Let’s begin with this as a guiding principle: any team that makes the postseason can win the World Series. That’s just the nature of baseball, a sport where even the worst teams win four out of every ten games. But now, thanks to MLB’s recent expansion of the postseason field, we have a further proposition to consider: any team that merely hovers around .500 for most of the season has a shot at making the playoffs.
As the theory goes, giving more teams a shot at the postseason keeps more fans engaged and makes a for a more exciting fan viewing experience. In truth, I’m not sure there’s any real evidence to suggest that this theory holds water, given that the postseason field has been inexorably expanding since 1995, with little evidence that the game’s fanbase is expanding along with it. But there’s no debating that it’s good for the short-term revenue of Major League Baseball owners. More postseason games means more postseason TV money — that much is clear. But further, by lowering the barrier of entry to a World Series Championship, the owners have given themselves a structural excuse to spend less on players. If it’s true that — thanks to the random chance inherent in baseball and a postseason structure that does little to mitigate that random chance — a 100-win team only has a marginally better chance of winning the World Series than a 86-win team, then it doesn’t make sense to go all out to build that 100-win team, does it?
We can argue about whether this actually improves the Major League Baseball fan experience. But there’s no arguing the corollary that the two propositions stated above lead to: any team that merely hovers around .500 for most of the season has a shot at winning the World Series.
The 2023 Boston Red Sox have been hovering around .500 for the entire season. This means, ergo, that the Boston Red Sox have a shot at winning the World Series. There’s just one problem with this if you’re Chaim Bloom and the rest of the Boston Red Sox front office: they’re not really trying to win the World Series this year.
When, in the waning days of a pre-pandemic world, the Red Sox traded away a future Hall-of-Famer in his prime — while attaching a dead-weight contract to the deal and thereby decreasing the value of the return — the Red Sox made a decision: they were going to be mediocre for a while. Well, scratch that: once the pandemic hit and they realized what the 2020 season was going to look like, they decided to be awful, for one season at least, implementing mini-tank job similar in nature, if not duration, to what we saw the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros do last decade. This netted them Marcelo Mayer, who is currently a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball.
But the weirdness of 2020 aside, the post-Mookie strategy has been clear: for an indeterminate period of time, the Red Sox would (1) focus on rebuilding a farm system thought to be in shambles, (2) reduce long-term payroll liability on the big league roster, and (3) leverage what is still one of the league’s higher payrolls to fill that big league roster with undervalued veterans on short-term contracts in the hope of remaining on the fringes of postseason contention for the foreseeable future. At some point, we’re told, the first and second prongs of this strategy will yield a consistently productive pipeline of young, cheap talent. At that point, the team would be able to forget about the third prong, because they would once again be in position to be major players in the free agent market, increase payroll, and perennially chase the World Series.
The evidence of this strategy is readily apparent. From the first day of this tenure, Chaim Bloom has almost entirely refused to even entertain the idea of trading either prospects or cost-controlled young big leaguers for more established talent (the semi-notable exception to this being the 2021 deadline deal for Kyle Schwarber, whom Bloom was able to obtain at a discount because he was injured at the time the deal was made). Moreover, at the big-league level, Bloom has had no problem entering the season with obvious holes on the roster. We saw this last year, when he intentionally downgraded the right field position from Hunter Renfroe to Jackie Bradley Jr., because he was able to net a few middling prospects by trading Renfroe. We saw it again this year with the shortstop position, when he decided to replace All-Star Xander Bogaerts with a player who had a damaged arm and, when that player foreseeably got injured well before the season started, he simply chose to not replace him at all. And of course, they have not been involved in any major free agent discussions since Bloom’s arrival (we can quibble over the use of the world “major” here vis-a-vis Trevor Story if you want; I don’t consider a six-year deal for an injured 29-year-old to be major in today’s free agent market).
This strategy did work to perfection in 2021, when unsustainable injury luck and productive short-term veterans like Kiké Hernandez created a fun team that snuck into the playoffs on the very last day of the season. The very same strategy was disastrous last year, when their injury luck turned, players like Hernandez, Nick Pivetta, and Bobby Dalbec regressed to their true forms, and the Sox floundered to last place.
Now we arrive at the 2023 Boston Red Sox, a team that, at various times throughout this season, has looked like each of its two immediate predecessors. This team has frequently looked very good, thanks to shrewd veteran signings of guys like James Paxton, Justin Turner, and Masataka Yoshida, and the emergence of young players like Jarren Duran, Brayan Bello, Kutter Crawford, and Triston Casas, all of whom are fruits of the Dave Dombrowski farm system that Bloom assured us was totally barren when he arrived. At other times, the team has looked downright awful, thanks to disastrous production from the up-the-middle positions and wildly erratic starting pitching. Ultimately, this 2023 Boston Red Sox team is exactly what it was designed to be: a team with little long-term payroll commitments that sits on the fringes of postseason contention.
But as we established above, being on the fringes of postseason contention means you are on the fringes of World Series contention. And this puts Chaim Bloom in a difficult spot: he needs to decide how much longer this indeterminate period of time in which the Red Sox are only kind of trying is going to last. We’ll know what his answer is based on what he decides to do with James Paxton.
Since he returned to action on May 12 of this year, James Paxton has been one of the most valuable starters in all of baseball. He ranks 31st in fWAR over that time period, 30th in ERA, and 16th in strikeouts-per-nine. But he’s also 34-years-old, a perpetual injury-risk, and a soon-to-be free agent. For those reasons, Paxton is unlikely to be a member of the next great Red Sox team, whenever that team arrives. But what he is right now is a very valuable trade chip.
As an experienced front-line starter, Paxton would likely yield the Red Sox a top-100 prospect in return. A top-100 prospect isn’t really something that Chaim Bloom has been in the position to acquire since the Mookie trade (aside from Xander Bogaerts, who had a no-trade clause, he hasn’t had a short-term veteran as good as Paxton to deal). Moreover, Paxton also likely represents Bloom’s last opportunity to trade for a top-100 prospect for a while; the only other player on the roster who could conceivably fit Paxton’s profile as a very good veteran pitcher who is probably not a part of the team’s long-term vision is Chris Sale, but his injury status and hefty contract drag his value down, and by the time his value recovers, the hope is that the Sox will no longer be in rebuilding mode. Trading Paxton now would fit perfectly into the first prong of Bloom’s strategy, have no effect on the second, and, if he hits on the right prospects in return, would potentially hasten their ability to discard the third prong altogether. In his heart of hearts, I suspect that dealing Paxton is what Bloom thinks is best for his long-term vision of the team.
But given the current state of the Red Sox rotation, which is made up of only three healthy starters at the moment, trading Paxton would be a clear an unambiguous waving of the white flag on the 2023 season. And if you thought the crowd at this last winter weekend was rough, wait till you hear them when Bloom and co. try some variation of “we promise it’s still going to be awesome, we just weren’t ready for it to be awesome last year.” The Springfield Police Department Haz-Mat Unit would have to hose the place down after the ensuing bloodbath.
So what’s it going to be?
On February 4, 2020, the Red Sox traded their best homegrown player of the last half-century. In doing so, they decided to chart a course to mediocrity, but with the promise that, when the time was right, they’d redirect themselves back on a path to greatness and rev the engines. Three-and-half seasons later, Bloom is still at the helm. Now it’s time to decide where he’s going next.