospect on par with Stephenson, but he is a prospect and he has the upside to make this deal a win for the Reds beyond 2015.
Five players is a tremendous amount to offer for any single player and considering that four of these players have team-control extending beyond 2014, this deal might even be too heavily slated toward the Reds. Adding a high risk, low minor leaguer to the return is probably enough to balance things out however, since for all the immediate value as the Reds are receiving, only Lackey, Doubront and Coyle really have full-time player upside and Coyle and Doubront are both risky. Even teams that are buying for short-term needs are looking for impact talent and Lackey is the only piece here that is clearly that. He would make a significant impact in 2014 and 2015 (ideally), however, and that is the window the Reds really need to be looking at right now, in my opinion.
Not every organization is the Oakland Athletics and not every GM is Billy Beane. Just because this deal offers comparable or greater value to the Russell trade doesn't mean it is something that the Reds would do. I've tried to present a consistent logic that is based in reasonable assessments of value but when talking about a player with the upside of Stephenson, generalities take a backseat to the specifics. Cincinnati might be unwilling to deal Stephenson for anything less than the Red Sox' top two prospects and that deal would simply not make sense. The Red Sox might not be willing to sell so aggressively and admit to fans that this season is lost, especially if they keep winning as the deadline approaches. However, this trade does address real needs for the Reds and brings the Red Sox a valuable return for pieces that have short-term worth but who they can also live without. This is probably just too high-stakes of a deal to get made, but it is a deal that I would like to see the Red Sox make and one that could be equally as valuable for the other side of the deal.