Baseball’s trade deadline is now in sight, looming Wednesday at 4 p.m. The “will they buy or sell?” thought bubble that floated above the Red Sox just a week ago most likely has popped.
With five wins in their last seven games against their foremost AL East competitors, the Red Sox are close enough to a wild-card spot — and confident enough in their talent base — that they see a team worth supplementing. They are just one game behind the A’s in the second wild-card spot and a half-game behind the Rays.
It remains to be seen whether the last week of strong play proves sustainable, but the Red Sox are close enough to a postseason spot that they seem inclined to supplement. Asked Sunday night if they could use reinforcements, manager Alex Cora proclaimed, “Every team does. Everybody knows what’s going on. We know where we’re at with the club and we know what we have to do to make it better.”
So what might that be?
Need is pretty obvious
The Red Sox lineup is surging, in a way that suggests virtually no likelihood of them seeking offense. They already made their move to round out the rotation with the acquisition of Andrew Cashner. With him on board, and even though the rotation has a 4.75 ERA (17th in the big leagues), the Sox likely are inclined to work through the struggles of Chris Sale and Rick Porcello rather than add another starter.
The bullpen is always an area where teams can add, and the Red Sox, saddled with a 4.54 ERA that ranks 18th in the big leagues, are no different.
There is a growing number of contributors, with lefthanders Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez both showing promise and Matt Barnes having bounced back from his rough June to deliver a dominant July (nine scoreless appearances, 54 percent strikeout rate). Brandon Workman has been a force all season, one of the most dominant relievers in the game.
But beyond that, there are questions. As much as the Sox describe Nate Eovaldi as a difference-maker in the bullpen, such an assessment remains speculative as the righthander continues to work through the rust of three months missed following surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. He’s not pitching with command to the spots that make him most effective.
If he does find that command, then Eovaldi would have a chance to emerge as dominant. But the Red Sox likely can’t take such a development for granted.
What kind of flexibility do they have?
The Red Sox have already spent well past the first and second luxury-tax thresholds of $206 million and $226 million. They’d like to avoid the third ($246 million), not only because they’d have to pay a 75 percent tax on every dollar spent beyond it, but they’d also suffer a draft-pick penalty, with their top pick in 2020 dropped by 10 selections, and a corresponding decrease in available bonus-pool money.
The Sox absorbed that hit for exceeding the third threshold last year, but would prefer not to make an annual habit of hurting themselves in the draft.
So how much do they have to spend? A back-of-the-envelope/front-of-the-Excel calculation pegs them as having roughly $241 million in current commitments — meaning money they’re spending or have spent on the big league roster, salaries for minor leaguers on the 40-man roster, call-ups, and the standard benefits contribution of just under $15 million that all clubs must make and that counts against the luxury-tax threshold.
The Sox need to preserve some financial flexibility for call-ups and roster fill-ins — conservatively, perhaps another $2 million — as well as perhaps another $1 million in potential incentive and bonus money. In other words, they have perhaps $2 million-$3 million they can spend without going past the third threshold. That means a player with an annual salary of roughly $6 million-$9 million, as they Sox would be responsible only for the prorated remainder.
Plenty of pitchers fall into that category, including rentals Will Smith of the Giants, Daniel Hudson of the Blue Jays, and Greg Holland of the Diamondbacks, or controllable pitchers such as Shane Greene of the Tigers and Ken Giles of the Blue Jays, or frankly dozens of others.
There is always bullpen supply, and a lot of it will come at modest cost. Early signs in this year’s trade market — the Red Sox’ acquisition of Cashner for two 17-year-old prospects in the Dominican Summer League, Marcus Stroman to the Mets for two well-regarded pitching prospects, neither of whom sat among New York’s top few prospects or enjoyed national top-100 status — suggest that buyers can supplement their big league rosters without selling the proverbial farm.
ESPN’s Buster Olney raised eyebrows when he said the Red Sox were confident that they could make “an impactful deal” before the trade deadline, speculating that Mets closer Edwin Diaz could be a fit.
Diaz has gone from elite dominance in 2018 (57 saves, 1.96 ERA, 15.2 strikeouts per nine innings, 0.6 homers per nine) to a 2019 struggle (4.95 ERA, 13.7 strikeouts per nine, 1.8 homers per nine). Still, his stuff is electric, he’s inexpensive (a salary just over $600,000), and he is under team control for three years beyond this one.
That said, all of those appealing elements suggest why Diaz would be hard for the Sox to land — particularly after New York gave up an elite position prospect (Jarred Kelenic) and a highly regarded pitching prospect (Justin Dunn, formerly of Boston College) to acquire Diaz and Robinson Cano.
The Red Sox are trying to thread a needle of giving their current core — the one that won a World Series last year — a chance to win again, while preserving the future at a time when the upper levels of the farm system offer limited depth. One person familiar with the Red Sox’ thinking suggested that they felt a smaller deal to supplement the bullpen was more likely than a target who would come with long-term control such as Diaz; another evaluator familiar with both organizations didn’t see a great fit between the Sox and Mets.
But if . . .
That said, suppose the Red Sox wanted to add a bullpen weapon both for the rest of 2019 and years to come — the type of player who would require elite prospects in return. How could the Red Sox make such a deal, particularly with a team like the Mets that seems to want to bolster its chances for 2020 while not necessarily punting on 2019?
Such a deal would require players who are either major league-ready or soon will be.
If dealing from such a pool, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski typically likes to deal from positions of strength and depth, where minor league contributors are behind a big leaguer who appears to have solidified a position for the long term.
Double A Portland third baseman Bobby Dalbec fits both descriptions. Rafael Devers should be the Red Sox third baseman for years to come. Yet while Dalbec entered Baseball America’s midyear top 100 rankings, evaluators remain a bit cautious about a player who is hitting .230/.371/.455 with 20 homers.
What about Michael Chavis? The rookie made a huge impact on the Sox upon being called up and bought time for the lineup to find its footing with his initial burst (.354/.466/.771 through 14 games), but over his last 69 contests, he’s hitting .243/.304/.395 with a 35 percent strikeout rate.
He’s still shown power and enough in terms of his hit tool and adaptability to represent a solid big leaguer as a trade asset. But with the Sox appearing increasingly comfortable with Sam Travis as a righthanded first base option, perhaps they would consider moving Chavis for an elite bullpen option like Diaz.
Such scenarios remain exercises in spitballing, and again, it’s worth underscoring that the likelier path is the same one the Red Sox have followed for the last 31 months since the blockbuster deal for Sale, seeking to protect the top young assets in their system while dealing outside their top five prospects. That said, with the trade deadline now in view, some of the spitballs soon will have to start to stick to walls if indeed the Red Sox are to upgrade.