The Red Sox, in case you haven't noticed, have a pretty good farm system. Even with Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Rodriguez, and Henry Owens having graduated in recent history, they're still taking top spots throughout the lower levels of the minor leagues, and earning some recognition at the higher levels as well.
The Red Sox, in case you haven't noticed, have also finished in last place for the last two seasons. They did that in no small part because of poor performances from young players in 2014, and then in spite of excellent performances from them in 2015. They had half the puzzle in place in either year, but the half they had down in 2014 either left (as with Jon Lester and John Lackey) or disappeared (Mike Napoli) for 2015 while their replacements bombed spectacularly.
The good news is this: the part that the Red Sox got right last year is not as likely to disappear. Betts et al. are not exactly at the age where decline is expected. Sophomore (or, I suppose, Junior) slumps do happen, but it would be extraordinary if there were enough to really wipe out the massive contributions that were spread out across so many bodies in 2015.
So, if you accept that the youth side of things will be in place in 2016, that means the Red Sox just need to get them the necessary veteran support to contend. Some of that can be done in free agency--even with Sandoval and Ramirez on the books, the Red Sox are freeing up some amount of money in the form of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and a few small or one-year deals. Still, we're probably not looking at a huge spending spree out of the Red Sox this offseason. Maybe they'll be in on one of the huge starting pitchers and a couple solid bullpen arms, but one way or another, it seems like the Red Sox will be perusing the trade market as much as the open one.
To get talent, though, they'll have to give talent, and that brings us back to the first point: the Red Sox have a pretty good farm system. And they're going to have to figure out who, exactly, they're willing to surrender from it to improve the major league team. The minor pieces are easy enough. At the end of the day the question of whether the Red Sox should trade Wendell Rijo or Marco Hernandez is just not all that compelling. What's really interesting is where the Red Sox find their centerpiece(s). There are, I'd say, a few possibilities.
And no, none of them are Mookie Betts or Xander Bogaerts. They're the foundation, and you don't disrupt the foundation. It could turn out that Dombrowski thinks otherwise, but I both hope and expect that's not the case.
Here's the obvious one. And by obvious, I mean it's obvious that he'd qualify, not obvious that he'll be dealt. Quite the opposite, in fact. While Dave Dombrowski did not sign Yoan Moncada, he's still the type of talent any general manager would be terrified of trading. Sometimes you trade future All-Stars, yes. That's more or less the price of doing business on the trade market. But Moncada has the potential to be the sort of player who stops keeping track of their All-Star appearances.
Is Moncada guaranteed to end up like that? Far from it, obviously, but that's true of every top prospect from Alex Rodriguez to Miguel Sano (and no, I'm not even implying Moncada is the sort of prospect Rodriguez was). Nobody can really expect to do that until it's in the past. Moncada is just one of the few guys who really deserves to have the possibility mentioned. And those are the guys you just don't trade if at all possible.
Of course, the possibility exists that Dombrowski values Moncada dramatically less than the Red Sox did, even after a successful season in the minors. For what it's worth, the Tigers were interested in signing him when Dombrowski was there, but, via the Detroit Free Press:
"His overall worth was established early on," assistant general manager Al Avila said on Monday.
And it was too great for the Tigers to sign him.
"Once we knew where the money was going," Avila said, "It was just at the point that we had our money invested in other areas."
Still, if there's any way to get who they want without surrendering Moncada, the Red Sox should take that route. And if their isn't, well, it might well be time to look for a Plan B.
If Moncada is the obvious centerpiece you obviously don't want to trade, Margot is the opposite. He's enjoyed a decent amount of hype among minor league evaluators, but somehow the pieces don't seem to match the whole picture. He can hit, for average, and run the bases, and as a center fielder he certainly doesn't need to do much more.
But there's a difference between what a player needs to do to be a solid piece of a puzzle, and what he needs to do to be the sort of exciting prospect who can headline a trade for a marquee player. I'm not so sure Margot gets there on that count. The power that seemed to be developing last season wasn't really there in 2015, and even if it had been, there's no expectation that part of Margot's game will ever rise much above mediocrity. Add in the fact that his aggressive approach reduces walks as much as it reduces strikeouts, and it's hard to see Margot being the key part of a blockbuster. The 1-B, perhaps, or the center of a smaller trade, but it's probably not reasonable to include him in this discussion.
Nope. Swihart got off to a slow start after being forced into major league duty way too early due to an injury-induced emergency, but hit .303/.353/.452 in the second half. As a 23-year-old rookie catcher. He's all of about a good April away from joining Betts and Bogaerts in that foundation category, and not going anywhere.
Rodriguez also seems likely to go nowhere for much the same reason as Swihart, but with the added fact that one of the main reasons for making a trade would be to improve the rotation. With Rodriguez an obvious piece of that puzzle for 2016, it's hard to justify moving him in any such trade.
