And so it begins.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox front office didn’t wait for the Aug. 31 deadline when they found a motivated trade partner. The Phillies entered Friday in dire need of relief reinforcements — their 8.09 bullpen ERA entering Friday was worse than any reliever group in history. They were ready to deal.
With their eyes on the future, the Red Sox dealt longtime bullpen staples Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree (along with cash considerations and either additional cash or a player to be named) to Philadelphia. In exchange, the Sox received righthanders Nick Pivetta and Connor Seabold, both of whom will head to the team’s alternate site in Pawtucket.
“Philly came hard after [Workman and Hembree],” said Bloom. “We got two pitchers that not only fit an area of need, but are also pitchers we like that can be part of this thing for many years. I thought that was worth doing right now.”
Workman, part of championship Red Sox teams in both 2013 and 2018, has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball since the start of 2019. During that time, he’d held opponents to a .141 average while allowing 0.1 homers per 9 innings, both the lowest marks in the majors. His 2.07 ERA (ninth) and 35.3 percent strikeout rate (11th) both also rate as elite. However, he’s eligible for free agency after this season, meaning that he was all but certain to be moved on a last-place Sox team.
Hembree, acquired from the Giants for Jake Peavy in 2014 as part of the last midyear Red Sox selloff, made 260 appearances for the Sox over parts of seven seasons, forging a 3.60 ERA with 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings. The middle reliever has another year of team control in 2021 before he’s eligible for free agency.
“They are warriors, they are world champions, great teammates, great people and we really appreciate everything that both of them did,” said Bloom.
Pivetta represents an interesting riddle, a pitcher with sometimes electric stuff but poor results (19-30, 5.50 ERA, 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in parts of four years, mostly as a starter). Ordinarily, he features a mid-90s fastball, curve, slider, and changeup. His velocity had been down to start 2020, and his poor results (5⅔ innings, 10 runs) had resulted in Philadelphia optioning him off the big league roster.
Multiple evaluators described Pivetta, 27, as a pitcher with above-average starter potential who has yet to figure it out. The Sox are tasked with figuring out how to tap into his abilities as a buy-low candidate with at least three years of team control remaining.
“[Pivetta is] a guy that’s shown the ability to carry a starter’s workload and a lot of the underlying traits that show the potential for a lot more success than he’s enjoyed in terms of his results,” said Bloom. “Sometimes it takes that change of scenery for a player to exhale and maybe be able to do something he couldn’t.”
Seabold, a 2017 third-rounder who reached Double A last year (2.25 ERA, 36 strikeouts, and 10 walks in 40 innings), was described by multiple evaluators as having No. 4 starter potential, with the potential to offer the Sox starting pitching depth in the next one to two years. He shows the ability to command three pitches (fastball, breaking ball, changeup), with the changeup being his best pitch.
One NL evaluator whose team had been interested in Workman but found the price too steep characterized the deal as a “huge win for Boston,” particularly given the inclusion of Seabold. An AL evaluator viewed it as a strong return for the Sox, but with the deal ultimately being determined by Pivetta.
While the trade was consummated in the middle of the Red Sox’ 8-5 win over the Orioles, Workman and Hembree stayed to the end of the game to wish their now-former teammates well. Their departures signal that the Sox have started prioritizing their future.
“It hurts losing those two guys. . . . I’ve been on a lot of losing teams, and I really don’t want to do that anymore,” said manager Ron Roenicke. “[But] the optimal message that you would give everybody is that we want to have a championship-caliber club every year. We want to be contenders every year, and to do that, sometimes you have to make moves. In a down year, if you can make moves to correct things or to get on track for the next few years, I think you need to do it.”
Bloom said the Sox will continue to explore other potential deals in advance of the Aug. 31 deadline.
“It’s too early to know what these 10 days will hold,” he said.
Big shoes to fill
Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo recently wore cleats with a silhouette of David Ortiz — on the follow-through of his swing — stenciled in the middle of the words “Big Papi.” The 23-year-old was excited to pay homage to the Red Sox great, whom he delighted in getting to know this spring.
“He’s my favorite player,” said Verdugo. “When I wear them, I think of him. I think about me as a kid watching him play for Boston, just how much I looked up to him and how much I loved watching him play. It just gives me a little extra motivation to kind of go out there and compete.”
Verdugo said that he stayed in touch with Ortiz during the sport’s shutdown, getting video feedback from the slugger on his swing. The outfielder went 2 for 4 Friday to extend his hitting streak to 12 games and boost his season line to .292/.364/.528.
Righthander Tanner Houck — a 2017 first-round pick who finished last year in Triple-A and whom the Sox are trying to develop as a potential big league starter — threw four innings in a simulated game at McCoy Stadium on Friday. As has often been the case, he induced weak contact from righties but gave up a number of hard-hit balls (or struggled to command pitches) to lefties. PawSox pitching coach Paul Abbott, who’s overseeing the pitchers at the alternate site, said that Houck — a sinker/slider pitcher who features a wipeout breaking ball that often seems unhittable for righthanded hitters — is working to alter his plan of attack against lefties. He’s using a four-seam fastball to get in on the hands of lefties, and he’s also stopped throwing a changeup in favor of a splitter to try to feature a pitch that he can sell better to induce chases out of the zone. “His slider, when it’s on, I’ll put it up against anyone in baseball. It’s almost unhittable,” said Abbott. “He’s going to have some weapons now to get lefties out. The stuff is in the right dirction that he needs to make. We took away his changeup, prioritized a split, which is going to be another good weapon, and we’re going to dedicate to that. We’ve seen an uptick in quality. Still some growing pains a little bit with that pitch, but he looked really good today.” . . . Abbott, who was the pitching coach in Double A Portland in 2019, noted the striking offensive step forward by outfielder Jarren Duran, who struggled with the Sea Dogs last year following his promotion from High-A Salem in May. “He looks like I was expecting to see last year, what he was billed to be,” said Abbott. “Obviously he struggled when he got to Double-A. I felt like he struggled a little bit getting the bat head out. You could beat him in. That’s not the case anymore — not since he’s been here. He’s looking really impressive: strong, he’s showing us some power, he’s got the speed tool that’s extreme-plus. Now that you mix in some power, he’s going to be more than a speed threat. He’s driving the ball. I’m extremely impressed with the way he looks. He’s a whole, completely different approach at the plate than he had last year, a completely different hitter.”