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alex speier | on baseball

Will Dave Dombrowski shoot for big game, or aim lower ahead of the trade deadline?

Perhaps with pitching help in mind, the Red Sox brass will be huddling leading into Wednesday’s trade deadline.
Perhaps with pitching help in mind, the Red Sox brass will be huddling leading into Wednesday’s trade deadline.File/Nic Antaya for The Globe

Assessments of Red Sox trade chatter in the hours leading up to Tuesday night’s game between the Red Sox and Rays ranged from “nothing” to “eerily quiet.” The fueling of the hot stove earlier in the week with the mention of Mets reliever Edwin Diaz as a Red Sox trade target quickly died off, with multiple industry sources Tuesday characterizing the addition of the righthander by the Red Sox as unlikely.

That, of course, is subject to change. At some point, teams with assets to sell declare themselves ready to start making deals, and a single phone call can change the trade market from dormant to frenzied.

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“Teams are going to make trades,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Tuesday. “We just have to be patient and see what happens.”

Nonetheless, as the Red Sox and the other 29 teams stare down Wednesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, the likeliest scenario remained a bullpen upgrade, albeit of a lesser-known pitcher rather than a player with star credentials in the mold of Diaz.

Though Cora suggested that the Red Sox might consider dealing pieces from their big league roster for the right return, it seems likelier that the Sox — mindful of the need to rebuild their farm system — seek a player who can upgrade their bullpen while coming at a modest prospect return.

One idea worth dismissing: It seems almost impossible to imagine the Sox moving Andrew Benintendi in any deal. He is amid an offensive surge – .333/.398/.578 over 18 games before Tuesday night — after making swing adjustments. He is young and inexpensive, a huge asset to roster-building. And the Red Sox face uncertainty with the futures of J.D. Martinez (able to opt out after 2019) and both Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. (both eligible for free agency after 2020). They need Benintendi for what awaits in the coming months and year.

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Such an approach to the trade deadline isn’t necessarily glamorous, but it can be extremely effective. Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is considered a big-game hunter on the trading market, a reputation earned with massive deals, such as the one that brought David Price from Tampa Bay to Detroit in 2014. But Dombrowski has proven adept at making subtler in-season moves, particularly with the Red Sox.

In 2016, the team reinforced a leaky bullpen with Brad Ziegler. In 2017, Eduardo Nunez and Addison Reed both played significant roles in helping the Red Sox win the AL East. In 2018, few viewed Steve Pearce or Nathan Eovaldi as game-changing additions, yet both proved pivotal postseason contributors.

With the trade deadline hours away, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski (bottom right) doesn't look too happy after the Rays took the lead in the sixth inning Tuesday. Senior vice president of baseball operations Frank Wren is at lower left.
With the trade deadline hours away, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski (bottom right) doesn't look too happy after the Rays took the lead in the sixth inning Tuesday. Senior vice president of baseball operations Frank Wren is at lower left.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“It wasn’t like big, huge, huge moves,” Cora recalled of last year’s trade deadline. “When we got Nate, it was just like, ‘Huh, OK, yeah.’ Then we got Pearce. It was a good baseball move.”

The Sox were willing to make deals, but preserved the top prospects while becoming a better team in each season.

Can the Red Sox bullpen — a source of scrutiny all year due to its 4.54 ERA and 18 blown saves — be remade with “good baseball moves” rather than the addition of a well-known firebreathing dragon to provide the team with the established closer that has been absent this year?

Perhaps. At the least, history is somewhat instructive when it comes to the October significance of established closers. Chris Sale recorded the last out of the 2018 season while Craig Kimbrel struggled in the postseason. In 2017, Charlie Morton finished Game 7 of the World Series with Ken Giles all but put on mothballs in October. In 2016, Mike Montgomery recorded the most important save in Cubs history after midyear pickup Aroldis Chapman blew a Game 7 save.

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In 2014, Madison Bumgarner was the end-of-Game 7 force for the Giants. In 2013, unestablished closer Koji Uehara (way down on the Red Sox’ closing depth charts into June) was the late-innings force.

October bullpens more often than not are shapeshifting. The most important thing for a team is to have an inventory of high-caliber arms from which to pick, choose, and adapt.

In all likelihood, such a mandate will have the Red Sox looking to deepen their own inventory of late-innings arms by Wednesday afternoon — yet without the need to alter the entire structure. Since the Red Sox have started seeing their starters working deeper into games, Cora has found that he’s more frequently had options available for specific situations.

“Since we started going six innings, we’ve been pretty good. And that’s the key. People can talk about the guys in the bullpen and who we have and all that, but I think it starts in the first six innings of the game,” said Cora. “Structure-wise, everybody has seen what’s going on. [Brandon Workman] is kind of like our guy in the ninth inning, he’s been solid. [Matt Barnes], we’ve been using him earlier than earlier in the season, and [Eovaldi is] still working.”

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Right fielder Mookie Betts makes a nice running catch to take a hit away from Guillermo Heredia and end the second inning Tuesday.
Right fielder Mookie Betts makes a nice running catch to take a hit away from Guillermo Heredia and end the second inning Tuesday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Cora also mentioned the effectiveness of Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez, and the improvement of Marcus Walden with more narrowly defined situational usage. In short, the Sox don’t feel as if they’re far from having a bullpen that will be sturdier than it has been to this point — but with a last chance to reinforce the group.

More likely than not, that is a recipe for Dombrowski to act by 4 o’clock.

“He knows what he wants, goes after it, and he gets it,” said Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, who has spent his entire, 11-season big league career (save for the early months of the 2015 season) on Dombrowski-constructed teams in Detroit and Boston. “Whatever hole he thinks needs to be filled on a team or weakness he thinks we may have, he does whatever he can to the best of his ability to fill that hole and get a guy in here who can contribute and make us a better team. That’s what I’ve seen year in, year out.”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.