BOSTON (CBS) — The trade deadline is approaching fast, and the Red Sox have fallen out of first place. They need a bit of help, leading to many fans and media members touting the idea that they need to go “all in” as big-time buyers before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. deadline.
That would be wrong.
The Red Sox are no doubt in contention in the AL East, and against all odds and prognostications, they look like a team that could legitimately go on a playoff run. The World Series is not out of the question, but not without a little help.
The key words there are “a little.” The Red Sox rank second in all of baseball in runs scored, just one run behind the Tigers. They rank third in MLB in team batting average, second in OPS and second in on-base percentage. Despite being without Clay Buchholz since early June, the starters’ ERA is third-best in the American League, and they’ve pitched the fourth-most innings among starting staffs in the AL as well.
Where the Red Sox are lacking is the bullpen. Due in part to some costly injuries, the relievers’ ERA is 3.88, ninth in the American League. Their batting average against is .252, third-worst in the AL, and they’ve blown 15 saves, third-most in the AL.
Despite the overall mediocre numbers for the bullpen as a whole, there have been some great individual performances this year. Koji Uehara has been outstanding, and Junichi Tazawa has been incredibly reliable as well. Recently, Pedro Beato and Drake Britton have filled in nicely, combining for 12 1/3 innings in which they’ve allowed just one earned run. Their performances have bolstered the pen and provided reason to believe the Red Sox need only add a relief arm or two to gear up for the final two months of the season.
Yet, on Tuesday morning, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal made quite the splash by arguing that the Red Sox should trade Xander Bogaerts for Cliff Lee. Bogaerts is the 20-year-old top prospect, currently with eight home runs, 24 RBIs and an .863 OPS in 41 games for the PawSox, his first Triple-A experience. He posted a .948 OPS in 23 games in Double-A Portland last year and is rising through the system quite rapidly, and there is a chance he gets his first taste of the big leagues this year.
Lee is great in his own right, and he may be the piece to proverbially put the Sox “over the top” in their playoff run. But he turns 35 years old at the end of August, he’s due $25 million in 2014 and $25 million more in 2015 and possibly a guaranteed $27.5 million in 2016, and he’s currently injured. Acquiring Lee (10-4, 3.05 ERA) might be a major boon to the Sox, but picking up that kind of salary for a player at that age should not cost a top prospect.
And really, there’s nobody out there that is worth acquiring if it costs Bogearts. And for that matter, there’s no player out there who is worth the price of Jackie Bradley Jr., Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa or any other young player who shows a lot of promise.
The example Rosenthal used was Hanley Ramirez, whom the Red Sox traded away in order to acquire Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Ramirez in 2005 and Bogaerts in 2013 may indeed be comparable prospects, but there is no return comparable to Beckett and Lowell. Beckett was 25 years old, already with 609 innings of major league experience and a 3.46 ERA, not to mention his World Series-clinching victory in 2003. He was a stud. Lowell, a “throw-in” to the deal, was still a three-time All-Star and was coming off a Gold Glove season.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, were a year removed from a World Series victory but had lost Pedro Martinez (after 2004) and Bill Mueller (after 2005). They would have liked to keep Ramirez, but a frontline starter and a big league third baseman were two major holes that needed to be filled, and two seasons later, they won another championship.
This year’s team is in a very different position. After the Bobby Valentine disaster of 2012, general manager Ben Cherington and his crew were able to hit the reset button, thanks in large part to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ willingness to light large bags of cash on fire. The team dedicated itself to a measured, thorough approach to rebuilding a roster that should contend for years to come. Some short-term free-agent additions in Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli, as well as career years by Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Daniel Nava have the Red Sox in a better position than even the men in charge could have imagined in the spring.
Because of that, there is the pressure to be a “buyer” before Wednesday’s deadline, as if giving up a top prospect is some guarantee for a World Series berth. The Red Sox traded David Murphy in 2007 for Eric Gagne, who nearly single-handedly sunk the season. How they won the World Series despite Gagne’s 6.75 regular-season ERA and 8.10 postseason ERA is nothing short of a miracle.
The team also traded eventual three-time All-Star Freddy Sanchez away for Jeff Suppan in 2003. Suppan went 3-4 with a 5.57 ERA and was left off the postseason roster. He left via free agency after the season.
And those are just two recent examples. The Red Sox famously cast off Curt Schilling and Jeff Bagwell in 1988 and 1990, respectively, with neither deals producing championships. Outside of the organization, look at the Atlanta Braves, who were 4 1/2 games out of first place in 2007 when they gave up Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Matt Harrison in order to acquire Mark Teixeira. The Braves finished in third place, while all four of the aforementioned players have become big leaguers, Andrus, Harrison and Feliz becoming All-Stars. Knowing they’d be losing Teixeira to free agency, the Braves traded Teixeira to the Angels and got very little in return in July 2008.
There are success stories too, of course, but the point is that the idea of needing to be a “buyer,” to give up top prospects for just a chance to better contend for a title, is hardly a guaranteed path to success. That’s even more the case in this new era of the one-game playoff, where more teams still feel like they’re in the playoff race in late July than in years past. As it stands now, there are only five true sellers in the AL and seven or eight sellers in the NL. That’s 13 sellers and 17 buyers, meaning the price on any player who gets dealt will be high.
And in the case of the Red Sox, it will be too high. Bogaerts is too good to pass on six or more years of his impact in the hope of maybe winning this year. The next 24 hours for Cherington should be about adding a bullpen arm, perhaps a bench player who can contribute, and above all, sticking to the plan. It’s working so far, and there should be no urge to veer off the course so quickly.