Dave Dombrowski was correct on Wednesday. The third-place Red Sox haven’t done enough this season to merit paying a high price for a relief pitcher and were right to let the trade deadline pass without making a move.
“If we were closer to first place, I would have been more open-minded to some of the other things. I think so,” Dombrowski said. “The club here needs to play better on a consistent basis. That’s the way I look at it.”
But there’s a caveat to that: Dombrowski had nine months to improve the bullpen at a much more reasonable cost and took a pass. That’s a big part of the reason the Sox have been so inconsistent.
When the epitaph for this team is written well before the World Series this fall, its failed bullpen strategy will be central to the story.
The decision not to retain free agents Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel was smart, especially considering how erratically both have pitched this season. The mistake was not replacing them with reliable arms via trade or free agency before spring training.
Just how badly the Red Sox needed relief help was spelled out on Tuesday night against the Rays.
With two outs in the sixth and the Sox leading, 5-4, Marcus Walden walked Travis d’Arnaud.
Lefthander Josh Taylor was next and he allowed a single by Austin Meadows. Then it was Colten Brewer, who gave up a two-run double to Avisail Garcia.
Walden, 30, had eight games of major league experience prior to this season. Taylor is a 26-year-old rookie who was an undrafted free agent out of college. Brewer was traded to the Sox in November because the San Diego Padres didn’t deem him worthy of a spot on their 40-man roster.
Those are the three relievers the Sox trusted with a lead against a team they are chasing for a playoff spot. So of course other teams set a high price at the deadline hoping the Sox would be desperate enough to pay it.
They weren’t. And now it’s up to the players — several of whom acknowledged privately they were expecting an addition or two on Wednesday — to salvage this season.
It would be incorrect to say the Red Sox sat out the deadline considering they traded for a No. 5 starter, Andrew Cashner, on July 13. But the expectation was that bullpen help would be on the way.
Now we know it’s not. This is your team and any improvement has to come from within now.
“The reality is, if we’re going to make it, it’s going to be the guys that are in the clubhouse,” Dombrowski said.
Underachieving starters Rick Porcello, David Price, and Chris Sale would be a good place for it to begin. One way to improve the bullpen is for the starters to work deeper into games.
Dombrowski never came close to taking any of the deals he was offered on Wednesday. He either didn’t like the players he was offered or the cost.
Only one closer, Shane Greene of the Tigers, was traded at the deadline and that was to the first-place Atlanta Braves. Most of the other relievers on the move were not difference-makers.
An official from another American League team said sellers were seeking significant prospects for relievers and that the Sox would have had to give up a noteworthy player to make a deal.
Is that worth chasing a wild-card spot and a one-game playoff? Probably not.
“We’re in. We’re all-in,” Dombrowski said. “But the all-in is to me with what we have. If you said — I’m not going to use players’ names — we had traded this prospect or that prospect, we could have had this player. Well, that could have happened. But we just decided we did not want to do that.”
Manager Alex Cora talks often about the futility of chasing a victory one night if it costs you two others later in the week.
At the front office level, it means why give up some of the future if you’re not convinced the present can be saved. It’s good business.
But that won’t appease Sox fans.
The other wild-card contenders — the Athletics, Indians, and Rays — added players before the deadline. The Sox were left pitching the idea that their flawed roster can still win.
“This is our group. Let’s go,” Dombrowski said.
Said Cora: “Stay with that frame of mind. Win series; keep moving on [and] get better. We’ve got guys in that clubhouse, they’re capable of doing that.”
It all sounded good until Porcello fell behind the Rays 5-0 a few hours later. He punched a video monitor in the dugout after the first inning, cracking the screen.
The Sox went on to an 8-5 loss, their third in a row. This is their group; don’t punch your screen.