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Should the Red Sox trade Junichi Tazawa?

Boston finds themselves in sellers mode without much to sell. Should they change that by dealing their best reliever?

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

We’re quickly approaching one of the most exciting parts of the baseball calendar year: the trade deadline. It's an event that's much more fun to follow when your favorite team is playing well, of course, but there are still plenty of reasons to pay attention to what the Red Sox do. With that being said, they find themselves in an extremely tough spot approaching this year’s non-waiver deadline.

Ben Cherington will likely be in sell mode for the second consecutive year. The good news in this regard is that the league is shifting towards favoring the teams that choose to sell. With the second wildcard added a few years ago, more teams find themselves in contention every season, and as a result there are fewer sellers for those contenders to pair up with. All of this adds up to a sellers’ market, leading to deals such as last season’s Andrew Miller-for-Eduardo Rodriguez trade.

Unfortunately for Cherington, the Red Sox roster isn’t in the same kind of place as it was last season. A year ago, they were able to cash in on soon-to-be-free-agents such as Miller, Jon Lester and John Lackey. Whether or not they made the most of those trade chips is a different discussion, but they certainly had plenty of guys to deal.

Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Fast-forward to this season, and while they will likely look to sell again in 2015, they don’t have the same kind of players to trade. The most obvious names are guys like Mike Napoli, Justin Masterson and Shane Victorino. The issue, of course, is that their respective trade values are extremely low, and the Red Sox will be lucky to get anything more than a lottery ticket for any of them. With this being the case, Boston’s front office will have to get creative if they want to get intriguing future pieces. There are a few different ways they can accomplish this, but arguably the most intriguing path is trading relief ace Junichi Tazawa.

It hurts me a little bit to say this, as Tazawa may be my favorite pitcher on the Red Sox to watch (not saying much, I know). There’s a reason he would be so desirable for any team in search of a late-inning reliever, and why the Red Sox could be hesitant to deal him. Since becoming a full-time reliever, he’s been one of the most impressive setup men in the game. He’s thrown 206-2/3 innings while pitching to a 2.66 ERA (153 ERA+) to go along with a 2.79 FIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio over five. Among relievers with at least 100 innings in that span, Tazawa is tied for 32nd in ERA, 25th in ERA+, 17th in FIP and 7th in K/BB. To put it quickly, he’s been one of the best and most underrated relievers in the game.

Now, he has arguably as much trade value as he will ever have. There’s enough of a track record to trust his career numbers, but not so much mileage on his arm that teams have to worry about injuries derailing his career. Furthermore, relievers in general never have more trade value than they do at this time of year. While contending teams typically have unique holes they need to fill, the one thing they all have in common is that they could use one more good reliever.

While relievers have their own general value, Tazawa brings some intrigue to the plate himself. For one thing, pitchers of his talent level are usually closers, and tend to get upset when taken out of that role after a trade. Tazawa, on the other hand, has been a career setup man, and has shown a preference to that role. Teams that trade for him don’t have to worry about a clubhouse cancer. They’d also get their new piece as more than a rental. Tazawa is still in arbitration, and won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season. It’s almost a perfect length of control, as they’ll get a cheap full season from him without having to commit to the reliever for the long-term.

Of course, the Red Sox benefit from all of these positives as well. With Koji Uehara starting to show some vulnerabilities in the ninth, they’ll soon need someone to take over his role. Tazawa could have been that option. In the shorter term, dealing him would leave a significant hole in the seventh and eighth innings. With that being said, they have some younger players who can take over this role. Matt Barnes, Pat Light, Heath Hembree, Jonathan Aro, Joe Kelly and Dalier Hinojosa all have the potential ability to take control of a high-leverage role. Of course, that’s much easier said than done, but there are enough possibilities that at least one should be able to come close to thriving in the role. Even if they don’t work out, Boston finds themselves with enough second-tier prospects to make a move of their own if/when the need comes up next season.

All in all, it’s a tough decision for the Red Sox. They’d be perfectly justified to stand pat at the deadline this year and just deal the spare parts for a lottery ticket or two. However, that would be failing to take advantage of an ideal sellers’ market. They have enough potential replacements to make up for Tazawa’s absence, and also possess the resources to look out of the organization if the in-house replacements don’t work out. If Cherington wants to get future value this July, trading Tazawa may be the best route to get there.