As of writing this article, the Boston Red Sox sit at 62-43, half a game out of first place in the AL East, and occupy second place in the American League. They are 1st in the league in runs scored (526), 3rd in batting average (.273), 2nd in stolen bases (82, with 21 less chances than the 1st place Brewers who have 89), 2nd in slugging pct. (.438), and 1st in extra base hits (359). They are 5th in defensive putouts and 13th in fielding percentage. The pitching staff has a collected ERA of 3.87, is 2nd in the league with 874 strikeouts, and have held opponents to a .251 BA. They lead the majors with 9 walk-off wins.
This has been quite the bridge year.
And that’s what’s been so crazy about the team’s current success: no one saw it coming. The Red Sox were supposed to be in a transition year, following last season’s nightmare starring Bobby V. Load up on low-cost veterans who could help transform a poisonous clubhouse (Gomes, Victorino, Napoli, etc.), and hold the fort until Boston’s deep farm system churned out the next wave of young stars to grace Fenway’s hallowed grounds. Last August’s fire sale to Los Angeles was a gigantic gesture, a way of atoning for their misguided attempt to buy a World Series ring, while also picking up two high-upside pitchers (Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa). Even the most optimistic of experts thought that the Red Sox might end up with a winning record, and would definitely improve off of last year, but would have little more to show for it. Less optimistic experts foresaw another season in the AL East cellar, but with a promise for relevance three, maybe four years down the road.
But the Red Sox have won, and they’ve won a lot, so far this season. A great deal of the success has to be attributed to the continued excellence (and health) of OFOTFs Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, some huge surprises (Daniel Nava, Jose Iglesias), some rebounds to prior form (John Lackey, Jacoby Ellsbury), some players taking the next step (Junichi Tazawa, Felix Doubront), and two bearded hooligans who, if their baseball careers fall apart, will have a prominent future ahead of them leading a biker gang or performing at children’s birthday parties (Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes).There’s also been the consistency of Koji Uehara and Craig Breslow, who have managed to withstand the injury horror shows, and the flashes of brilliance of Clay Buchholz, who, if he can put together a full season, is the undisputed ace of the rotation.
Despite some major bumps in the road, the Sox find themselves amongst the AL Elite, and primed for a postseason run. And every year, as the trade deadline approaches, fans and media surrounding those elite fans work themselves into a frenzy pinpointing available stars to push their teams into a championship. Megadeals are worked out, prospects are studied carefully, and wish lists are written. I admit that I get sucked into this too: there’s nothing more fun than crafting trade scenarios that will probably never happen (see here). But this year, I fear that Red Sox fans (myself included) have gotten a little drunk on the Red Sox success (myself quite literally) and are now attempting the equivalent of grabbing the keys to your friend’s Jeep after your tenth Coors and promising everyone that you’ll be back soon, you’re just making a quick stop at the blackjack tables in Atlantic City. Because once you’ve tasted glory, you want more, more, more, no matter the cost. But forgetting how the Sox have achieved their success thus far, and reverting back to their old ways, could be disastrous in the long run.
First thing that needs to be addressed is this sorry midseason trade market, and how it corresponds with the Red Sox’s needs. I argued that the need for a corner infielder was way overblown while discussing the rumored talks surrounding acquiring Michael Young from the Phillies. Of course, since then, Jose Iglesias’ regression from his otherworldly start is hitting the team over the head with a 2×4, and John Farrell has expressed doubts that Will Middlebrooks is ready to come back from Triple-A and produce consistently. While Michael Young is far and away the best (and some would say only) 3rd baseman who is rumored to be available, there’s no definite fit for him on the roster, not to mention the price needed to pry him away from Ruben Amaro Jr.
Speaking of The Rubes (I don’t like him), the newest buzz has surrounded the rumored availability of Phillies ace Cliff Lee, although Amaro Jr. is still sticking to his “he’s not exactly available, but we’d be silly not to listen to any offers” guns. Now this season, Cliff Lee is pitching his usual masterful self: 10-4, 3.05 ERA, 131/22 K/BB in 144.2 IP. The other pitcher said to be on the Red Sox’ radar is Chicago’s Jake Peavy, who has gone 8-4, with a 4.28 ERA and a 76/17 K/BB, in 80 innings (though his FIP, xFIP and SIERA all say that he’s pitching a lot better than those stats depict).
I like Lee and Peavy. I like them a lot. However, Peavy is 32 and Lee turns 35 in August. Peavy has a year and a half left on his 5yr/$77m contract, set to make $14.5 million. Cliff Lee will be owed $25mil in ’13, ’14, and ’15, before his contract expires. Have Peavy and Lee earned those contracts? Sure they have (although Peavy’s injury tendencies are a concern). But just because the Red Sox have salary space for them, doesn’t mean they should take them on.
For the sake of the argument, let’s say you give up the prospects, and take on the contracts, for either Peavy or Lee. What exactly do you do with them? The amped-up discussion for the Sox finding a starting pitcher is that Buchholz hasn’t pitched since June 8th. But Buchholz could be back by mid-August, and Brandon Workman has performed more than admirably in his absence. Come playoff time, rotations are supposed to get smaller, not bigger, so the issue becomes who do you bump for the new starter? John Lackey needed a rough outing (6.1 IP, 5ER) against the Orioles for his ERA to duck back over 3.00. Felix Doubront has transformed into the most consistent piece of the rotation, and hasn’t given up more than 3 ER since May 8th (!!!!!!!!!!). Jon Lester seems to be shaking off the rust from his horrendous June, and performed admirably against the Rays this past week. Ryan Dempster hasn’t had the best season thus far, but are the Sox really going to push a 36-year old veteran set to make over $13mil next season to the bullpen? Peavy, for example, is not much of an upgrade over Dempster. (WARp: 1.0 vs. 0.7, ERA+: 101 vs. 100) Peavy’s fastidious command the only big difference maker. Peavy and Lee are undoubtedly upgrades over some members of the Red Sox rotation, but is it a big enough upgrade to rationalize not only the cost of acquiring them, but to displace another pitcher from the rotation for not just this year, but possibly the next?
