As Friday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline nears, the possibility of change looms large for the Red Sox. The team’s march to first place has made clear that it is a group worthy of upgrades.
Reaching the playoffs isn’t a given, but it’s incredibly likely. With the Sox in possession of a 62-39 record (on a 99-win pace) entering Tuesday, Fangraphs pegged their odds of qualifying for the postseason at 96.0 percent and their chances of winning the American League East at 64.6 percent.
But how far might the Red Sox push in pursuit of improvement, and what areas of the roster will they look to improve? The questions are unresolved, but the team’s desire to improve isn’t.
“This is where we want to be,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said on NESN. “It definitely makes it a very different deadline [than when the team was trading away big league talent last year], in some ways more complicated. But it’s a lot more fun to be in this position.”
Bloom suggested that the Red Sox are looking at both “puzzle piece” additions that address specific needs as well as “fits that are not as obvious,” either upgrades to areas of strength or deals that could better position the team for the long haul. He avoided specifics, beyond saying that the team does not take the season-long health of its rotation (the club has used just six starters through 101 games) for granted and is looking at ways of improving rotation depth while also, like every contender, exploring the bullpen market.
The “puzzle piece” additions have long seemed straightforward. The team’s first basemen have combined to post a .219 average (27th in the majors), .261 OBP (30th), and .388 slugging mark (22nd). In his first full season, Bobby Dalbec is hitting .218/.259/.397 with 12 walks and 104 strikeouts. Finding a complementary lefthanded option or an everyday alternative could deepen the lineup.
Meanwhile, Bloom’s acknowledgment that the team is exploring the bullpen market reflects both the challenges faced by relievers in trying to sustain production and durability as well as the heightened importance of relievers in the postseason, when quick hooks for starters are commonplace.
The team would like to add another high-leverage reliever who could help distribute the heavy late-innings workloads that have fallen to closer Matt Barnes and setup men Adam Ottavino and Josh Taylor for much of the season. All have shown signs of fatigue in July, whether with declining strikeout rates, elevated walk rates, or both.
“We still have a lot of colors on my sheet, and most of them are not green,” said manager Alex Cora, noting the prevalence of “handle with care” reports he’s receiving from his training staff. “But we’ll keep maneuvering. Some guys have to step up.
“We’ve been doing a good job as a whole to keep these guys fresh. Obviously, when you win a lot of games, you use your bullpen a lot, and you use your main guys a lot. That’s the nature of 162. It’s not 60 games like last year. It was a sprint, and you just can go to your guys all the time, all the time, all the time regardless of what happens. Now you have to be very cautious, and we have been very cautious. We do believe we are OK.”
Still, the Sox would welcome a chance to add to Cora’s menu of options — whether in the bullpen or elsewhere. For the most part, the So have received solid work in every phase of the game. But that doesn’t foreclose the chance of getting better.
“I feel like every team has its weakness. There are areas we can definitely improve on and be better at,” said Nate Eovaldi. “[In 2018] we got me, [Steve] Pearce, and Ian Kinsler — utility guy, second base, pitcher. I feel like those are all kind of things we can use now. We could use areas of improvement in the infield. We’ve got guys that are hurt who we want back but we also don’t want to rush back. Also, the way [Cora] handled it down the road in ’18 was everybody staying fresh and being ready in the playoffs. That was one of the keys to our success.”
According to multiple major league sources, the Red Sox are taking a broad-ranging approach to their discussions with other teams. They’re open to adding rental players who would be eligible for free agency after this year as well as players who would come with additional seasons of team control. At a time when their projected payroll is approaching the $210 million luxury-tax threshold, the team also hasn’t ruled out taking on salary to go over that mark.
Further evidence of that open-mindedness: According to Jayson Stark of The Athletic, the Red Sox are one of eight teams discussing a trade for Nationals ace Max Scherzer. Even with Chris Sale coming back — Bloom told NESN that it “isn’t out of the question” that the lefthander could return to the big leagues after two more rehab starts — the Sox seem determined to at least explore difference-makers.
The mere mention of Scherzer — a three-time Cy Young Award winner who is 7-4 with a 2.83 ERA and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings this year — is a head-turner.
“I think everyone wants to have him on their team. He’s one of those guys you never want to face. He’s one of the best pitchers in the league,” said Marwin Gonzalez. “That’s one of the guys you’d love to have on your team.”
At least modest upgrades, starting with bullpen help, seem likely. But an element of unknown possibility hovers over the Sox between now and Friday.
Before Tuesday night’s rainout was announced, Xander Bogaerts was slated to sit for the second straight day in what Cora described as an effort both to rest a sore wrist and, more generally, to give the 28-year-old — who has played 93 games, posting a .309/.371/.520 line — a breather. Cora said Bogaerts will play on Wednesday.
“This kid didn’t have an All-Star break and we’ve been grinding for a while,” said Cora. “One more day doesn’t affect anybody.”
The back-to-back days off are a rarity for Bogaerts. Since 2015, he’s played 890 games at shortstop, most in the majors.
“He shows up every day,” said Cora. “For him to get two offdays, you have to convince him. He understands how we do things now and obviously we’re looking at August and September.”
Hirokazu Sawamura (right triceps inflammation) joined Triple A Worcester for a rehab appearance. He was scheduled to throw one inning on Tuesday night. He’s eligible to come off the injured list on Friday … Gonzalez (hamstring) ran the bases at what he described as 80-85 percent intensity and also took batting practice on the field. The utilityman, who has been on the injured list since July 11, expressed his hope that he might be able to start a rehab assignment as soon as this weekend, when the Sox leave Boston to play Tampa Bay. “I’m getting better little by little,” said Gonzalez. “We’re going to go little by little until we get to 100 [percent].” ... Eduardo Rodriguez, who was forced out of his start last Saturday in the second inning by a migraine, remains on track to start on Thursday against the Blue Jays.