From the time that they let Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly depart via free agency over the winter, it seemed almost inevitable that the Red Sox would add to their bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline. That notion only amplified during the first two-thirds of the season, with the team’s relievers forging a 4.53 ERA that ranked 18th in the big leagues.
Yet when Wednesday’s 4 p.m. deadline had passed, the Red Sox emerged without an additional bullpen arm. While the team spent the days leading up to the deadline exploring a number of potential acquisitions — mostly, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said, middle relievers rather than “back-end-type guys” — in the end, according to a team source, the Sox never came close to consummating the acquisition of a bullpen arm for the stretch run.
“I’m not disappointed,” said Dombrowski. “We had an opportunity to make a lot of trades if we wanted to. We just felt that demands for what we were going to receive, we didn’t want to pay. Ultimately it’s a decision we decided to make.”
A number of factors played into that somewhat surprising decision. Among them:
■ The team considered the cost of acquisition too high. Given that the Red Sox were exploring middle relievers (aside from Shane Greene, who moved from the Tigers to the Braves, there weren’t many established closers who changed teams), with a number of rental players under consideration, the Sox didn’t want to part with the top prospects in a farm system that they’re still working to refill.
“I don’t know that there was a player out there that was traded that we couldn’t have acquired,” said Dombrowski. “It’s just that we didn’t like the price that was asked.”
■ Part of that determination stemmed from where the Red Sox sit in the standings. The Sox entered Wednesday nine games behind the Yankees in the American League East, and on the outside looking in at a playoff berth, two games behind Oakland (and 1½ behind the Rays) for the second spot in the winner-take-all wild-card game for the right to advance to the Division Series.
Dombrowski noted that the team’s outlook was colored by the losses on Sunday to the Yankees and Tuesday to the Rays. Had the Sox won those games, they’d have been six behind New York rather than nine.
According to Fangraphs, the Sox have a 51.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, but just a 4.2 percent chance of winning the division and a 4.6 percent chance of winning the World Series (odds that got worse with the upgrades by competitors).
Dombrowski said that he remains convinced of his team’s talent and its potential to advance in the postseason should it reach the Division Series. But he also acknowledged that Red Sox’ decision-making was framed by the odds, that the idea of doubling down with an uncomfortable bet on an imperfect hand served as a constraint.
“Realistically, we’re probably playing first for a wild-card spot. I look at that a little bit differently, as far as what you’re willing to do and the risk that you’re willing to take,” said Dombrowski. “If we were closer to first place, I would’ve been more open-minded.”
■ Within that assessment was another: The fate of the Red Sox rests chiefly on whether the team can get performances that align more closely with their track records — particularly for rotation members such as Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello — than with the number of arms in the bullpen.
“We’re all-in. But to me, the all-in is what you have,” said Dombrowski. “If we’re going to make it, it’s going to be the guys that are in the clubhouse . . . If we play up to our capabilities, with the guys in our starting rotation, I think we can beat anybody.
“Sure we have holes. We all have holes. You can see [all] clubs have holes because everybody is looking to do something. The reality is we have a very talented group of players. We don’t have that gaping hole.”
Even as he acknowledged that the Sox would have liked to have added depth to their bullpen, Dombrowski suggested that he saw the potential makings of an effective group that presented numerous options to manager Alex Cora. Dombrowski praised Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes, noted the favorable impressions being made by lefthanders Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor, and expressed confidence that Nathan Eovaldi will be able to emerge as a strong late-innings option. Dombrowski also noted that Ryan Brasier could offer a significant upgrade if the team can help him return to his 2018 level of execution.
■ The Red Sox, who for the second straight season have the highest payroll in the game and will pay significant luxury-tax penalties, prefer to avoid going past the third and highest tax threshold of $246 million, a point at which the team would suffer a draft-pick penalty. According to calculations by the Globe, the Red Sox had about $2 million to $3 million in flexibility to add payroll without going past $246 million. Payroll limits and luxury-tax concerns, said Dombrowski, didn’t prevent the team from acquiring a middle reliever.
“Our payroll is the largest in the game. It’s ample to win. That’s on me and on us,” he said. “We didn’t need [competitive balance tax] room for the deals we were talking about. So it was really a matter not of cost.”
■ Dombrowski said that the club never seriously contemplated selling pieces from its big league roster, but instead said that the team’s interest in upgrading was framed by its performance in the final days before the deadline. The 5-2 stretch against the Yankees and Rays last week was sufficient to convince the Sox to explore an addition, even though one was never made.
“We never talked about that we were going to sell,” said Dombrowski.
Instead, the question for the Red Sox was how much more they were going to invest in the 2019 team before the deadline. The answer, once Andrew Cashner was acquired to stabilize the rotation and take some of the burden off the shoulders of the bullpen while making internal additions to the pen in the form of Hernandez and Eovaldi, was no more than they’d already committed to the title defense. The Sox recognize that to reach the postseason and have any success in it they need to be better than they’ve been, but the team will rely on players who were already on the roster at the start of the day on July 31 to try to achieve that step forward.
“We need all the guys to step up, that’s the bottom line,” said Cora. “We’ve got guys in that clubhouse that, they’re capable of doing it. We’re going to trust the group and move forward.”