Over the last week-plus, we have been touching on a host of potential trade targets for the Red Sox ahead of the trade deadline. In fact, the only member of the staff who did not meet his/her deadline was...me! Not that this matters to you, but yes I am joining the party now. Better late than never. And yes, predictably I am writing about a reliever.
Right now, the Orioles are perhaps the most obvious seller in baseball and they have Manny Machado, who is almost certainly the most intriguing and famous trade chip available this summer. Justifiably, all of their focus appears to be on making the right move for their superstar. In addition to Machado, however, Baltimore also has Zach Britton to dangle, and he’s a significant chip in his own right. He’s obviously not on the Machado level, but Britton has value on the field and plenty of name value to boot. As an impending free agent, he is certain to be dealt between now and July 31. In fact, there have been some rumors over the last few weeks that he could be packaged along with Machado in whatever deal ends up being made there. The Red Sox better hope that’s not the case, because they are not in on Machado and Britton would be an ideal fit on their roster.
We’ve talked ad nauseam about the Red Sox needs heading into the trade deadline, and everyone knows that one of them — arguably the biggest one — is towards the back of the bullpen. There are some who disagree this is a need at all, and there is certainly an argument there given how well the bullpen as a whole has performed this year. However, there does seem to be a large gap between the top two and the rest of the pack, and personally I try to have a Big Three when building my theoretical bullpens in the Land of Make Believe where I create major-league bullpens.
The Red Sox currently have a Big Two with Craig Kimbrel and Matt Barnes. (You can disagree with Barnes being placed there, but you’d be wrong.) Behind them, you have Joe Kelly, who has been bad for the better part of six weeks. You also have Heath Hembree, who has been mostly good but is far from proven in this kind of high-leverage role. You also have Brandon Workman, who has been good in a small sample, and Tyler Thornburg, who hasn’t built up enough of a resumé since returning from TOS surgery. There’s a chance the Red Sox have a third member of a potential Big Three among that group, but with only two weeks remaining until the trade deadline, they don’t really have enough time to test that theory.
It’s not just the back of the bullpen where the Red Sox need relief help, either. This is a team that has been lacking a true, impact lefty all year, and really for a few years running now. Granted, they have been just fine without that kind of big-time southpaw, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be even better without one. Robby Scott and Bobby Poyner are...fine in terms of LOOGYs, but they aren’t really someone you feel great about against big lefties late in a close game. Britton would be a clear and substantial upgrade in that regard.
In a perfect world, Britton would fit seamlessly into both of these roles for the Red Sox and take their bullpen from being very good to potentially great. Him, Kimbrel and Barnes would be a dynamic trio late in games, and Alex Cora would have a legitimate lefty to look at late in games. That being said, Britton does have his flaws. Most obviously, he hasn’t really pitched much over the last couple of years. After making just 38 appearances last year, the southpaw missed most of the first half and has pitched just 15 times so far in 2018. On top of that, he looked very shaky to start his run this season. Over Britton’s first eight appearances, he pitched to a 7.04 ERA with seven strikeouts and six walks over 7 2⁄3 innings.
Lately, however, he is turning things around, and he’s doing so at exactly the right time. There is still some risk with him, of course, but Britton is look a lot like his old self of late. Over his last seven appearances, he has not allowed a run over seven innings and has six strikeouts and three walks while also getting his ground ball rate back up to its normal level. At his best, Britton is legitimately one of the best relievers in baseball and was arguably the best just a couple of years ago. His strikeout stuff isn’t quite where it was at his peak, but his combination of swing-and-miss and ground balls makes him essentially the perfect reliever if everything is going well.
We know the Red Sox are interested in Zach Britton, and while the offseason featured stories about the Orioles not being willing to make deals with the Yankees we have not heard similar reports regarding Boston. The possibility of a deal here is very real, and would make a ton of sense. Furthermore, Britton being a rental means that he would be affordable for the Red Sox too. I won’t try to guess what a potential package would be like, but I will point to the Kelvin Herrera trade in which Kansas City got three fine but unspectacular prospects for a closer having a great year with a better recent track record than Britton. Boston may have to pay a slightly higher price for dealing within their division, but this shouldn’t a back-breaking deal here. The Red Sox can win with the bullpen they have right now, but Britton would take things to the next level. Given the state of the American League, the next level is where they should strive to be.