One week later, head-scratching persists about how the Red Sox approached the trade deadline, and not just from fans and media.
Multiple members of the organization — from players and uniformed personnel to front-office members — used a common word in assessing the team’s unwillingness to define itself as either a buyer or seller while orbiting the .500 mark at the Aug. 2 trade deadline: Confusion.
Questions have lingered. Not just about the team’s direction for the rest of 2022, but beyond.
⋅ Did the Sox overvalue or undervalue the opportunity to win this year?
⋅ Did they place too great a premium on prospects in dealing away Christian Vázquez, an everyday catcher and team leader, or not enough in their choice to keep fellow free-agents-to-be Nate Eovaldi and J.D. Martinez (as well as Rich Hill, Matt Strahm, and Michael Wacha)?
⋅ Did they give away too much of their big-league team, or not add enough back?
⋅ Perhaps most importantly, after dealing Vázquez and reliever Jake Diekman and acquiring first baseman Eric Hosmer, outfielder Tommy Pham, and catcher Reese McGuire, do the Red Sox feel they actually got better?
“I understand why people could look at what we did and scratch their heads,” acknowledged chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “To us, it was pretty clear and pretty simple that the position we were in demanded a unique response.”
Confusion at the outset
Uncertain direction was an issue as early as the spring. In theory, once Trevor Story pushed the team over the $230 million luxury tax threshold, some evaluators inside and outside of the organization expected the Sox to keep spending to round out the big league roster.
Trading Hunter Renfroe for Jackie Bradley Jr. and prospects made a great deal of sense if the club added another outfielder in spring training who had a chance to offset some of Renfroe’s offensive production from 2021. Instead, the loss of Renfroe became jarring, and Bradley’s offensive struggles led to him being released last week.
“The whole book on that [Renfroe] trade obviously is not yet written,” said Bloom, “but we have to own — and I as a lead decision-maker have to own — that part of our thought process was that the 2022 roster would come together in a way that we wouldn’t feel Hunter’s absence as much as we have.”
Others thought the Sox were vulnerable at first base, where they entered the year with Bobby Dalbec (intriguing but inconsistent in 2021) and Travis Shaw, and Franchy Cordero as an out-of-position placeholder for Triston Casas should either falter.
The team passed on a move for a buy-low player with upside like Daniel Vogelbach. As Shaw (released in April), Dalbec, and Cordero struggled, and with Casas sidelined by injury for two months, the Sox explored trades for alternatives in June and early July, but elected to stick with internal options.
In that decision, some saw a measured approach that raised questions about whether the team was putting sufficient priority on the current season — a notion that was tested in earnest at the trade deadline.
What value, 2022?
With 48 hours left before the deadline, the Sox were one game under .500 and last in the AL East, but 3½ games behind the Rays for the third and final Wild Card spot. They’d shown immense potential on a 33-14 run in May and June, but bookended that with runs of 10-19 and 8-19.
As the team calibrated its plans around the All-Star break, Bloom and senior Red Sox officials defined their position. Numerous fissures — both injuries (particularly to four-fifths of the rotation) and poor performance — had collided to create a July dam burst, but the team had a chance to look very different with a return to health in August and September. If the Sox could add reinforcements at positions of weakness, then perhaps they would be in position to capitalize when their injured players returned.
Odds were against a playoff berth, yet not so dramatically stacked as to motivate a repeat of the team’s clear 2014 selloff. The mere possibility of contending couldn’t be taken lightly, as Atlanta had demonstrated going from a sub-.500 deadline team to a World Series in 2021.
“The North Star here is winning,” said one front-office member.
And so, the Sox opted for a sliding scale approach.
They wouldn’t rule out dealing pending free agents for players with a chance to be part of their efforts to contend in coming years, but they would not merely seek player-for-player value in a trade. If dealing key players, they’d need to receive a return that reflected the cost to their hopes of contention as well as any potential draft pick compensation.
An executive of a National League team that discussed a deal for Martinez in the hours leading up to the deadline said the Sox sought both major leaguers and prospects back for the slugger. Another said the team was aiming for top-tier prospects for rentals.
“[It] felt like they just wanted to see if someone would get dumb,” said an executive of one team that discussed Martinez and starting pitchers with the Sox.
Red Sox officials say they felt it made no sense to force a deal for its own sake.
The two prospects sent by the Astros for Vázquez — second baseman Enmanuel Valdez and outfielder Wilyer Abreu — can both now be considered among the top 20 Sox prospects, and cleared what the Sox themselves described as a high bar. Offers for the team’s other rental players did not.
A year ago, teams dealt top-10 and even top-5 prospects in their systems for players who were months from free agency. But this deadline, while Juan Soto, Luis Castillo, and Frankie Montas fetched top-tier prospects, all of them were under control at least through the end of 2023.
Rentals yielded lower-level prospects, and helped keep catcher Willson Contreras with the Cubs and lefthander Carlos Rodón with the Giants — a team that, like the Sox, appeared to straddle a buy/sell divide.
The cost of trying to win
All the same, some with the Sox were surprised the team didn’t make further deals involving rental players — and in particular, that the team didn’t make the necessary moves to shed the roughly $5 million to $10 million to get under the luxury tax threshold. That shedding would mean greater draft pick compensation (a pick just before the third round, versus before the fifth) if top players depart as free agents.
Yet getting under the tax line was never a motivating principle to the Sox, who valued contention more. Indeed, it added in the interests of addressing holes via Pham — a free-agent-to-be whose remaining salary (just over $2 million) the Reds were looking to dump. The Sox explored other rentals to upgrade their roster — particularly for relievers — and most discussions followed the Pham model of absorbing salary from out-of-contention teams.
The club did discuss dealing prospects for players who would be under team control for the longer haul — A’s catcher Sean Murphy represented one such target — but couldn’t find a match.
The club believes Pham represented an upgrade of a season-long weakness, outfield production. While it spent time discussing a deal with the Padres that would have had the Sox responsible for a decent chunk of Hosmer’s salary along with receiving prospects, the unexpected final form of San Diego subsidizing all of Hosmer’s remaining three-plus years save for the minimum was a clear upgrade at first base.
Are Pham and Hosmer, along with McGuire, enough for the Sox to believe they’re better positioned to contend than they were before dealing Vázquez and sending a shockwave through their organization?
“Ultimately, we felt we came out of it with a stronger organization, and at least as strong and maybe a stronger big league club,” said Bloom. “Even though it looks different.”
. . .
Going 2-4 since the deadline hasn’t backed that notion, and even if the Sox go on a run, the bewilderment of some organization members suggests a potential issue.
The multi-directional approach to roster building has become more common throughout the game, also employed by the Dodgers, Rays, Brewers, Giants, and Yankees (among others) as teams are ever conscious of balancing short- and long-term moves.
Bloom and members of his inner circle might have a clear sense of what they’re trying to accomplish. Yet as he seemed to acknowledge in requesting a team meeting in Kansas City after several face-to-face conversations in Houston, nearly three years into his tenure, the Sox still have work to do in getting everyone from the front office, to the big league roster, to minor leaguers to understand — and, perhaps more importantly, to believe in it.
“No doubt this is a time that has crystallized that,” said one front office member, who expressed confidence that Bloom’s history as part of the Rays’ remarkable culture was reason for optimism. “We’re not where we need to be. It’s been a big shift from how we operated through October 2019.
“There are growing pains with that.”