MIAMI — The All-Star break represents the moment when baseball comes up for air. The final 20 days of July, by contrast, will leave everyone gasping for oxygen.
Tuesday’s exhibition between the elite players of the American and National leagues is a spectacle in its own right, but it also represents a signal of what’s to come. The thunderous clap of a stampede sounds somewhat distant now, but it’s nonetheless audible, with everyone in the game aware that it will soon become deafening as it nears.
“You have a number of guys in rumors. Guys are everywhere. They’re on social media. They know everything that’s going on. There’s no hiding anything from anybody,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly. “The [trade] deadline is a couple weeks away. It’s all you’re going to hear. . . . That’s going to happen with every club.”
The Red Sox are no different. The first-place team is clearly in the buyer camp, with the clearest possibilities for an upgrade being at third base and in the form of a lock-down, full-inning setup option.
The unexpectedly effective tandem of Deven Marrero and Tzu-Wei Lin at third base has bought the team time to evaluate in-house options, including not just that duo but also Pablo Sandoval, Brock Holt, and Rafael Devers. That doesn’t mean the Sox are going to stand pat at third base, but the team still has internal questions to resolve in order to identify the extent of its need at the position.
In many ways, the Sox face a clearer need regarding the eighth inning, since there are no additional in-house evaluations to perform prior to the July 31 trade deadline.
With righthander Carson Smith’s throwing program and eventual rehab assignment getting pushed back repeatedly, it’s impossible to imagine that he can do anything over the next 20 days to convince the Red Sox that he’ll be a pitcher who can dominate both righties and lefties in front of closer par excellence Craig Kimbrel.
That, in turn, means that, barring a trade, manager John Farrell will continue to have to sift through setup options who have shown the ability to excel against batters from one side of the plate but not the other.
Matt Barnes (.185/.283/.239 vs. RHHs; .235/.350/.471 vs. LHHs), Joe Kelly (.149/.187/.195; .275/.434/.375), and Heath Hembree (.277/.301/.469, .361/.410/.528) all dominate against righties but have fared poorly against lefties. Robby Scott (.114/.256/.229 vs. LHHs, .279/.354/.535 vs. RHHs) has excelled as a left-on-left option but has struggled against righties.
Despite those severe splits, it’s worth noting that the bullpen has nonetheless been a clear strength of the Sox this year. The relievers have a 3.08 ERA, third best among major league bullpens, while blowing just eight saves (tied for the third fewest in the majors). The team has a total of 80 holds and saves against just eight blown saves — a 10-to-1 ratio that ranks as the third best in baseball.
“We’ve been consistent,” said closer Kimbrel, the anchor of that group. “We’ve had guys who I think have performed more than some have thought at the beginning of the year, but it’s nothing surprising to what we thought we could do. We’ve had a lot of guys who’ve gotten off to great starts. I don’t see that changing.”
Does that mean that Kimbrel doesn’t consider a trade necessary?
“It’s not my job to make those decisions,” he said. “It’s my job to say that our guys are going to be the guys who are going to do it, and we’ll stay healthy, and we can talk about it at the end of the year.”
So what options exist? Discussions with players and talent evaluators at the All-Star Game offered some clues — with the caveat that the available pool of options can change rapidly over the next three weeks:
LHP BRAD HAND, PADRES
2.30 ERA, 11.5 strikeouts per 9 innings, 2.5 walks per 9
The lefthanded workhorse is on pace for his second straight season of 75-plus appearances. While he’s typically been dominant against lefties compared to merely effective against righties, this year he’s dominated righties (.555 OPS) while producing more modest numbers against fellow southpaws (.192 average, .665 OPS).
“I feel like I’ve been pitching in maybe more to righties than I have in the years previous,” said Hand. “That probably helped my slider out, too, a little bit.”
Hand, who is making $1.38 million this year, is under team control through the 2019 season.
He’s aware of the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, that he could get dealt.
“I’ve got no preference. Whatever team it is, I’m happy to go there,” he said. “Obviously, I’d like to pitch for a contender, but I also like what they’re doing in San Diego. The prospects that they have there now, I can see this team being really good in the next few years.”
