Boston Red Sox Need to Sell at the Trade Deadline
This just isn’t the year.
Blame it on whatever you want – poor roster construction, underperformance, or just a World Series hangover, but the Red Sox simply aren’t good enough to win a World Series in 2019. Even if the Sox buy at the trade deadline, it won’t be enough to make this team a legitimate contender. Rather than living in denial, the Red Sox should sell their short-term assets and build to take home a championship in 2020.
Don’t Delay the Inevitable: Boston Red Sox Need to Sell
Despite all the talent on the roster, the Red Sox have no chance of realistically winning the World Series. According to Fangraphs, Boston has just a 5.2% chance to win the World Series. That’s the seventh-best mark in the league and only 0.1 percentage points ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. In a 30-team league where half of the teams are actively trying to lose, that’s pretty bad. Baseball Reference paints an even bleaker picture, as they only give the Red Sox a 0.3% chance to repeat as World Series champions.
It’s not hard to see why the Red Sox face such long odds. At 45-40, they’re already 10 games out of the division lead and need to leapfrog the New York Yankees AND the Tampa Bay Rays if they’re to win the division crown. While they could sneak into the second Wild Card spot, they’re still two games out of that and need to pass the Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics, and the Texas Rangers to even earn the right for a one-game playoff.
Even if they sneak into the playoffs, nothing about their play suggests they’re capable of making it to the World Series. Let’s look past the fact that only two Wild Card team has won the World Series since 2007 and let’s focus just on the 2019 Red Sox. As of this posting, Boston currently owns a 16-23 record against current American League playoff teams. That’s bad, and the Red Sox won’t have the benefit of home-field advantage with the final Wild Card spot.
This odds are stacked against the Red Sox, but an elite roster with top-level talent could theoretically overcome this challenge. However, everything about this Red Sox team suggests that they aren’t up for the task. Even if they become buyers at the trade deadline, this roster is flawed beyond repair and won’t be good enough to match up against the MLB elite.
This Roster Is Fundamentally Flawed
Before the readers get too mad, let me start by saying the offense is great. Even with Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez underperforming, this offense still ranks among the league’s best. That’s not the issue. The issue is that every single member of the pitching staff except for David Price cannot be trusted to last deep into the season.
Let’s start with the bullpen. As everyone knows, it’s been an absolute dumpster fire. The common narrative is that the return of Nathan Eovaldi and a trade for a guy like Greg Holland will help solve Boston’s bullpen issue. However, a deeper look shows that this alone won’t be enough, and there’s plenty of reasons to believe Eovaldi won’t fare well in the bullpen.
Eovaldi has a storied history of arm and elbow injuries, and pitching out of the bullpen might be the worst thing for him. Eovaldi said that he’d probably be out until August if he came back as a starter but wants to be available out of the bullpen within the next few weeks. While he’ll pitch fewer innings, this will force Eovaldi to pitch three out of every five days. This extended workload, ironically enough, could very well further aggravate his injury and thus cause him to miss more time. Don’t take my word for it – take Eovaldi’s.
One other thing worth mentioning on Eovaldi: He has already had two Tommy John surgeries and believes a starter's routine — preparing to pitch once every five days — is what suits him best.
This really underlines their mistake of not signing a good reliever in the winter.
— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) July 2, 2019
The Red Sox will probably acquire one reliever at the trade deadline, but that won’t be enough to fix this bullpen. The Red Sox entered the season with a clear weak link in the bullpen but had a few intriguing arms in Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. Additionally, guys like Marcus Walden and Brandon Workman became pleasant surprises and solid contributors in the later innings.
Unfortunately, Brasier regressed and the rest of the bullpen has been atrocious, leaving manager Alex Cora with no choice but to use Barnes, Walden, Workman, and even Heath Hembree at excessive rates. These guys are already starting to show signs of wearing down, as Barnes has a 9.69 ERA in the month of June. Don’t expect this to get any better, as Barnes has a career 5.28 ERA and a 3.76 FIP in the second half of seasons. His season-high in innings pitched his 69.2, and he’s already hit 34.2. If anything, his second-half fatigue will hit harder than ever this year.
