Rarely does a sandstorm sweep Major League Baseball like the one that advanced to and through this year’s trade deadline.
The days, hours, and minutes leading up to Friday at 4 p.m. featured a staggering array of stars changing teams, each name punctuated by disbelief: Max Scherzer! Trea Turner! José Berríos! Javier Báez! Craig Kimbrel! Kris Bryant! Joey Gallo!
The names were so big, the transactions so rapid, that it took some time after the deadline for the haboob to clear and to know who had gone where and for what. Suspense loomed: Had the Red Sox, after trading for Schwarber late on Thursday night, been able to improve their pitching staff?
The answer arrived in somewhat anticlimactic form.
The Red Sox made a pair of minor trades on Friday just before the deadline, acquiring righthanded reliever Hansel Robles (and cash – which prevented the team’s payroll from pushing past the $210 million luxury tax threshold) from the Twins for minor league reliever Alex Scherff and adding lefty Austin Davis from the Pirates for Michael Chavis.
In a vacuum, the three trades over two days improved a first-place Red Sox team.
“We got better,” said Sox manager Alex Cora.
Still, the Sox acknowledged that they would have loved to do more — particularly when it came to reinforcing their pitching staff. The team’s rotation has a 4.51 ERA this year, 20th in MLB. The bullpen has seen its performance tail off in July, perhaps the result of fatigue from frequent usage after a compressed 2020 campaign.
While chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom expressed satisfaction in the moves he made, he acknowledged he’d explored other possibilities that didn’t come to fruition, particularly with the rotation. He empathized with those who might see the Sox’ moves as unexciting compared to those of the team’s AL East competitors.
The Yankees added Gallo, Anthony Rizzo, starter Andrew Heaney and two relievers. The Blue Jays added Berríos and reinforced their bullpen with Brad Hand and Joakim Soria. The Rays traded for Nelson Cruz then made a bunch of additional trades whose wisdom will magically become evident in October.
“I get it. Especially when things are flying left and right like they have been the last 48 hours, any fan would like to see their team right in the thick of it, and you love to see your team making big moves. We would, too,” said Bloom. “We just aren’t going to do that when we think those moves are running counter to our goal.”
That goal, as has been frequently articulated, is the effort to turn the team into a perennial contender — a mission that requires the intentional cultivation of the farm system into an eventual player development powerhouse.
The Red Sox farm system is vastly improved over the last two years and now has major league-ready contributors such as Jarren Duran and Tanner Houck. But the system isn’t as deep as those of the Dodgers, Rays, Padres, Blue Jays, and other teams who are able to take more aggressive approaches to the trade market without fear of gutting their systems.
The Sox are trying to navigate what Bloom described as a tightrope – reinforcing a 2021 team that is in first place and has a chance to win in an American League that lacks a juggernaut, but doing so in a way that ensures contention in 2022, 2023, and beyond. That mission, however, created limits in terms of the players for whom the Sox would compete in a seller’s market at this trade deadline.
“We know how hard it is to get to this position and we don’t take that for granted,” said Bloom. “But at the same time, we want to win a lot and we want to win every year. If we want the future to be really good, you have to take care of the future and you have to care about that.”
The Sox pursued that balance by trading a good though not elite prospect — righthander Aldo Ramirez, ranked No. 13 in the system by Baseball America — for Schwarber, dealing a fallen prospect in Chavis for Davis, and trading a promising reliever who ranked outside the team’s top 30 prospects in Scherff for Robles.
In return, the team got Schwarber — a lefthanded masher who was hitting .243/.340/.570 with 25 homers in 72 games for the Nationals before a hamstring injury in early July. The Sox are hopeful that Schwarber will be ready to join their roster within a couple of weeks — with plans to see if he can handle first base (a position where he has no experience), but a willingness to use him in the outfield and at DH if he cannot.
“Simply put, we think Kyle Schwarber is one of the most impactful hitters that changed hands this week,” said Bloom.
Robles has struggled in Minnesota this year, going 3-4 with a 4.91 ERA, including 15 runs allowed in 11⅓ innings since reliever performances tend to be volatile, and there’s a chance that Robles — a durable righthander who is armed with a 97 miles-per-hour fastball and swing-and-miss changeup — can tap back into the form that made him an outstanding reliever with the Angels in 2019 (2.48 ERA, 26.5 percent strikeout rate, 23 saves) to deepen the team’s setup options.
Davis, who had a 5.59 ERA in 9⅔ innings for Pittsburgh, has shown the potential for an effective fastball and breaking ball. He’ll ease the workload on lefthander Josh Taylor.
“Our bullpen has done a great job this year, and we wanted to back that up by getting reinforcements just to make sure we have as many good options as possible,” said Bloom.
As for the rotation, the team is mindful that Chris Sale could be back in the rotation as soon as the second week of August. Still, given the inconsistencies of everyone outside of Nate Eovaldi, the team would have loved to bring another starter into the mix.
But the prices — multiple top-100 players in the deals for Scherzer and Berríos, the Phillies’ best young pitcher (Spencer Howard) in a trade for Kyle Gibson— proved prohibitive for a team that wanted to improve its chances of winning this year without compromising the seasons to come.
“That’s not to say that the future always wins every time,” said Bloom. “We were prepared to pay some long-term costs as long as we thought it was reasonable or thought it was appropriate. We just didn’t.”
The roster uncertainties are now done. The team knows what it has done, and who can be a part of its push through the next two months of the regular season and, it hopes, the postseason run that follows.
“I was waiting for 4:01,” said Cora. “Now, we can move on. … We’re in a position to make the playoffs, and obviously we feel that we can make a deep run in October and win the World Series.”