The Red Sox are 21-25, and tied for last place in the American League East. Not exactly an ideal position from which to launch a postseason run. If the Red Sox were to play at this pace for the next couple months, they would find themselves at around 50 wins with 57 games to go, and that's being slightly generous.
But if the Red Sox are in the AL East cellar, they're also not far from the top. With the Yankees in freefall, their lead over the Red Sox stands at a meager three games. If everything went right, by the end of the week the Sox could be in first place.
Who's in first at the end of May hardly matters, though. What matters is who's on top in the end. No matter how good or bad their record might be, the playoff spot counts all the same. Which is good news for the teams in the East, because right now, by Baseball Prospectus' best estimations, the AL East will take all of 84 games to win.
Given that, the Red Sox have a lot longer leash to work with when it comes to righting the ship, and it's a lot easier to make a case that they deserve further investment at the trade deadline, rather than to be pulled apart with whatever pieces they have sold to the highest bidder.
Obviously, there are some scenarios which make the whole approach to the trade deadline rather easier. If, for instance, the Red Sox go into their own tailspin and have, say, 44 wins on July 31st, it's hard to imagine a scenario where a team that had been that bad to that point manages to play .700 ball for the rest of the year. If, on the other hand, they manage to get on a roll and have 60 wins, then they should approach this deadline the same way they've approached so many others when the team is successful.
What we're interested is the in-between, though. The scenario where the Sox are hanging around .500, maybe even a bit below, but in a division which still looks like it can be won by a team that's barely above.
In that scenario, the Red Sox can justify spending, yes. But they can't justify renting.
Here's the thing: crapshoot or not, the Red Sox can not view an 84-win team that just barely manages to sneak into the playoffs to be their best chance at a World Series. If there is no guarantee that the better team will win in any given series, the better team is at least more likely to win, and it's hard to imagine an 84-win team having the advantage against any opponent.
Mike Napoli is back to being Mike Napoli
After a woeful stretch to begin the season, Mike Napoli is crushing opposing pitchers' mistakes and driving the ball once again.
Given that, the Red Sox can't spend--at least not significantly--on any player who won't contribute in 2016 and beyond. Sure, if they're trading away some minor league dross then nobody should particularly care. But even if it's just a name like Carlos Asuaje or Sean Coyle, the Red Sox can't justify spending fringe prospects to give a mediocre 2015 Red Sox team a slight boost, much less premium prospects to try to turn a 78-win team into an 85-win team.
That does, however, still leave the door open for some of the splashier deals. There's no point in beating around the bush--we're talking trades for guys like Cole Hamels. Ones who would make a big impact in 2015, yes, but also answer a major question that they would have faced heading into the offseason.
What they shouldn't do is let 2015 be the deciding factor. The Red Sox drew a pretty clear line of who they would and wouldn't trade for a Hamels type over the offseason, Taking 40% of a season off Cole Hamels' contract doesn't somehow make him more valuable, and the Sox can't let desperation fool them into thinking otherwise.
In a way, the Red Sox can treat this like the offseason before the offseason. Yes, prices might be slightly higher at the deadline than they would be in a few month's time, but there is upside to be had in 2015, and the players that will be available at the deadline are not guaranteed to be available again after October, especially if they've already been traded away. In fact, given that, if the Sox keep on losing games, they may even wind up in the strange situation of being both long-term buyers and short-term sellers at the deadline.
Whatever the case, this promises to be one of the more interesting trade deadlines in recent memory. If perhaps not the most exciting.