In recent years, the Red Sox featured a towering stack of trade chips that seemed as if it might topple at any moment. This year, the pile has flattened.
As the Red Sox approach the trade deadline, while evaluators note that the team is checking in on the availability of just about every player in the market, the team’s ambitions are held somewhat in check by the revised state of the farm system. Though third baseman Rafael Devers is the sort of asset who could anchor just about any trade conversation, the Sox seem committed to entrusting him with a big league job for years to come. Beyond the 20-year-old, the Sox’ blue-chip pieces are few.
“They don’t have what they had a couple years ago — [Yoan] Moncada, [Michael] Kopech, and others — where you say, ‘Here they come,’ ” said one National League evaluator. “They’ve traded a lot of players. That’s [president of baseball operations Dave] Dombrowski’s M.O.”
One of the reasons Dombrowski is a consummate deal maker is because he almost never offers a categorical dismissal of a name in trade conversations. That said, multiple rival evaluators described the top of the Red Sox system as significantly thinner, in a way that is likely to limit what the Red Sox can do between now and July 31.
Devers (hitting .307/.375/.588 with 20 homers between Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket for the year) is viewed as one of the best offensive prospects in the game. He’s going nowhere. Lefthander Jay Groome, though 1-4 with a 5.84 ERA, has 31 strikeouts in 24⅔ innings. He, too, seems to represent a player with whom the Red Sox would find it hard to part.
“Devers ain’t going anywhere. Groome isn’t going anywhere,” said the evaluator. “Other than that, in their system, you can’t see them saying, ‘Wow, we can’t get rid of him.’ ”
Injuries have prevented a number of interesting prospects from emerging as potentially valuable trade assets. In particular, a pair of 2016 draftees, power-hitting third baseman Bobby Dalbec and shortstop C.J. Chatham, are now playing again after missing a majority of the first three months, but neither has been healthy enough this year to build on the past impressions they’ve made on evaluators.
Righthander Travis Lakins, a 2015 fifth-rounder with one of the highest ceilings among Red Sox pitching prospects, has been shut down — potentially for the rest of the year — because of a recurrence of the stress fracture in his elbow tip that ended his 2016 season.
Blake Swihart (.213/.265/.327) would appeal to a number of teams, though his stock has taken a hit because of his injuries over the last two years, particularly given that his ankle soreness has raised questions by some teams about his ability to become an everyday catcher. Multiple major league sources suggested that Swihart might be able to fetch a significant rental bat, but found it hard to believe that the Red Sox would sell low on a potentially significant prospect who is now viewed by the industry as something of a wild card with high upside.
Sam Travis might have comparable value — somebody viewed as a potential everyday player but whose ceiling as a first baseman seems more likely solid than spectacular.
Beyond those names, two prospects have seen their stock increase in the eyes of the industry, with both 2014 first-rounder Michael Chavis (.299/.359/.599 with 23 homers) and 18-year-old righthander Bryan Mata (2.68 ERA, 8.0 strikeouts and 2.2 walks per nine innings) representing solid pieces. Still, while their value has grown thanks to strong performances this year, neither is in the value category of Blake Rutherford, the 20-year-old whom the Yankees used to anchor their deal with the White Sox for Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle.
A year ago at this time, the Red Sox were in position to discuss seriously the possibility of acquiring any available player in the game. This year, a system that was culled by December trades has yet to experience the emergence of a next group of top prospects, helping to explain why the Red Sox’ pursuit of trade upgrades is likely to be restrained.
Swihart starts over
Throughout the season at Pawtucket, Swihart’s ankle has required a degree of care in his return from a season-ending procedure last August. But on July 4, the condition became too much to continue.
“He’d have good and bad days. . . . You know you’re going to have up and down days coming off of surgery, but this was different,” said PawSox manager Kevin Boles. “There was a significant limp the last day. It was noticeable. . . . I just brought him in and said, ‘OK, where are we at?’ He couldn’t hide it anymore.”
That development forced not only a trip to the disabled list but a determination that, going forward this year, Swihart will be reduced to part-time work behind the plate. He’ll also serve as a DH and move to other infield positions. He’s started taking grounders at first base, and he’s eventually expected to get some playing time at third.
In moving Swihart around, the Red Sox hope to get him steady playing time after roughly two stop-and-start years in which he has dealt with numerous injuries (ankle, jammed finger, head-to-head collision). Swihart, who maintains a steadfast long-term desire to be an everyday catcher, is ready to do anything to stay on the field.
“I’ll admit it. I get [ticked] off. I get [ticked] off at myself. Sometimes you don’t understand why things are happening. You take a freak foul ball to the finger, and you’re like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Your ankle starts barking. You’re trying to play every day, trying to play through so much, but there comes a time when you’ve just got to rest your body and let it heal up,” said Swihart. “The last couple years have been kind of a lot of [messy stuff] going on. But it is what it is and I’ve got to keep going. I’m starting to feel a lot better.
“Being a switch-hitting catcher/first baseman/left fielder/whatever, that’s pretty special if you have all that,” he added. “For me, I just want to play. That’s it. I still want to catch, that’s my main goal. But my body’s just not allowing me to do it right now, so we changed it up.”
Swihart is at a potentially interesting crossroads. He’s out of options after this year, meaning the Red Sox won’t be able to send him back to the minors in 2018. That, in turn, raises questions about whether he’ll have a long-term fit in the organization or if he might become a trade chip. Swihart is aware of his roster status, but takes a pragmatic view of it.
“For me, I kind of control that the most — just going out there and playing. I know I’m not hitting like I know I can hit. I just need to go out there and play my game, and I think things will fall where they need to,” he said. “My season starts the day I get activated. Anything that happened before that is history. No matter what that scoreboard says, .200 [average] or whatever, I’m 0-for-0 for the season starting the day I come back. That’s how I’m going to look at it.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell said the Sox may try to get Swihart additional at-bats in winter ball.
Below the radar
Lefthander Dedgar Jimenez is in the middle of a very strong, if overlooked, season. The 21-year-old added a slider to his arsenal of a high-80s to low-90s fastball, curveball, and changeup, with the four-pitch mix helping him to a 10-3 record, 3.07 ERA, and 8.4 strikeouts along with 2.1 walks per nine innings in High A Salem, where he was a Carolina League All-Star. On Thursday, the Red Sox promoted him to Portland . . . Lefthanded reliever Bobby Poyner is performing his way onto the radar of scouts. The 24-year-old has a 0.40 ERA in 22⅓ innings since moving up from Salem to Portland, with opposing hitters owning just a .120 average against a lefty who tops out in the low-90s . . . Another lefty in Portland, Williams Jerez, has shown considerable improvement in his arsenal, topping out at 97 with an inconsistent slider that is starting to garner some swings and misses and some early signs of a splitter to get righties out. The reliever has a 1.00 ERA with 19 strikeouts and three walks in his last 18 innings.