For the first time since 2013, there's very little question that the Red Sox are going to be buyers at the trade deadline. With nearly two months gone in the season, they sit at 28-17, good for first place in both the East, and the entire American League. Things would have to go very, very wrong to keep them from using some of their substantial minor league resources to strengthen the team for a postseason run.
That being said...this is also not a team in great need of improvement. The Red Sox are probably feeling pretty good right now about all but a few of their roster spots. But there's a big difference between having little chance to improve, and no chance to improve at all. In fact, while there aren't many areas for Boston to make improvements, those few areas could see dramatic boosts if the Sox are willing to invest. It's kind of the ideal situation, really, for a team that's looking to play into October: a couple glaring flaws that can be largely fixed with one or two moves.
But resources are not limitless, and the Red Sox certainly have to find the balance between winning now, and keeping the team well-situated to compete in years to come. So with that in mind, let's set some priorities. What's a necessity, and what's a luxury for the Red Sox as baseball heads into its trade season?
3. An impact reliever
Carson Smith's season came to an end yesterday, leaving the Red Sox with one fewer impact arm in the bullpen than they had expected. It prompted many to ask if the Red Sox would make a move for a reliever to replace him.
Frankly, though, while the Red Sox have been without Smith for pretty much the entire season, their bullpen has been a strength even with him on the bench. Craig Kimbrel is as good as advertised, Junichi Tazawa has been one of the best in the American League, and perhaps most importantly, the Red Sox have quickly found a good collection of arms to fill out the rest of the pen. Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Tommy Layne, and Robbie Ross Jr. have combined for nearly 70 innings of work, with each holding a sub-3.00 ERA. About the biggest knock against the bunch is a recent spike in walks for Barnes, but if you watched Tuesday night's game, you saw him look as good as he ever has, spotting high-90s heat on the black, and looking like a future closer.
The only guy that hasn't been mentioned here is Koji Uehara, who is about what you'd expect for a guy of his age. He's not perfect. He'll have his off nights. And the Red Sox do need to keep his workload down. But as with Barnes, we saw last night what he's capable of. That splitter can still be one of the least hittable pitches in the game, making him a late-inning weapon, if not the most certain of one.
There's still an argument to add a big arm to the pen, mostly to keep Koji and Taz from seeing too many innings. It's just not a priority with things already going quite well with that unit, especially as the offense continues to leave them with relatively few high-leverage innings to work with. Still, especially with the prospect of losing Tazawa and Koji at the end of the year, it wouldn't be surprising if the Red Sox wanted to target a team-controlled reliever to help now and in 2017.
Alternative Option -- A lefty specialist
If there is one man in the pen whose work leaves something to be desired, it's Tommy Layne. He has a 2.31 ERA, but also a 13:7 K:BB in 11 innings. And what's most concerning is that the lefties he's supposed to be shutting down actually hold an .805 OPS against him. The sample size isn't really all that big to be reading into those splits too much, but Layne also doesn't exactly have a long track record, either. The Sox could stand to add a more proven southpaw to the unit if it didn't cost too much.
2. A starting left fielder
When you look at Boston's lineup, you've got seven spots doing great, a catcher who gets a free pass for his glove, and...left field.
The Red Sox have gotten a .680 OPS out of their left fielders this season, and if you put any stock into two-month defensive statistics (you probably shouldn't), they've actually produced at a sub-replacement level. Brock Holt is once again proving to be more of a super-utility type than a starter, with his decline coming even earlier than usual with starting duty thrust upon him from the beginning. About the only thing that's really working out there is Chris Young's role in the platoon, as he holds a 1.089 OPS against lefties.
The biggest difficulty in adding an outfielder will be finding one who can keep up with the demanding choreography. Photo Credit -- Greg M. Cooper
The arguments against adding a left fielder basically have to do with the rest of the lineup. It's hard to declare any part of the lineup a priority upgrade target when the unit as a whole just doesn't need much help. Yes, you can make it eight deep and make pitchers quail at intentionally walking David Ortiz because there's still four more guys to get through before the pressure really lets up for a single at-bat, but you could also just leave it as is and be pretty happy. The 2013 Red Sox weren't anywhere near this good with the bat, and they managed to stomach Will Middlebrooks at third base for most of the year. You can get away with having a weak position or two when the others are so strong.
Still, value is value, and the outfield market looks to be quite flush on the season. Chances seem good that the Red Sox will be able to find a reasonably-price rental that will improve their lineup without costing them the farm.
For the record, I'm not going to include a lefty platoon bat as an alternative option here because, frankly, those guys tends to simply be known as starting left fielders given the number of RHPs in the league. The Sox should certainly be targeting a lefty here given Chris Young--say, Colby Rasmus?--but it's almost redundant to suggest going after a platoon partner for Young.
1. A front-line starting pitcher
And here's the big one. The move that could solve not only one of the biggest issues for the Red Sox now, but potentially in the offseason as well. And the move that I could see the Red Sox really opening up the prospect vault for.
Keith Law ranks four Red Sox prospects in revised top-25
Just because it's May and the Red Sox are 10 games over .500 doesn't mean we don't have time for prospect rankings anymore.
I'll admit, it's also the move that might not even be on the radar by the time the trade deadline rolls around. David Price, Rick Porcello, and Steven Wright are pretty much rotation locks going forward. Eduardo Rodriguez will be back eventually, and even after the setback, that seems likely to be sooner rather than later. Which leaves one spot for Joe Kelly or Clay Buchholz to earn in the next month or so. The latter seems extraordinarily unlikely at this point, but the former has at least turned some heads with his last start.
But if you're not a believer in Joe Kelly, Starting Pitcher, then this Red Sox team has four starters for five spots, and those four aren't the most certain bunch in the world. Rick Porcello is still not that far removed from struggling mightily in 2015. Steven Wright is a knuckleballer pitching his first full season in the major leagues. And Eduardo Rodriguez still hasn't thrown a major league inning in 2016 as a sophomore. With the minor league arms imploding magnificently, the Red Sox could use some insurance.
I mentioned the upcoming offseason earlier, and the reason for that is because of just how barren the free agent class is. Granted, if the whole Joe Kelly thing works out and the rest of the rotation goes according to plan, that won't matter much to the Red Sox. They'll have their five, and can head into 2017 without concern for how the rest of the league will solve their issues.
The Red Sox could take all this uncertainty out of the equation, though, by just getting a strong starting pitcher. We're not necessarily talking best-of-the-best here, as much because of the cost as because of the difficulty convincing teams to trade their aces. In fact, that market might be more difficult to work with than ever before as so many of the potentially prime targets (Sonny Gray, Dallas Keuchel) are struggling. But there's sure to be some high-quality arms available as more teams slip from that .500 peloton that's formed this season, and when they do hit the market, the Red Sox should be first in line to turn the last seriously questionable area of the team into a strength.
Alternative Option -- A back-end starter or rental
It's not ideal, but in the event Kelly/Buchholz can't solidify a spot, the Red Sox do need to add something to their rotation no matter what. Maybe that means finding a back-end starter, ideally with at least one more year of team control. Maybe that means spending on a rental like Rich Hill (he's certainly a familiar enough face around these parts). But both for purposes of insurance, and just to keep from putting a train wreck on the mound every fifth game, one more arm is necessary.