Owens is...an interesting one. Unlike Rodriguez, he has not cemented his place in the rotation, and will likely start the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. Still, he had some major league success, and got the chance to show off some pretty filthy stuff against top-quality hitters. Owens isn't quite at the same level as the likes of Moncada, Swihart, and Rodriguez, who could all easily be centerpieces. But he's the sort of guy who might draw some unusually high valuations from other teams. If one of those teams happens to be one of the ones the Red Sox want to trade with, well, they should probably jump at the opportunity.
Brian Johnson, for the record, doesn't really fit the bill.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
Bradley is in much the same spot as Henry Owens. With just one big run of success to his name to go with his struggles in years past, teams are likely going to be wary of him to the point where his value in trade won't be worth the chance he represents to the Red Sox to be the sort of player that is very hard to come by. That being said, I expect they will very quietly let it be known that they're willing to listen to offers on Bradley, just to see if anyone is completely convinced by Bradley's half-season.
Benintendi was one of the most accomplished players in the draft this year, who only fell to the Red Sox at #7 over concerns that his season at Arkansas was a blip on the radar and that his power might not translate well to wood. Having run roughshod over his fellow draftees in the NYPL and then more experienced professionals in the SAL, Benintendi has done a lot of good work in dispelling those fears.
Photo Credit -- Steven Branscobme, USA Today Sports
In a way, then, you might consider Benintendi to be Moncada-lite. He's a player with plenty of tools and hype with the performance to back it up, but just one tier down from Moncada. The fact that he's not played above Greenville will be an issue for interested teams, but he's a fairly advanced player for both his age and his level, and the type of talent that any team would love to have in their farm system. At the same time, with so many outfielders locked in long-term, he's not indispensable to the Red Sox.
Benintendi might not be able to carry a trade on his own. He may need a 1-B to his 1-A. But he's one of the more realistic options.
Espinoza is sort of the other side of the coin to Benintendi. Both have only made it as high as Greenville, and Espinoza only got one look there last year. But where Benintendi could be considered advanced, Espinoza is playing so far above what could be expected of him that we need another word for it. SoxProspects notes that, at his promotion to Greenville, Espinoza was the youngest player in the league by more than a year.
He's a ridiculously projectable 17-year-old who made his peers look like they'd never held a bat before in the DSL and GCL. But at some point it's a little too much of column A and not enough of column B. While there are some GMs out there who would love to dream on a guy like Espinoza, it's hard to justify moving a big name for a 17-year-old.
No, to be a centerpiece, you probably have to be at least...uh...well...
18, I guess? 19 before November, though!
So here's my pick. If the Red Sox make a blockbuster trade this offseason, my best guess is that Rafael Devers would be the centerpiece minor leaguer headed the other way.
First thing's first: Devers passes the sting test. Devers hasn't been around too long, but if the Red Sox were to trade him away, Sox fans would feel it. That's the sign of a player who can be a centerpiece, even at 18 years of age. Devers is, after all, something the Red Sox haven't had in a good while: a legitimate top-shelf power prospect. Honestly, who was the last player with the same potential for pop as Devers? Anthony Rizzo is up in Chicago hitting 30 homers a year, but even he wasn't expected to do that when he was still around these parts.
So why is he the one who would be more likely to go? Why not Moncada? The answer lies partially in talent, yes--most will agree that Moncada is the superior raw talent--but also in how they fit. Where will Yoan Moncada play? Moncada will play somewhere. He's a second baseman at the moment, which is filled by Pedroia for now and the immediate future, sure. But Moncada has what it takes to be a good defensive player pretty much wherever he winds up. Given the time, he should easily be able to adjust to an outfield position, or play third, or even first if the Red Sox end up in such a strange situation that. The Red Sox will know better what they're going to need in a couple years, and get him the experience necessary.
For Devers...well, third base might work out, though early returns aren't great. If it doesn't, that leaves him with first base and DH. The bat has to pan out to play at either position, but that's not the real concern. While talking in absolutes with prospects is never really appropriate, if anyone in Boston's entire farm system is going to hit, it's Rafael Devers. But even if the bat does play well at both spots, to be fully valuable, Devers needs to be playing an actual position, and there's no guarantee first base will be open. In the two-to-three years that it will take Devers to get to the majors, both Travis Shaw and Sam Travis will very likely have opportunities to prove their worth there. And if neither they, nor Hanley Ramirez are able to hold the spot, then the Red Sox will be looking for help from outside. That help might well require a commitment past 2018 or 2019, too, making Devers' spot uncertain.
For the sort of team that would be trading with the Red Sox, though--one that's willing to give up the sort of major league talent it would take to get a package centered around Rafael Devers--these next couple years are probably not seen as all that important. First base can be filled by any warm body without fearing that weakness will cost them a playoff race that was never on the table in the first place. Rafael Devers would be part of the plan for the Next Great _____ team, coming in 2018 or 2019 or who knows when?
Will the right trade partner emerge for the Red Sox? Honestly, it's amazing that any of these huge deals get done it's so difficult to make all the pieces match up. But the Sox have the perfect combination of top-end talent and depth that there's seemingly endless combinations of legitimate prospects that could make them a match for anyone looking to sell.