The Red Sox have been extremely frustrating this season. They began the year looking mediocre with a shaky rotation and an offense that was not living up to the hype. When the calendar flipped over to May, the team went to hell. No one could hit and on the rare occasion that a few hitters came through, both the rotation and the bullpen could sabotage the effort. The team rebounded to mediocrity in June, and entered the All-Star break on a hopeful note, going 6-4 to start July despite playing tough opponents in the Yankees and Astros in that stretch. Since the break, they have dropped seven straight, to land them back into the dregs of the American League just as the time when the question of buy or sell is forced on every team in the game.
It hasn't been all bad news, however. Unlike 2014, this year's club has gotten major contributions from young, up-and-coming players. Xander Bogaerts has emerged as the kind of hitter that many scouts and prospect experts had envisioned when they pushed him to the top of the prospect rankings in 2013. Mookie Betts has struggled at times but his strong contact skills and surprising pop have him sitting on a 107 wRC+ as of this writing and he has become a plus defender in center (by UZR) while basically learning the position at the highest level. Blake Swihart was forced into service before he was ready and his bat has showed that fact, but he has handled his work behind the plate with impressive skill and poise for a player his age and lost none of the shine from his prospect status, espeically as his bat has picked up in the past month. Most importantly, Eduardo Rodriguez has emerged as a potential replacement for Jon Lester at the front of the rotation with years of team control ahead of him (if he can stop tipping his pitches).
All of this is to say that the Red Sox are not a good team now, but they probably will be soon. When you have the buying power of a team in one of the top markets, you have the ability to add role players if you have developed impact talent to build around. There may be little that Ben Cherington can do about Pablo Sandoval's contract or Hanley Ramirez's glove in left, but replacing veterans like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino is not a herculean task. Fixing the rotation is still an issue, but the emergence of Rodriguez and Wade Miley's return to form have made it a less desperate one for the moment. Finding another top-tier starter is definitely something Boston will have to do before 2016, but the trade deadline is rarely the time to get value in that market. When the 2015 season ends, there will an impressive crop of free agent starters on the market and trade opportunities that are not being bid up by the pressure of a pennant race in progress.
This leaves Boston in a strange position. This team is definitely not a team that should be buying aggressively. Unlike last season, however, they don't have much to sell. Teams in contention aren't going to pay big prices for players like Napoli or Victorino. Trading David Ortiz is a possibility, but it is complicated by his history with the team and I have absolutely no interest in advocating such a strategy. Koji Uehara is the best chip the team has and he is a 40-year-old closer. If Boston can pull of a robbery like the Andrew Miller-for-Eduardo-Rodriguez deal with Koji, they absolutely should, but deals like that are not easy to find.
The best realistic plan for the Red Sox is to look for a strong addition that would mean trading value for value. One team that makes an interesting fit for the Red Sox as a trading partner is the Marlins. Miami is in a similar place to the Red Sox right now. The young talent they have locked up is great, but they have a cast of dismal veterans all around them and they are far enough out of contention that they will be selling big soon. They have a few bigger chips to deal, however, and other buyers are going to be hounding them for help right up until July 31. For the Red Sox, their late-inning relievers are appealing because they can help some now and more in 2016 and beyond. Former-closer Steve Cishek is one option, but the better option for Boston is current closer A.J. Ramos.
Ramos has been one of the best relievers in the game this season by almost any measure. He throws a low-to-mid-ninties fastball, a swing-and-miss change and a biting slider that gets both whiffs and grounders. By adding him to the bullpen, Boston would be preparing for the day when Koji hangs up his splitter. Whether Ramos takes over the ninth at that time or that job goes to Junichi Tazawa and Ramos moves back to setting up, he would make the Boston bullpen of the future one that can effectively close the door in the final frames for a long time to come. Ramos is still pre-arbitration so he will remain inexpensive, especially if he returns to the setup role and the arbitration process remains stuck in the statistical past where relievers are concerned.
All these positives makes Ramos a potentially expensive acquisition, and there is no doubt that Boston would be buying high. Relievers are also overpriced at the deadline and one pitching as well as Ramos is likely to be a popular target. However, he has some real warts as well and those may be enough to keep the bidding on him from reaching a frenzy. First and foremost, he is 5'10. Short, power-arms are not everyone in baseball's cup of tea. Ramos also has had control issues in the not-so-distant past. He was extremely effective in 2014 by ERA (2.11) but his FIP (3.21) and xFIP (4.11) show the impact of a 6.1 BB/9 rate. He dominated hitters on his way up through minors but his current 2.5 walk rate is the best he has posted at any level. Reliever performance is highly variable and not everyone is going to buy Ramos' current control numbers, even though they are backed by improvements in his ability to locate the ball throughout his repertoire.
Boston has the ability to land Ramos because they have a very deep farm system. The Marlins can't say the same thing after coming in 25th in Baseball America's farm rankings headed into the season, so adding a few more pieces near the major league level is certain to appeal to them. The two teams are also a great pairing for other teams in a three-way deal, with the Marlins able to offer help to competitors at third base with Martin Prado and starting pitching in Mat Latos or Dan Haren and Boston dealing in prospects. Miami has been one of the few teams in recent seasons willing to take a package of multiple prospects in major trades without an established big-leaguer in the mix which makes them a better match up for Boston in trades than many other teams.
The Red Sox' most obvious chip to land Ramos would be Deven Marrero. The former-first round pick might be a match even for Adeiny Hechavarria with the glove, and his bat could give him the edge in the near future, especially if you don't buy Hechavarria's 81 wRC+ this season as his true talent. Marrero will probably not be the only piece it takes, but he can be the centerpiece and the deep Red Sox farm has enough secondary talent to fill in the gap between the two. Miami is a team that loves a hard-throwing pitcher, so giving them a shot at fixing Joe Kelly in addition to Marrero might do the trick. Given Marcell Ozuna's struggles this season and the size of the Miami outfield, Jackie Bradley Jr. could also appeal to them as secondary piece in such a deal. Pitchers like Brian Johnson and Henry Owens are an alternative to Marrero for the Marlins or third-team trade partners as well, so there are other ways of making a deal happen, even without tapping into the trade value of players like Swihart, Manuel Margot or Rafael Devers. Should the Marlins balk at the idea completely (and that would be understandable), Cishek is a solid secondary target with two years of arbitration control remaining and enough of a price tag to keep the prospect package down.
Any move the Red Sox make at the deadline has to help the team in 2016 and 2017, because the hope for the 2015 season is evaporating with every loss. Ramos and Cishek both give the Red Sox bullpen depth from the top down, which is something they need. Neither will fix the team completely, but that's a job that is better suited to the winter than the madness of the deadline. A deal for one of these two would start the process off right.