Thanks to an expanded, watered-down playoff format, a postseason berth remains within the realm of possibility for the last-place, 4-8 Red Sox.
With 20 percent of their season completed, the team arrived at Thursday’s off day just two games behind the Tigers for the eighth and final A.L. playoff spot. Baseball-Reference.com pegged the team’s postseason odds at 47 percent. Fangraphs gave the team a roughly 40 percent shot at reaching the best-of-three wild card round.
None of that matters. The Red Sox’ success this century has redefined their standard of success not as fringe contention in an inflated playoff field but instead whether the team possesses — or is building toward possession of — a championship-caliber club.
Against that standard, a shot at an afterthought of a playoff spot with an obviously deficient roster would be the equivalent of offering a lollipop to someone with a broken leg. The team’s goal this year isn’t to mask pain with candy. It’s to get closer to running again.
That perspective provided the philosophical motivation behind the trade of Mookie Betts for young, controllable talent. Once the team chose that path, the longer view must remain the North Star guiding the team over the next three and a half weeks toward the most significant – and arguably only significant – remaining date on this year’s Red Sox calendar.
Aug. 31 this year possesses two-fold significance. It’s the date of this year’s trade deadline, with a somewhat muted and late-developing market likely in a season where there are questions whether the season will be played to its completion. The date also represents the point where — if the season is still being played — the team will be assured of resetting its luxury tax rates for the coming seasons.
The Sox have already set their course in terms of their payroll. If the season’s march through a pandemic stretches into September, the team will reach a point where their limbo under the $208 million luxury tax threshold will become official, thus resetting their future tax rates to a point where they’ve been willing to spend beyond the tax threshold in the coming seasons, and use their financial muscle to address gaps.
But even if the team’s luxury tax resets, the Sox aren’t one or two free-agent signings from having the sort of balanced roster that will seem capable of a charge into deep October. And so, an important question remains about how aggressively the team will approach selling at the trade deadline, particularly if there’s some hope of a playoff berth. After all, the mere glimmer of postseason possibility significantly shaped the future path of the Red Sox last season.
Last July, the Sox entertained the possibility of deals involving longtime staples — including Betts — in the weeks preceding the trade deadline.
But according to several members of the organization, the idea of any trade of Betts — or any significant shakeup of the roster — was tabled once the Sox won five of six games against the Rays and Yankees from last July 22-27. The Sox stood pat at the deadline, then watched their longshot hopes of repeating fall apart with an eight-game losing streak that book-ended the deadline.
The decision to cling to false hope last year was somewhat forgivable. The Sox were less than a year removed from a title, with virtually all of the players from the historic 2018 season still on their roster.
This year, there can be no illusions. At the time that the team traded Betts and Price in February, its depth of top-end talent suggested that a bridge year might be possible. The season-ending injuries to Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez represented the collapse of the bridge while also offering a reminder of why the team needs to look beyond a 2020 that will be spent in a valley.
The Red Sox have an increasing number of intriguing minor league talents. Even so, they still lack the necessary waves of high-end, upper levels minor league depth to deal with the loss of key contributors.
To be in championship contention in the coming years — 2021? 2022? —the Red Sox need more near major league-ready talent as part of a likely multi-year retooling of their roster. Potential admission to a best-of-three wild-card round won’t alter that reality.
That said, even if the Sox commit to selling and looking beyond 2020, it’s reasonable to wonder what they’ll be able to accomplish this season. Uncertainty about whether the season can be completed during the COVID-19 pandemic may have a significant impact on how teams approach the deadline.
“I’m not sure we’ll know [how uncertainty impacts the willingness to trade] until we’re closer to the deadline,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said. “There are a lot of different factors this season that are going to make trades harder to complete. At the same time, you can see the competitive juices flowing [in front offices around baseball] now that the season has started.”
While no one will be absolutely off limits, it seems almost impossible to imagine the Sox dealing Rafael Devers or Xander Bogaerts. But beyond them, virtually any member of the roster seems like fair game.
J.D. Martinez represents a puzzling trade candidate. His track record as an elite hitter suggests there will be some interest in him, as does the fact that the 15 National League teams now need to fill a designated hitter spot every night.
But his ability to opt out of his deal and hit the open market after either the 2020 or 2021 seasons makes it difficult to peg his value by trade. Moreover, his slow start in tandem with his oft-mentioned concerns about the absence of video has created a question for some evaluators about whether he’ll bounce back to career norms in this disrupted season. In many ways, the Sox may be best served to keep Martinez and try to gain clarity about his future after the season.
Brandon Workman might become the most popular Red Sox trade target given his stuff and performance since the start of 2019 and the fact that pitcher injuries are devastatingly widespread right now. But Workman’s value will be constrained by his status as a rental (especially in a year in which the playoffs aren’t a given). Jackie Bradley Jr. could bring back “some cash savings or a fringe prospect” as a rental in the eyes of one executive, but not a blue chip player.
Past industry interest in setup man Matt Barnes – eligible for free agency after the 2021 season – suggests that he could become a valuable trade chip if he performs well in the coming weeks. There would likewise be interest in Heath Hembree.
Could a market form for Nate Eovaldi? It’s possible, though given the game’s financial landscape, the remaining two years and $34 million on his deal beyond this season may prevent such an outcome.
Regardless of the particulars, for the Sox, the decision-making process between now and Aug. 31 should have clarity. It is time to look beyond 2020.