One wild card regarding potential Red Sox interest in Hand: After the controversy surrounding Drew Pomeranz’s medical documentation, there were a lot of hard feelings among Sox officials towards the Padres and GM A.J. Preller. It is unclear whether the Red Sox would look to pursue a deal with San Diego.
LHP JUSTIN WILSON, TIGERS
2.36 ERA, 12.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, 3.4 walks per 9, 10 saves
Wilson has emerged as the Tigers closer, but prior to that, he’d been overpowering in the eighth inning (11 innings, no runs, .057/.154/.086 line with 18 strikeouts in the eighth). The addition of a slider to his mid-90s fastball/cutter combination has allowed him to wipe out both lefties and particularly righties. He’s making $2.7 million this year, and has an additional season of team control after this one.
RHP PAT NESHEK, PHILLIES
1.27 ERA, 9.2 strikeouts per 9 innings, 1.3 walks per 9
In the final year of a three-year, $18.5 million deal for a rebuilding Phillies team, Neshek has been effective in both the seventh and eighth innings this year.
“I’ve been dealing with it since I think the first day I got traded there. That was all the talks on the Philly blogs, the fan blogs — ‘Hey, this is kind of a piece that can maybe help the young guys and then we’ll trade him off,’” Neshek acknowledged. “It’s not like it wasn’t expected. It would be nice for me one year to just stay somewhere for three years. . . . I think it’s been six different organizations in the last six years.”
Though the funky sidewinder often has excelled against righties while proving vulnerable to lefties, this year he’s holding batters from both sides of the plate to a sub-.600 OPS. Neshek credited increased slider usage for the improvement, though he’s actually throwing a lower percentage of sliders than he did a year ago, when lefties posted an OPS of .967 against him. Though reliable against righties, that drastic year-to-year contrast suggests he might be closer to someone like Brad Ziegler a year ago than a lockdown full-inning option.
LHP SEAN DOOLITTLE, A’S
3.54 ERA, 12.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, 0.9 walks per 9
Want someone who can wipe out lefties? Doolittle, in the fourth year of a five-year, $10.5 million deal that includes two team options, has retired all 24 lefthanded batters he’s faced while striking out 12. But is he an eighth-inning solution rather than a left-on-left option? Righties are hitting .240/.269/.440 against him, though he’s struck out 33 percent of them with a 4 percent walk rate. He also comes with durability questions, having thrown just 73 innings since the start of 2015.
RHP DAVID PHELPS, MARLINS
3.68 ERA, 9.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, 3.3 walks per 9
Phelps — who is making $4.6 million this year and has one additional year of team control before he’s eligible for free agency — has been much stronger against righties (.221/.302/.312) than lefties (.267/.319/.442) this year, continuing a career-long pattern.
Nonetheless, his manager suggested that the 30-year-old offers comfort against hitters from both sides of the plate.
“When we put him in the ‘pen, he was unbelievable. His stuff ticked up,” said Mattingly, noting that Phelps had struggled to define his place as a back-of-the-rotation starter. “He’s one of those guys, really for me, I don’t care who’s up, I’ve got a couple guys in the back end there and I’m not afraid to throw them in the game, they’re going to match up stuff-wise. He’s been really good.”
Phelps has clearly benefited from cavernous Marlins Park this year, posting a 0.83 ERA with no homers allowed in his home park and a 6.45 ERA with five homers allowed on the road. It’s fair to wonder whether he’d represent an asset discernibly different from the group that the Red Sox already have.
RHP TOMMY KAHNLE, WHITE SOX
2.65 ERA, 15.1 strikeouts per 9 innings, 1.9 walks per 9 innings
Kahnle, who won’t be arbitration-eligible until next season, has stumbled recently after a brilliant start, raising questions about whether a pitcher who has yet to demonstrate sustainable durability is hitting a wall. After he allowed four earned runs in his first 30 games, he’s yielded six in his last five games with three blown saves.
That said, his strikeout rate is outrageous, and even though he’s enjoyed a notably better performance against righties (.171/.190/.329) than lefties (.271/.333/.313) this year, much of the disparity can be explained by an insane batting average on balls on play (.500) posted by lefties. His career track record suggests that Kahnle is likely to see that number drop significantly, with his splits thus leveling out.
There are questions about whether the White Sox would deal Kahnle at a time when he’s struggling given that they have three more years of team control beyond this one to try to sell high.