With the draft now firmly in the rearview, the unofficial trade season now opens up. Obviously, the market won’t really start to pick up until after the All-Star break, but conventional wisdom says that the focus for the front office can shift from the draft to the trade deadline at this time of year. Granted, this is an overly simplistic way to look at front offices — they have various members of the group focusing on all different things at all times of year — but the main point here is that we can start to think about trades to look forward to over the next six weeks.
For the Red Sox specifically, the needs are fairly straight forward at the moment. They are probably going to be looking for some help on their bench, likely someone who can hit from the right side, and they are probably going to look for bullpen help. The latter is true almost every year, and really for just about every contender, because every bullpen can always use another arm. Dave Dombrowski has added a late-inning arm before both trade deadlines since he’s joined the Red Sox, and I’d expect that to continue this year. We’ll have plenty of looks at specific targets in the coming weeks, but today I want to take a wider view of things with the help of a major trade from earlier in the week.
In case you missed it, on Monday the Royals began their strip down by sending closer Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals in exchange for three prospects. It wasn’t the first such trade of the year — the Rays sent Alex Colomé to Seattle a few weeks ago — but it was the biggest deal of the year thus far and the first of this unofficial trade season. It’s also notable because Herrera was a reliever who made a lot of sense for the Red Sox and someone who they were reportedly interested in. They didn’t get their guy, but they can find a consolation prize in a few lessons to be learned after this deal went down.
The first, and probably the most important lesson, is that rentals are going to be the ideal target for the Red Sox. That’s not to say they shouldn’t explore the market for everyone — that’s what the month of June is generally for — but the Herrera deal showed what the market for rentals really is. There may not be a more desirable rental in this reliever market than Herrera. The righty is truly elite and was in the midst of arguably his best season with impeccable command and just general domination. He also has the all-important playoff experience as a high-leverage reliever from Kansas City’s back-to-back World Series runs. By all accounts, he is exactly what contenders are looking for this time of year and should have been a highly valuable commodity.
Instead, his prospect package was light by all accounts. The Royals did get three prospects back for him, but none of them were close to top-100 names and they were barely top ten prospects in a solid but not elite Nationals farm system. Granted, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on every farm system around the league, but I’d have thought at least one high-profile, nationally known prospect would be part of the return for Herrera. There wasn’t, and it simply goes to show just how much value is carried in having even one extra year of control instead of being a rental.
This is good news for a Red Sox team that really doesn’t have the prospect depth — or top-end talent — to really contend for elite, long-term options. Again, that’s not to say they shouldn’t explore the opportunity. In theory it’s a great idea, and you don’t know if the market is smaller than anticipated unless you look into it. Personally, I love guys like Brad Hand and Raisel Iglesias, both of whom are elite or near-elite relievers with multiple years of team control who have been speculated to be available this summer. They also carry the added benefit of potentially replacing Craig Kimbrel after this season as he approaches free agency. It just doesn’t seem realistic, given the lack of depth in Boston’s farm system.
The Herrera deal shows that they should have the pieces to acquire that kind of talent for a few months, however. Herrera, as I said, is the best option in that realm, but not the only one. Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Adam Ottavino, Joakim Soria and Jeurys Familia are just a few big names who could feasibly be available this summer and fit the bill as talented rentals. Any of those pitchers would be a huge help to the Red Sox, and they can presumably afford them in a deal.
Learning the market for elite rental relievers is the best takeaway for the Red Sox, but there’s also the fact that sellers are ready to sell as soon as buyers are ready to buy. This has become increasingly true in recent years, likely because the addition of the second wildcard has made the deadline more and more of a seller’s market. With more teams conceivably in the playoff push, there aren’t as many truly bad teams, and those clubs that do qualify know that very quickly. There is no need for them to wait around until the end of July when they already know the fate of the season. On the flip side, contending teams have all the incentive in the world to want to acquire help as early as possible to get as much current-year value as possible from the addition.
With this in mind, the Red Sox are obviously on the contender side of things here and should be a safe bet to make the postseason. However, we all know how valuable winning the division is with this new playoff system, and the battle between Boston and New York figures to be close all year. Having a new acquisition — whatever position they may play — for any extra amount of time could be the difference in this AL East race. Teams like the Royals, Orioles, Rays, White Sox, Rangers, Marlins, Mets, Reds and Padres know they are out of it. Dombrowski and company have all the incentive in the world to start these conversations now.
Herrera always seemed like an ideal target for the Red Sox given his immense talent, his status as a rental and the aforementioned playoff experience. Their rumored interest made a ton of sense, but unfortunately the Nationals pulled the trigger much more quickly than it was expected. It’s a blow for Boston, but not one from which they can’t recover. In the meantime, they’ve learned the market on rental relievers and got another reminder that sellers are willing to sell whenever buyers want to buy. The key is for the Red Sox to take these lessons to heart.