BALTIMORE — The Red Sox are in the exact wrong place as the trade deadline approaches. Stuck in the middle.
They are in third place in the American League East and fourth in what is shaping up to be a six-team chase for the two wild-card spots. Right in the middle.
The Sox are too good to give up and not good enough to merit trading more prospects from a farm system that has just started getting back on its feet.
Plus the payroll is largely inflexible considering they’re already close to $246 million, the level that triggers the harshest financial penalties of the luxury tax and a loss of 10 spots in the draft.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski split the difference on July 13 by trading for Andrew Cashner. The Sox took on only $1.57 million in payroll and gave up two 17-year-old prospects from the Dominican Summer League.
The response has so far been tepid. Although the Sox thumped the Baltimore Orioles, 17-6 on Saturday night, they are only 5-4 since the All-Star break.
Now Cashner, who allowed six runs in five innings in a 10-4 loss against Toronto in his first start for the Sox on Tuesday night, faces Baltimore on Sunday. Then the Sox will play three games at Tampa Bay and four against the Yankees at Fenway before a day off on July 29.
That day should be the organization’s deadline to decide whether this season is worth trying to save.
The division title is out of reach; we can all admit that even if Alex Cora won’t. The Sox are 11 games behind the first-place Yankees, who have played with great passion all season.
The wild card is still in play. But here’s the question Dombrowski, Cora, and the rest of the decision makers have to answer: Are the Sox good enough to win in the postseason if they get there?
The Sox have played six of the 10 teams who either lead their division or hold one of the wild-cards spots. They are 11-18 against those clubs.
Sure, the Sox could win the wild-card game with Chris Sale, David Price, or Eduardo Rodriguez on the mound. But could they take three of five from the Yankees or Astros in the Division Series?
“I feel like we’d be dangerous in the playoffs because of our experience last season,” Matt Barnes said. “So many of our guys were tested last year and we’d be comfortable in that environment.”
Barnes makes a good point. But this team has played all season with the attitude that they’ll hit the gas when the time comes and it hasn’t happened.
At some point a team has to earn roster upgrades and the Sox haven’t done that. That’s what makes the coming week such an important one in determining their strategy at the deadline.
If Cashner pitches well on Sunday and if Nate Eovaldi looks like a difference maker in the bullpen, it would make sense for Dombrowski to seek another low-risk addition.
If not, the 2016 Yankees offer a good blueprint.
The Yankees were in roughly the same place that season, 9½ games out of first place on July 16 with a roster full of underachieving well-paid stars.
General manager Brian Cashman pulled the plug on July 25, taking advantage of a trade market hungry for relievers by dealing Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs. Then at the deadline he sent Andrew Miller to the Indians.
Infielder Gleyber Torres, one of the prospects obtained from the Cubs, is now a two-time All-Star under team control for four more seasons.
Outfielder Billy McKinney, another piece of the Chapman trade, was one of the prospects Cashman traded to Toronto to get J.A. Happ.
Cashman flipped one of the players he received from the Indians, lefthander Justus Sheffield, to land James Paxton in a trade.
Dombrowski has been a seller before. He dealt away Yoenis Cespedes, David Price, and Joakim Soria in 2015 when the Tigers fell out of contention.
The Tigers got back Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer, and Daniel Norris, who have all been in the Detroit rotation.
The Sox have a number of veteran players on expiring contracts — Brock Holt, J.D. Martinez, Mitch Moreland, and Rick Porcello in particular — who could bring back an interesting prospect or two.
Kick the tires on what somebody would give you for Andrew Benintendi before his value drops even more.
The Yankees didn’t blow it up in 2016, but they knocked down a few walls and were better for it in the long run.
The Sox would benefit from the same bold thinking. Good teams are playing to win and bad teams are playing for the future. Being in the middle is playing for nothing.