The Red Sox’s real need is for more bullpen help after season-ending injuries to Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, and Andrew Miller. But those looking for a shut-down closer will be gravely disappointed. Jonathan Papelbon (who just blew his 5th save of the year) is due $13mil a year through 2015 and The Rubes will almost certainly demand bigger-name prospects for the hot-headed closer (also worth mentioning is the insane amounts of bad vibes of a Papelbon return to Boston). Texas’ Joe Nathan appears to have hit the block, but the Rangers are apparently desperate for an established outfield depth, and it’s hard to see a straight up deal of Nathan-for-Mike-Carp going down. Then there’s Jesse Crain who can’t seem to find the field for Chicago, despite their apparently desperate attempts to unload him for prospects. All of this is to say that just because the trade deadline is approaching and the Sox have found themselves in contention doesn’t mean they have to make a big move, especially with such a weak market. It’s not worth the money, it’s not worth shaking up a successful team, and it’s not worth giving up the prospects.
It’s this last point that we Sox fans have to (I repeat: HAVE TO) remind ourselves of constantly. Boston is blessed with a deep and exciting farm system. The Red Sox have four of the top 50 prospects according to Baseball America’s midseason rankings, and eight of the top 100 according to MLB.com. Xander Bogaerts is consistently named one of the top 5 prospects in baseball, and his bat makes him the most intriguing infield prospect that the Red Sox have seen since Nomar Garciaparra. Jackie Bradley Jr., undeterred by his rough introduction to the majors, is playing very well in Triple-A, and has tapped into his power a bit, with 8 HR in 55 games. Allen Webster has also performed quite well in Pawtucket, holding opponents to a .198 BA, and Rubby De La Rosa is likewise setting himself up to be a force for the Sox in the future. The Sox have three top-of-the-line starters in Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Ranaudo in the minors, with Trey Ball looking to join them soon. Pitchers Brandon Workman (In 2 starts against OAK and TB: 12.1 IP, 2.98 ERA, 9/3 K/BB) and Drake Britton (4.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER in 4 appearances) have shown a lot of promise in their brief stints in the majors. And somehow, at a position usually bereft of talent, the Sox have three promising catchers in their system: Blake Swihart, Jon Denney, and Christian Vazquez.
The future is bright, which is why the Sox must stick to the plan they put into motion following the Dodgers megadeal. Success based solely on huge blockbuster trades, and gargantuan free-agent signings is no longer the way to maintain success in the long run. The Los Angeles Dodgers are just starting to turn things around, while the Los Angeles Angels and Toronto Blue Jays are struggling mightily. The Yankees still have the highest payroll in baseball, and all they’ve got going for them is that they’ve successfully managed to keep Alex Rodriguez out of the clubhouse thus far.
Let’s look at three of the consistently great franchises of the last five years: the St. Louis Cardinals, the San Francisco Giants, and the Tampa Bay Rays. What ties the three teams together? First: a core of homegrown talent either drafted by their team, or who were acquired as prospects for aging stars, allowed to grow into their roles. The Cardinals have Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, David Freese in their lineup, along with Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, and Lance Lynn. The Giants have found immense success with their homegrown trio of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner, along with budding superstars in Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval. The Tampa Bay Rays have become experts in developing pitchers, as this season has seen huge steps made by Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Matt Moore, while David Price is solidifying his position as one of the great aces in the American League. Second: they make the right moves, less about signing huge stars but acquiring the right complementary pieces for further success, such as the Giants trading for Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence prior to their World Series wins, and the Cardinals, instead of committing again to Albert Pujols, reinvesting that money in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holiday, and locking up their young talent.
And this season, both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays find themselves at the top of the MLB Standings, despite having the 11th and 28th highest payrolls respectively. Along with the Red Sox in the top 5 in the league are Oakland (26th) and Pittsburgh (27th). Those four teams are still finding success right now, while still having great talent waiting for them in the minor leagues. Which is why the Giants have struggled this season: their farm has started to fail them. When the jewels of the system (Lincecum, Posey, Bumgarner) were called up, the Giants suddenly stopped churning out talent and got hasty in trading away prospects for hitters (boy do they wish they had Zack Wheeler right about now). So when the rotation has struggled, and their bats quieted, they don’t have young players waiting in the wings to step up, like St. Louis and Tampa Bay consistently do.
The Red Sox have got to tough it out and follow this model. They’re already halfway there, with a sterling farm system. Now they just have to be patient and let them develop accordingly. Their role model can no longer be the Yankees, who broke the bank buying big-name players for years, resulting in a depleted farm and players like Jayson Nix and Chris Stewart starring lineup regulars. This is not about just this season, but next season, and the one after that, and the one after that. By all means, the Red Sox should look into a more complementary piece (like their Craig Breslow pickup, which is paying huge dividends now) in the upcoming week. Matt Lidstrom of the White Sox could be a great low-cost acquisition. So could Luke Hochevar of the Kansas City Royals. But just because the Red Sox are now apparent contenders, it doesn’t mean that they should be blindly selling the farm for top-line talent.
This season has been great fun to watch, but if the front office stays patient, things will only get better for the Boston Red Sox.