As the trade deadline bears down on the Red Sox, mere hours away, it's not clear at the moment just how active the team is planning to be. They've filled their most pressing need in the rotation by trading for Drew Pomeranz well in advance of the deadline, and could well be prepared to settle in and largely wait out the storm on this one. But with an ailing bullpen, an uncertain left field situation, and a backup catcher hitting .170, anything can happen.
We've heard that the Sox consider most of their top prospects--Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and Michael Kopech--to be untouchable, which certainly seems to signal that they're largely set. But with the Sox floundering in the past week-plus and, in fact, two months when taken as a whole, it's worth asking why they wouldn't be pushing more heavily given their recent struggles. Why not get into the bullpen market, or even after Chris Sale?
The answer to that question might come in the form of another question: is the Red Sox' window of contention opening, or closing?
When it comes to a big-market team, the hope is really that said window will never close, but there's obvious times of wax and wane, even ignoring obvious low points like 2012. These projections don't always prove out in the end. For instance, before 2013, the Red Sox looked to be a team on the rise, with 2015 likely to be better than 2014 which was in turn likely to be better than 2013. Obviously that's not quite what happened. But you can still at least give an educated guess based on players leaving, the budget available, the free agent market, and the farm system about when the Sox truly have their best chances to compete.
So how about 2016? Well, there's an elephant in this room. The impending retirement of David Ortiz is both a very real reason to expect the 2017 Red Sox to be a worse team than the 2016 bunch, with sentimentality driving some to the point where they'd be willing to treat this season as the last big chance, with the right move being to go all-in on giving Papi a worthy sendoff.
The biggest other loss, though? Well, the bullpen will take a bit of a hit. I guess Dustin Pedroia might show signs of his age despite coming off a total renaissance season?
David Ortiz is a big loss, make no mistake, but consider the improvements that the Red Sox will have coming their way in 2017. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are established stars, and still young enough that every new season seems likely to be their best yet. Jackie Bradley Jr., after so much success, is in a similar point in his career. Their rotation will have a much better chance of succeeding out of the gate this time with a (hopefully) healthy Eduardo Rodriguez and the addition of Drew Pomeranz. And if these players aren't traded away, they'll have chances to fill in their biggest positional holes in left field and behind the plate with Andrew Benintendi and Blake Swihart (yes, that's right, he's damn sure still a catcher to me, at least) respectively.
Does that combine to make up for Ortiz and the other minor hits? Perhaps, perhaps not. But keep in mind: this is without any additions being made via free agency. There will be other moves, and those seem very likely to push 2017-and-beyond over the top.
No, it seems very likely that Boston's window is not closing, but opening. In fact, that seems more-or-less likely to be the case for the next couple years. If you're looking for that turning point where odds start decreasing, it might well not come until 2019, the last year before Xander Bogaerts is scheduled to hit free agency, barring extensions (more on that another day).
All this could change easily enough. Baseball is unpredictable at best. But if we are looking at 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 as Boston's best window to win, with the later years providing them their best opportunity, then any trade designed to help 2016 at the expense of 2017, 2018, and 2019 starts to seem questionable. Even a combo of 2016 and 2017 at the expense of 2018 and 2019 kind of seems to miss the mark, though there's something to be said for the absolute certainty that 2016 is a year they're in position to make a playoff push over these last couple of months.
Still, no matter how many asterisks we toss on there, these Red Sox are not in a position where they should be going all-in on 2016. In particular, any trade that features the assets who are likely to make a serious difference in these next few years--Rodriguez, Swihart, Benintendi, Moncada, or any of their best current players--would have to bring back an extremely talented player through at least the end of 2018 to avoid serious question.
Even in the situations where those requirements are met, the Sox will certainly be exchanging the future for the present. When they traded Anderson Espinoza, the Red Sox let some chance of shifting that window go. It's possible that they could still have been moving upward even with the loss of one of the Three B's in much the same way as they're moving up now despite the impending departure of David Ortiz. But at some point you do have to push at least some chips in with an eye to making good on that window that's been established. Just so long as you're not very likely cutting away at its best years for some instant gratification.