In recent days, members of the Red Sox watched and wondered.
Every other American League contender had added key players as Friday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline approached. The Yankees traded for outfield slugger Joey Gallo and lefty reliever Joely Rodríguez on Wednesday, then shockingly consummated a deal for Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (viewed as an obvious Red Sox fit) on Thursday. The Rays added masher Nelson Cruz from the Twins last week.
The Astros upgraded their bullpen by adding a pair of closers, Kendall Graveman (from Seattle) and Yimi García (from the Marlins). The A’s added outfielder Starling Marte. The White Sox traded for second baseman César Hernández and reliever Ryan Tepera on Thursday. The Blue Jays acquired Nationals closer Brad Hand.
Sox players were aware of those moves. They didn’t expect a blockbuster, but increasingly, the players who’d carried the team to first place throughout the year seemed curious, even perhaps a bit anxious, about whether their front office would do something to bolster the team.
“I don’t think we’re panicking yet. We’re not hoping to get a Joey Gallo-type megadeal. I don’t think that’s something we’re expecting, to be honest, because our team is pretty solid,” Xander Bogaerts said on Thursday afternoon, before his team’s 13-1 loss to the Blue Jays. “But there’s obviously room for improvement. If [the front office feels] we can get better, then pull the trigger on that.
“The playoffs don’t come around a lot. We’re in a really good position — we’re in first place right now. The division is very close. Hopefully we do something, get that sense that we want to be better,” he added. “No one expected us to be here. I’m definitely sure we surprised ourselves, to be honest. From last year to where we are now, not a lot of people thought we would be in this position. [But] once you’re in this position, we’ve got to fully take advantage of it.
“If there’s any way to upgrade your team, why not?”
Late on Thursday night, as the team prepared to leave for a pivotal series against the Rays, the Red Sox made their first move. The team added slugger Kyle Schwarber from the Washington Nationals in exchange for minor league righthander Aldo Ramirez.
Schwarber, 28, is hitting .253/.340/.570 with 25 homers in 72 games — numbers fueled by a ridiculous June in which he hit 12 homers in a 10-game span from June 19-29, tied for the big league record for most homers in a 10-game period. He also set a record for most homers as a leadoff hitter in a calendar month with 15. The All-Star has been on the injured list due to a hamstring strain since July 3; one major league source said that he might be out another 10 days at least.
Schwarber doesn’t represent the cleanest roster fit. The team has had a significant hole at first base, where it ranks at or near the bottom of the league in average (.218), OBP (.262), and slugging (.390). But Schwarber has never played first in his career, and some evaluators are skeptical he can.
Still, according to major league sources, the Red Sox will give him a look at first, a position that might help him as he returns from his hamstring injury, while also rotating him in as an outfield corner and designated hitter. Regardless of position, when and if healthy, he should help an offense that has looked listless since the All-Star break, averaging 4.3 runs per game (roughly middle of the pack).
To get Schwarber, the Sox parted with a promising young pitching prospect. The 20-year-old Ramirez had emerged as one of the top half-dozen pitching prospects in the Red Sox system. With Low-A Salem this year, he had a 2.03 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 31 innings, and projected as a potential back-of-the-rotation starter thanks to both solid low- to mid-90s velocity and a good feel to mix four pitches.
Still, the Sox have had a number of promising young pitching prospects emerge in the system, making it easier to part with one still multiple years from the big leagues.
The Red Sox took on the remainder of Schwarber’s salary — roughly one-third of his one-year, $10 million deal, a sum that has the team scraping (but not over) the $210 million luxury tax threshold for 2021. The team, according to a major league source, is still exploring additional moves that, if consummated, would push them over the threshold.
To make room for Schwarber on the 40-man roster, the Red Sox designated reliever Brandon Workman for assignment. Workman had a 5.46 ERA in 29 games this year with the Cubs and Red Sox.
It remains to be seen whether Schwarber represents the first of multiple deals before Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline. The Sox have been talking to teams about both starting pitchers, their 4.43 ERA entering Thursday ranked 20th in the majors, and bullpen help.
But at the least, the trade for Schwarber will reassure a curious clubhouse that the Red Sox front office views the group as one worthy of further investment, based on its first-place standing at the end of July.
Meanwhile, the team feels that it has another transformative addition on the horizon, with Chris Sale getting closer to a return to the big leagues from his Tommy John surgery.
“I think that skinny left-handed pitcher coming in a few weeks or in a month, it helps. It’s a different feel to be honest with you,” said manager Alex Cora. “It’s the trade that nobody else can make and it’s the ace.”
“I think that’s the biggest addition to any team at the whole trading deadline,” agreed Bogaerts.
Still, multiple team leaders — Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, and Nate Eovaldi among them — had expressed their hope in recent days that the Sox would look to do more than just wait for the returns of injured players. Now, they’ve done that, with a chance that there are more reinforcements to come.