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Justifying the lack of a reliever trade at the deadline

It was assumed to happen, but one can reason why it didn’t.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

The trade deadline has come and gone and we’ve now had over 24 hours to really let the way things went really sink in. That’s particularly important this year when the league as a whole went bananas leading up to the deadline with a massive number of trades. The Red Sox were, of course, active. They acquired Ian Kinsler an hour before the clock struck midnight on deadline day, and they acquired Nate Eovaldi less than a week before the deadline. Boston also traded for Steve Pearce earlier in the month, which may or may not count, but that part doesn’t really matter.

What was surprising about this deadline, however, was what the Red Sox didn’t do. All month long, it wasn’t clear if they were going to acquire a starting pitcher and it really didn’t seem like they had planed on grabbing an infielder. What seemed inevitable was them grabbing a reliever. They had been connected to relievers around the market for weeks, and every indication was that it was their number one focus. The deadline came and went, and that was the only spot on the roster they did not target. I should be clear right away that I thought they should have addressed this area of the roster, and my mind hasn’t changed. It’s not that I think this is any sort of catastrophic mistake or anything like that, but if I was in charge I likely would have pulled the trigger on one of these deals. That being said, there are a bunch of reasons to justify this inaction.

1. The bullpen is already very good

This is probably the most important reasoning here, and it’s also about as basic as it gets. The Red Sox bullpen has been awesome this year, and people will say that you can’t trust some of them as the year goes on, the numbers certainly don’t back that up. Craig Kimbrel has sputtered a bit of late, but he’s Craig Kimbrel and his numbers are still elite. This is a Hall of Fame reliever in his prime. Obviously, they can trust him. Matt Barnes has been elite this year, and while he doesn’t carry the name value of someone like Zach Britton there’s really not a super compelling reason to value Britton significantly more than Barnes that doesn’t involve two-year-old data. On the whole, this group has been one of the best in baseball. By Baseball-Reference WAR, they have had the best bullpen in baseball. By Fangraphs WAR, they have had the fifth best bullpen in baseball. By Baseball Prospectus’s DRA (they don’t sort WARP by team), they rank fifth in baseball. So, by any measure they have been a top-five reliever in the game, and these measures all range from descriptive, predictive and everything in between. That seems big.

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

2. Tyler Thornburg’s emergence

I’m still not really sure just how sold I am on Thornburg’s recent run in the bullpen. The righty and former Brewer has looked absurdly good of late, and how you feel about the sustainability of this plays a big role in how you feel about the bullpen moving forward. The Red Sox made a mechanical tweak with Thornburg not too long ago, and that’s when he started being lights out, which gives us a nice data point to use as evidence this is for real. If it is for real and he really has gotten back to something at least very close to his pre-injury levels, they have another elite or near-elite arm to add in with Kimbrel and Barnes. As Dave Dombrowski himself has pointed out, they probably wouldn’t have gotten anyone better than 100 percent Tyler Thornburg.

3. The Nate Eovaldi trade was kind of a bullpen trade

The Red Sox technically didn’t trade for a reliever, but the Nate Eovaldi deal was essentially killing two birds with one stone. Now, Boston is all but guaranteed a spot in the postseason, but that is not the same as saying the regular season is meaningless. Winning the division is massive, and that race is not close to being over just yet. This is why I wanted them to get a reliever, to help with the regular season. However, once the postseason does begin, they will have a big addition to the bullpen. All signs point towards the plan being Eovaldi transitioning to relief for October, but there’s a chance Eduardo Rodriguez or David Price could be the plan as well. Either way, as long as everyone is healthy by the time the playoffs roll around, the bullpen will get their big acquisition in the form of one of the starting pitchers, all of whom have the profile of someone who would dominate in that role.

4. You can still make trades in August

July 31 is what we all call the trade deadline, but it’s technically the “non-waiver” trade deadline. This is an important distinction, because trades can still happen after the deadline passes. Just ask Justin Verlander and the Astros. The issue is that it becomes much more difficult, since all teams behind you in the standings have a chance to block a trade by claiming a player on waivers. In the Red Sox case, that’s literally every team. Still, August trades happen all the time. Now, the Red Sox won’t be getting anyone elite here. The only good players who don’t get claimed are those with contracts that other teams don’t want to risk taking on their books. That doesn’t really exist on the relief market, so the Red Sox won’t get Kelvin Herrera, for example, if the Nationals do decide to sell in a couple weeks. They could, however, get a solid middle reliever. That wouldn’t be exciting, but as we discussed above they have their help for the postseason already. What they would need now is someone to help them get through the last two months of the season. Think, maybe, Jared Hughes or someone along those lines.

5. Relievers are getting expensive via trade

Now, for a team in a position like the Red Sox when they have arguably the best team in baseball, giving up prospects for help now shouldn’t be that big of an issue. Obviously, you don’t want to overpay like crazy, but overpaying a little to get the guy you want is how it works. However, Dombrowski himself has acknowledged the need to rebuild the farm system, and if you believe all of the reasons listed above then you can justify being careful with prospects. It doesn’t appear the Red Sox would have had to trade any of their top five guys for the rentals out there, but the next tier of prospects in the system is poised to make a jump in the next couple years. If saving prospects was the only reason to avoid getting a reliever I’d be upset, but as the cherry on top of the other reasons I can live with it.

With all of this being said, I do still think they should have gotten someone. I haven’t convinced myself otherwise. The reasons are there to support their case, however, and ultimately this team still has an outstanding chance to do something special this year.