Tick, tick, tick.
With less than a week until next Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline, the Red Sox remain in search of direction. They are caught between the desire to stoke any remaining embers of hope for 2022 and the reality that most of them were extinguished by the devastating five-game stretch that bookended the All-Star break in which the Sox were outscored, 67-13.
Will the Sox buy or sell? Typical responses from those inside and outside the organization have ranged from “it’s all in play” to “maybe both” to objections to the buy/sell dichotomy to shrugs of uncertainty.
Multiple evaluators said that despite the “never say never” ethos of the Red Sox front office (a group that has, after all, traded Mookie Betts), the likelihood of a trade involving Xander Bogaerts or Rafael Devers is remote. Both are expected to remain with the Sox beyond the trade deadline, a message delivered publicly by a pair of Sox officials on Tuesday.
“There’s been no discussions or commentary internally or externally about moves related to the trade deadline involving Xander, Raffy, or anyone else to my knowledge,” president and CEO Sam Kennedy said on “The Greg Hill Show” on WEEI. “At this point, we’re focused on getting back in this thing and winning.”
“We haven’t had any discussions internally or with any other club about them,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said on NESN. “We don’t plan to.”
The Red Sox continue to identify Bogaerts and Devers as cornerstone players, central to any remaining hopes for this season and with a desire to retain both as part of future contenders. Of course, the Red Sox said the same about Betts when they decided not to trade him at the 2019 deadline.
The 2019 precedent is interesting to consider. The Sox recognized at that deadline that they were almost certainly not going to re-sign Betts before he became a free agent after the 2020 season. Their farm system was Flat Stanley-thin. They were reigning World Series champions but hadn’t looked like the 2018 vintage.
And so, the Red Sox considered whether it made sense to explore dealing Betts — aware that the Dodgers were particularly interested in acquiring him. Some team officials believed that it might be possible to pry catcher Will Smith from Los Angeles in a Betts deadline deal.
But both the Sox and Betts briefly got hot before the deadline, and then-president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski waved off the idea of a deal of the superstar, particularly after a three-homer game against the Yankees in late July.
“They’ll burn down my house if we trade Mookie Betts,” Dombrowski, by multiple accounts, told Red Sox owner John Henry at the time.
Delaying the Betts trade until the following February resulted in a lesser return and likely contributed to the fact that it was consummated not by Dombrowski but by Bloom, his successor. Many in the organization considered it a mistake to have delayed the Betts decision beyond the 2019 deadline.
Given that outlook, why wouldn’t the Red Sox explore dealing Bogaerts or Devers now, particularly given that, as Henry recently said, the Sox believe they “are still in a building mode”?
In part, the reluctance to explore trade talks about Devers and Bogaerts is a product of the organization seeing itself as being in a better spot with its overall payroll and farm system than in 2019. Against that backdrop, the idea of revisiting contract talks with Devers and Bogaerts is more likely than it was when Betts was dealt.
Yet even then, the volatile performance of this season has made clear that the 2021 campaign did not mark the beginning of a steady state of contention fueled by an overflowing talent pipeline. The Red Sox still have work to do before the upper levels of the farm system can offer consistent impact in the way that has turned the Dodgers and Astros into preeminent organizations.
That being the case, it’s not hard to see the Sox — with a poor showing in the next week — deciding they will trade players who are on the cusp of free agency, starting with J.D. Martinez and Nate Eovaldi, but also including Kiké Hernández (whose defense would be seen as an asset), rehabbing pitchers Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, Matt Strahm, and more.
Yet even if the Sox dealt from that group, they could also look to acquire players who might be under control beyond 2022. While the Sox seem unlikely to engage in the same sort of straightforward deadline buy they did a year ago — when they traded prospects for rentals Kyle Schwarber and Hansel Robles — they do not want to dismiss the opportunity presented by being within a couple of games of a wild-card spot.
“Everybody kind of moved to writing off this group,” said Bloom. “We’re not. We’re trying to make the postseason. We’re going to explore a lot of stuff. Some of it might be things people expect, some of it might not be, but we want to get this group to the postseason.”
What might an effort to do so entail? No one, including those within the organization, seems to know just yet. The path forward promises to hold some twists between now and Aug. 2.