Heath Hembree is already on the IL, while Walden is also showing signs of slowing down. The once-reliable righty owns a 6.75 ERA and a 4.86 FIP in the month of June and has only pitched 58.2 innings at the major league level. His stuff isn’t impressive and he was never a top prospect, so the league might be figuring him out. The same thing happened to Bobby Poyner last year.
The only reliable arm is Brandon Workman, and even he comes with more than his fair share of questions. Workman hasn’t pitched more than 41.1 innings since undergoing Tommy John back in 2015 and has already tossed 37.0 innings. Just like Barnes, Workman has a habit of falling apart in the second half of seasons. His 4.82 second-half ERA and 4.34 second-half FIP are both significantly higher than his 3.08 first-half ERA and his 3.72 first-half FIP.
The Red Sox are not one or two arms away from fixing their bullpen. The early-inning arms in the bullpen are objectively bad, while the promising late-inning arms are overworked and don’t have the best late-season track record. The Red Sox bullpen didn’t have much depth in 2018, but they had solid late-inning arms in Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and Good Joe Kelly. This year, they don’t have any of that. Darwinzon Hernandez, Tanner Houck, and Durbin Feltman are the only MLB-caliber arms in the system that are even close to pro-ready, and you can’t bank on them magically fixing everything.
It’s Not Just the Bullpen
A good bullpen is important, but a team can overcome a suspect bullpen and win a World Series. Unfortunately, that team would need a perfect roster to mask that bullpen, and this roster is anything but perfect. Boston was supposed to have a top-five rotation in baseball, but the unit simply hasn’t done the job. Outside of David Price and debatably Chris Sale, nobody has pitched up to their potential and there’s no reason to believe this rotation is good enough to carry a bad bullpen.
With Nathan Eovaldi in the bullpen for the foreseeable future, the Red Sox need to find a fifth starter. Brian Johnson has answered that call in the past and is capable of pitching 4-5 innings while allowing three or fewer runs. The Red Sox could get by with this, but Johnson hasn’t been healthy all year. The lefty suffered an elbow injury earlier in the year and is currently on the injured list with an intestinal issue.
Without Johnson, the Red Sox will need to use either Hector Velazquez, Steven Wright, or trade for another starter. Velazquez has been pretty bad this year, posting a 5.31 ERA and a 4.34 FIP in 40.2 innings pitched. During his career as a starter, Velazquez has a 5.04 ERA and a 5.32 FIP. If he’s starting every fifth game, the Red Sox are screwed. Steven Wright has success as a starter, but he’s made of glass and is a knuckleballer. You never know what you’re going to get, and exposing him to a starters’ workload is a great way to put him back on the injured list. The Sox have a pretty depleted farm system, so they’d probably have to give up an internal top-five prospect to land a serviceable starter.
A team can get by without a fifth starter, but the rest of the rotation needs to pick up the weight. Unfortunately, this rotation isn’t built to do that. David Price is a godsend to this roster and is worth every penny. The rest of the rotation simply cannot be trusted. It’s an odd year, so Rick Porcello is in the midst of another underwhelming season with a 5.07 ERA and a 4.41 FIP through 17 starts. Eduardo Rodriguez is having arguably the worst season of his career from a run prevention standpoint, owning a 4.79 ERA and a 4.19 FIP in 97.2 innings of work. He’s never crossed the 140-inning plateau, so history suggests he’ll probably break down sometime in mid-August.
The back of the rotation leaves a lot to be desired, and the ace of the staff comes with his fair share of questions. Chris Sale is fantastic in May through August, but he’s yet to consistently pitch well into September and October. The lefty’s annual fatigue issues are well-documented, and he only pitched 29 innings in the second half of 2018. There is no reason to believe that he can magically stay healthy and productive now that he’s crossing over into the wrong side of 30.
