To this point, the 2014 season has not gone as planned for the 2013 World Series Champions. The Red Sox broke a 10-game losing streak on Memorial Day with a win over the Braves, but they remain eight games back in the AL East. May was a roller coaster ride for Boston fans with the team climbing their way to within a half game of the division lead by the middle of the month only to drop all the way to the bottom before rebounding some on the road in Atlanta. The losing came in some of the most painful ways possible as well, with four loses ending on walk-off hits from May 13 to May 26.
Boston has struggled on both sides of the ball to this point. They are sixth in the American League in runs allowed and just twelve in runs scored. Injuries have been a major factor in their struggles- they currently have third baseman Will Middlebrooks, right fielder Shane Victorino, first baseman Mike Napoli and starting pitchers Felix Doubront and Clay Buchholz on the DL- but under-performance has also been an issue. As they enter the middle third of the season, they have a host of question marks to address and a long, hard climb back to contention ahead of them.
Buyers or Sellers?
The Red Sox may be stuck in fourth place and looking up at a surging Blue Jays club from a distance, but barring another prolonged losing streak that knocks them completely out of the running, they will most likely look to add talent as the deadline approaches. Under former GM Theo Epstein and his successor, Ben Cherington, the Red Sox have almost always elected to buy in July. These additions have ranged from blockbuster deals like the iconic, franchise-altering Nomar Garciaparra trade in 2004 or the Victor Martinez deal in 2009 to more modest acquisitions such as the 2012 addition of Craig Breslow or the 2007 addition of Eric Gagne. The Red Sox place in the standings will be factor in just how aggressive they are in their pursuit of the top players on the trade market, but with few commitments extend past the 2014 season on the books, there is little incentive for them sell this season as long as a shot at a Wild Card spot is at least a remote possibility. Even if things go from bad to worse, a reprise of 2012, when they waited until just before the August 31 waiver-trade deadline before shipping off Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and one-quarter of a billion dollars in salary commitments is probably more likely than a July 31st sell-off.
The Red Sox starting rotation was one of the major keys to their success in 2013, but the same group of players has produced radically different results to this point in 2014. Jon Lester and John Lackey have been firmly above-average by both ERA- and FIP- but the back of the rotation has been a complete disaster. Jake Peavy, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront are all sporting ERAs over 4.50 and two of those three are currently sidelined with injuries. Prospects Brandon Workman and Allen Webster will get the first shot at filling those gaps, but if the Red Sox manage to battle back into the pennant race, a move for a top arm is a possibility. Speculation about their interest in Cubs' ace Jeff Samardzija is already popping up and with a year of team control remaining after 2014, he fits perfectly into their strategy of acquiring players who could net them extra draft picks down the road via the qualifying offer. Second tier arms like Ian Kennedy and Brandon McCarthy could also land on their radar, but as long as they have internal candidates to audition and a distant view of the division leader, a starting pitching acquisition should remain a secondary concern.
Trade Likelihood: Low
The struggles at the back end of the rotation are not terribly surprising given the erratic track records of players like Peavy, Doubront, and Buchholz, but few fans could have anticipated the Red Sox offensive struggles. The team is still capable of grinding out at-bats, as evidenced by their 10 percent team walk rate (3rd in the AL) and their .325 OBP (6th in the AL), but they haven't been able to do all that much with the hittable pitches they are getting. They rank 11th in the league in home runs and slugging percentage and 10th in Isolated Power. With the Stephen Drew signing pushing Xander Bogaerts to third to fill the gap left by the injured Will Middlebrooks, the Red Sox best bet to improve their offense is to upgrade the outfield.
The Boston brass expected some drop-off when they chose to replace Jacoby Ellsbury with the combination of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Grady Sizemore, but they probably didn't anticipate a .214/.290/.324 line out of the center field spot and the worst offensive production in the league at the position (by wRC+). Their left platoon of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes has also collapsed, putting that position in the bottom third of the league in offensive production. In right, Shane Victorino has battled injuries all season and currently holds a dismal .242/.276/.352 batting line in the 99 plate appearances he has managed.
While there is no shortage of issues in the Red Sox outfield, it is difficult to see exactly where they will find solutions. As Tyler mentioned in his preview of the Diamondbacks, Martin Prado may be available and his positional flexibility and right-handed bat could appeal to Boston. However, his free swinging approach certainly doesn't fit their standard profile and his 77 wRC+ thus far this year makes him little more than a minor upgrade, even among this under-performing group. The Cubs' Nate Schierholtz and the Padres' Chris Denorfia are two other possibilities, but the player that best fits the Red Sox needs and figures to be available is probably Houston's Dexter Fowler. The switch-hitter has the kind of patience at the plate the Red Sox covet and like Samardzija, he has an additional year of control of control to add the possibility of a qualifying offer compensation pick to the mix if he succeeds in Boston. The Red Sox could also choose to go big and court a star like Giancarlo Stanton, Alex Gordon or Jay Bruce, but it is unclear at this point if any such players will actually be made available.
Trade Likelihood: High
Pieces to deal
The Red Sox farm system was rated the second best in the game by Baseball America prior to the start of the 2014 season and that gives them the ability to go toe-to-toe with any other organization in the game in a bidding war for an impact player. Boston also has just one contract that guarantees money beyond the 2015 season, so they have unmatched ability to take on payroll as well. As a result, any player that is made available this summer will be a possibility for Boston.
Boston's biggest asset in trade talks will be their glut of near-MLB ready pitching prospects. Workman and Webster will get a shot at the highest level right away, but their Triple-A rotation mates are not far behind them. Rubby De La Rosa has a 3.03 ERA in 10 starts for Pawtucket this season and although his time with the Dodgers put him on radar several years ago, he is still just 25. The Red Sox biggest trade bait might be power righty Anthony Ranaudo, who currently leads the PawSox staff with a 2.90 ERA and 53 strikeouts. If Ranaudo's proximity to the majors isn't enough to sway a team to make a deal, the upside of a player like Matt Barnes or Henry Owens may prove too good to turn down. Of course, with their own starting pitching failing them at the moment, Boston will be hard pressed to sacrifice the future for an immediate upgrade. Still, they are a creative organization when it comes to making deals and they have enough arms here to ship one or two away and still be in a good position when their current rotation needs augmentation.
Trade Likelihood: High
If there are any teams that won't bite at one of the Red Sox young arms, Boston can also offer up a host of intriguing young infield prospects to get a deal done. Mookie Betts leads this group, but even with Dustin Pedroia blocking him at second base, his .363/.451/.568 line at Double-A is quickly making him nearly untouchable. Garin Cecchini could become the Red Sox third baseman of the future, but with Bogaerts moving off short and slick-fielding shortstop Deven Marrero currently finding his way with the bat at Double-A, he could become a trade piece if the right deal comes around. 22-year old second baseman Sean Coyle had been reasserting his claim to prospect status with a .352/.410/.549 line in 79 plate appearances in Double-A prior to an injury that forced him out for most of the month of May, but he sits behind Betts and Pedoria in the second base depth charts, so Boston would like to get some value back for him if they can.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
The Red Sox are in a far worse position then expected right now, but with both the money to spend and the prospects to make a deal, they will have every opportunity to turn things around in the next two months. They have put equal focus on improving the current roster and building for the future since dealing away $250 millions in commitments in August 2012 and any deal that they make this season will probably have to fit into both categories. They are not nearly as bad as their current record suggests, but they are also not the same club that won 97 games and the World Series last season. They will need to get much better results from the players they already have to be in a position to win this year, but a few June or July additions are also a strong bet.