Despite their many follies, the Boston Red Sox sit 6.5 games outside first place coming out of the All-Star Break – incidentally, two weeks to the day before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. So should they buy? Sell? Stand pat?
Before looking at the options, let's make a few things clear: First of all, jumping half a dozen games over the aging Yankees in the win column in the second half of the season is certainly a possibility. Secondly, though, all four other teams in the division sit ahead of the Sox – meaning each team has a realistic chance of winning the division, with Boston's odds being the worst. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the AL East is … terrible. Just awful. Being in striking distance in a division this bad is not a valid reason for shipping top prospects out of town. Boston is still five games under .500, so realistically, any team they would face in a potential postseason series would be a very tough battle.
That's not to say it's impossible. The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals went 83–78 before going on to win the World Series in five games. But that's no reason for a last-place team to put all its stock in the present. Boston has one of the top farm systems in baseball and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.
According to Jon Morosi of FOX Sports, the Cincinnati Reds have made ace Johnny Cueto available. While Cueto has managed an astounding 2.52 ERA since the start of 2011, he's also an impending free agent (his 3.33 FIP also points to some negative regression, but the free agent thing is a bigger deal here). However tempting it might be, no matter how great a rental player might be, the 2015 Red Sox should not, under any circumstances, give up future assets for one.
The exception, of course, would be if the team is confident that a player like Cueto or David Price would agree to a long-term contract extension upon being traded. But with the big money being thrown at free agents, it's unlikely such a player would agree to terms, and it would be extremely costly if they would.
That brings us to the other kind of buy – the kind with long-term value. Phillies ace Cole Hamels has been tied to the Red Sox in trade rumors for what seems like his whole career. He would be owed the remainder of his $23.5 million salary for this season and $70.5 million over the next three years. Hamels also has a no-trade clause with Boston and would likely demand that the team pick up his $20 million option for 2019. Despite being 31, Hamels is an elite pitcher, who should stay elite for some time, whose price tag is lower than what any free agent on a similar level will cost.
Going into the season, though, the Phillies reportedly demanded both 22-year-old outfielder Mookie Betts and then-22-year-old catching prospect Blake Swihart in a package for Hamels. That's not going to happen. And with so many teams looking for pitching help at the deadline, they hold all the cards. If they were willing to soften the asking price, though, a deal for Hamels could make sense for the Red Sox.
Going into the season, seven Red Sox prospects appeared on Baseball America's Top 100 list. Even though No. 21, Rusney Castillo, just turned 28 and performed poorly in the majors earlier this year, he still has a lot of potential. Offsetting that is the fact that 20-year-old superhuman Yoan Moncada signed after that list was set.
On Baseball America's Midseason Top 50 (considering Swihart, Castillo and Eduardo Rodriguez were all promoted), the Red Sox have an impressive five prospects. Moncada is No. 11, 18-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers is No. 15, 20-year-old outfielder Manuel Margot is No. 24, 24-year-old lefty Brian Johnson (just promoted when Clay Buchholz went on the DL) is No. 38 and, despite taking a step back this year, 22-year-old lefty Henry Owens is still No. 47. Meanwhile, non-rookies Betts and 22-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts (No. 2 prospect on Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus before last year) have been impressive this season.
If you're angry about this team's performance in the last two years, think of it this way: In the wake of the 2011 implosion and Bobby Valentine's 2012 atrocity, 2013 wasn't the quickest rebuild ever – it was the best bridge year ever. The focus was, and still is, the future. Boston should absolutely not obliterate its amazing farm system in a vain attempt to win now. But if the team has the opportunity to add to that system, that opportunity should be considered.
Problem is, the Red Sox are low on veterans that can help other teams win. If Buchholz stayed healthy, he could have been very attractive to contenders. Despite his age and contract (and being a fan favorite here), closer Koji Uehara could save the day for a team with a rough bullpen. Ditto setup man Junichi Tazawa, who would probably net the team a better return, being that he's 29, making $2.5 million this year and still arbitration-eligible next year.
Hanley Ramirez is probably the most unique case for a sale candidate. His defense in left field at Fenway – considered an easy position – has been abysmal. Despite playing most of his career at shortstop, he's really not an option there anymore. But even though he's missed time, he's batting .274/.320/.497 with 19 homers, including 10 through April. Even though Boston just signed him this offseason, an American League team with an opening at designated hitter could absolutely use his bat.
The Minnesota Twins, surprise contenders this year in the lead for the wild card, would make a lot of sense if they were willing to pony up the cash for Ramirez, or if the Sox were willing to send some over. They won't deal outfielder Byron Buxton (No. 2 pre-season on Baseball America, No. 1 on MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus) or third baseman Miguel Sano (13th, 11th and 12th, respectively), both of whom were called up. But righty Jose Berrios sits at No. 19 on Baseball America's midseason list, a rise from No. 36 before the year. Shortstop Nick Gordon (son of former All-Star Red Sox closer Tom Gordon, brother of All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon) and righty Alex Meyer are also strong prospects.
Dealing Ramirez or fellow major free agent signee Pablo Sandoval still seems unlikely, though.
A mild trade deadline seems like the most likely scenario for this Red Sox team. Smaller deals – adding or subtracting middle relievers or utility players – may be all the team does. And maybe that's all the team should do. If DH David Ortiz retires after the season – a possibility, as he'll be 40 – or if the team refuses to give him 85 more plate appearances and allow his 2016 option to vest, Ramirez could get off the field permanently. As first baseman Mike Napoli has wallowed, Sandoval could shift from third base to first. There are too many in-house options to trade a good player for the sake of trading him.
A team could take a chance on Napoli, but Boston won't get much of anything in return. If they don't trade him, they'll likely waive him in August and see if they can work out a deal with a team if one claims him. If he's unclaimed, they might just release him.
If I had to put money on it, I'd say the Red Sox won't make any major trades. They won't add an ace like Cueto or Hamels, they won't trade any of their stronger players (except maybe Uehara, who is 40, to a team in need of a closer), but they'll do what they can to pull themselves out of the cellar primarily using their current roster.
But as they say, it's a funny game. For all the crap he's taken from fans this year, he pulled off perhaps the most unlikely trade of all time when he sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the Dodgers for more than a quarter of a billion dollars in salary relief – and he did that after the trade deadline.