Really, the only reliable late-season arm the Red Sox have is David Price. Imagine thinking that at this point last year. Price is genuinely fantastic, but he can’t carry an entire pitching staff on his own. Nobody can. The Red Sox don’t have the prospect capital to completely reconstruct their entire pitching staff, and they probably wouldn’t do it even if they could. Unless you want to bank on the Red Sox offense scoring 15 runs every single game, there’s no reason to think this pitching staff can perform in October.
Who to Sell
Now that I’ve laid out my argument for why the Red Sox should give up on 2019, let’s break down who to sell. The Red Sox are still a talented team and, with a better offseason, should be legitimate contenders in 2020. Because of this, the Red Sox shouldn’t sell anyone who could play a major role on the 2020 roster. That means Mookie Betts stays on the roster no matter what.
The Red Sox should actively search the market for buyers on Rick Porcello, Brock Holt, Mitch Moreland, and Steve Pearce. Additionally, they should sell J.D. Martinez if they’re convinced he’ll opt out after the 2019 season and Jackie Bradley Jr. if they can find a team who still believes he can be one of the top center fielders in baseball.
I know that may sound hypocritical, but if J.D. opts out the Red Sox could just re-sign him in the offseason and do what the Yankees did with Aroldis Chapman back in 2016. Losing Jackie Bradley Jr. would be tough, but the Red Sox already have an internal replacement in Baseball America Top-100 prospect Jarren Duran. Duran is already adjusting to AA pitching and should be ready to contribute midway through 2020. The Red Sox could easily replace Bradley by signing a stopgap outfielder until Duran is ready for the majors. Again, this situation should only come to fruition if another team believes Bradley can still be a star center fielder and is willing to give up a top-level package.
Rick Porcello might get a mid-level prospect, but Holt, Moreland, and Pearce probably wouldn’t get you anything more than a low-level prospect. At this point, you may be asking why it’s worth selling if the return is going to be that low. To answer that question, let’s go back in time to the 2018 trade deadline. The Red Sox needed a second baseman and traded away an unremarkable 25-year career minor leaguer for second baseman Ian Kinsler. That pitcher is Ty Buttrey, and he currently owns a 2.33 ERA and a 2.87 FIP in 38.2 innings of relief. I think the 2019 Red Sox could use a guy like that, and the Angels got him for basically nothing.
Buttrey is very much the exception to the rule, as these diamonds in the rough rarely surface in trades like this. However, I’d much rather have a 5% chance of finding a surprise key contributor than the nonzero chance of one of these replacement-level players being the difference between winning and losing the World Series.
Even if the Red Sox don’t accidentally get a star in the making, these trades are still worth making. The Red Sox aren’t losing baseball games because they don’t have enough star power. Xander Bogaerts is the best shortstop in baseball and Rafael Devers could be the best third baseman in the league in a year or two. Even in a down year, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are still two of the best at their respective positions. David Price and Chris Sale are one of the best one-two punches in baseball and any team would love these players on the team.
The reason the Red Sox aren’t playing up to their ability is that they don’t have enough depth. Despite having the highest payroll in baseball, the Red Sox didn’t have enough money to patch up their bullpen in the off-season. This high-level spending is partially due to Pablo Sandoval but has more to do with a lack of cost-controlled minor league depth pieces. Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce, and Eduardo Nunez have combined salaries of roughly $17 million dollars. None of these players are anything special, and it wouldn’t be hard to trade for organizational depth guys capable of doing the same work.
This is how teams save money when they know they have to pay superstars in the not-very-distant future. Instead of signing experienced veterans to multi-million contracts, the Red Sox need to start gathering bench pieces on cheap contracts. Even if Boston doesn’t luck their way into a superstar, the financial flexibility provided by the rookie contracts easily makes this a worthwhile deal. Instead of spending upwards of $17 million on bench pieces, the Red Sox can re-invest that money into adding bullpen contributors.
Ideally, this article wouldn’t have to exist and we could enjoy another World Series run. However, this team needs to face reality and accept that they won’t be winning a championship this year. Because of this, it’s not worth mortgaging what little you have left in the farm system. Instead, focus on creating the best team possible for 2020 and beyond.