Thursday, July 30, 2009

Repeat after me: Roy Halladay will get traded, but not to the Red Sox

Acquiring a spare part like Brian Anderson might not leave Sox fans jumping for joy, but if history is any indication, they'll have to be satisfied with it anyway once the trading deadline arrives today. Photo from this site.

The Yankees are getting hotter and the Red Sox are getting colder (sorry, but needing a late comeback today to split a series with the Athletics, who stopped trying around March 31, does not reverse the post-All-Star Break slide) as the trade deadline approaches, so the first instinct is to say the Sox have to do something, anything, to keep up with the Yankees, especially with the Phillies no longer in the running for Roy Halladay.

And don’t let J.P. Ricciardi fool you: The Blue Jays will trade Halladay within the next 24 hours. I have no sources telling me that, or anything cool and juicy like that. But Ricciardi is like that owner in your fantasy league who tells everyone you better hurry up and make him an offer for his star player because he’s got big deals on the front burner, except he’s just bluffing like crazy in hopes someone actually believes him and overpays. When the rest of the league doesn’t panic and overpay and instead makes a more reasonable offer with someone else, Ricciardi—err, the owner in your fantasy league—is forced to dump his star for less than he would have liked.

Further complicating things for Ricciardi and the Jays is the fact Halladay’s trade value will never be higher than it is right at this moment. Just look at what the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira at the 2007 deadline, a year-and-a-half before he reached free agency, and what the Braves got for him last year

But when Halladay is traded, it won’t be to the Sox, even if they’ve gone from having way too much starting pitching to not enough over the last couple weeks. And it’s precisely because the Sox have stumbled badly this month and because they need Halladay that they won’t get him.

Oh sure, there have been plenty of rumors proclaiming the Sox the frontrunners for Halladay, and chairman Tom Werner told reporters in Cooperstown Sunday that Theo Epstein was “…burning the midnight oil” as the deadline approached. Of course, Werner also said the Sox didn’t want to part with any of their top prospects, which correlates with what John Henry Twittered following the Adam LaRoche trade.

Now is it possible the Sox are just bluffing when they declare off-limits the best of their young players? Of course. But to execute a midseason blockbuster—without an unhappy superstar forcing his way out of Boston in the process—would deviate drastically from Epstein’s m.o.

Again: The Sox are the only two-time champion in baseball this decade, run by a bulletproof general manager who stood pat three years ago, when the Sox were in first place and he had nowhere near the political capital he enjoys now. He maintained the status quo even though the Yankees were pursuing a difference-making bat, Bobby Abreu, whom they acquired for almost nothing.

The Yankees are probably the team most likely to land the prize of this trade deadline, as well, especially now with Chien-Ming Wang out for the season, NL castoff Sergio Mitre serving as their fifth starter and the suddenly surging Joba Chamberlain approaching his laughably secretive innings limit. Imagine how sturdy the Yankees would look in October with a top three of Halladay, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

But Epstein was willing to absorb the short-term hit to better position the Sox for long-term success in 2006. In addition, to trade for someone like Halladay would bolster the Sox in the short-term but also leave them with precious little young pitching depth. Beyond Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden and Justin Masterson, the Sox don’t have any impact arms ready to move into the rotation. Junichi Tazawa was just promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, but the rest of the Sox’ most promising pitchers are at Double-A or below. So what do the Sox do if injuries strike over the next 15 months?

That said, dealing prospects for an impact hitter would make more sense, since the Sox have bucked conventional wisdom by having more luck developing pitchers than hitters. But a deal for the Padres’ Adrian Gonzalez and/or the Indians’ Victor Martinez is a lot less risky in the winter than in July.

This already seems like a team headed for some kind of overhaul after the season. Lowell and Jason Varitek are playing less frequently. Jason Bay is playing himself right out of a long-term deal. J.D. Drew is, well, J.D. Drew. Daisuke Matsuzaka is complaining about how the Sox have treated him, which seems to be a fine way to assure that the Sox have to give the Edgar Renteria/Julio Lugo treatment to someone who doesn’t actually play shortstop. Tim Wakefield’s not going to make a start on his 43rd birthday. The Sox’ starting shortstop, whomever he is on a given day, still would not start for the majority of big league teams.

And that’s just the guys who don’t fit into the long-term plan. David Ortiz learned this week that hitting .220 may be the least of his problems. Kevin Youkilis is hitting .251 since returning from the disabled list May 20.

Most notably, Jonathan Papelbon is allergic to the 1-2-3 inning, and Jon Couture made a pretty good case Wednesday why Papelbon may not even be among the top tier of closers anymore. For all his talk about wanting to inherit the title of best closer in baseball from Mariano Rivera, Papelbon has never seemed the type to remain durable or dominant well into his 30s. What if we’ve already seen the best of Papelbon and this recent ineffectiveness is the beginning of the end? Why would the Sox deal potential heir apparent Daniel Bard for Halladay?

A lot of difficult decisions will have to be made after the season. Why begin the process in midseason and try to make all the new pieces fit on the fly—and, perhaps in the process, further reduce the playing time of the captain and his unofficial first lieutenant—instead of during six or seven weeks in Ft. Myers? Especially when the diluted nature of the AL means even the flawed Sox, who still lead the wild card race, can still make quite a run at the AL pennant or beyond?

Assuming the current division leaders all hang on, the Sox would face the Angels in the AL Division Series, which, even in the Sox’ weakened state, is like earning a bye into the AL Championship Series. Figure the Yankees beat the Tigers, even if the decidedly underdog Tigers crushed the Yankees in the 2006 ALDS and the Yankees haven’t moved beyond the first round since 2004.

In the ALCS, would you want to bet against the playoff-hardened Sox—led by the 1-2 punch of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester atop the rotation—figuring out a way to beat the Yankees, even if they did field a rotation of Halladay-Sabathia-Burnett? That’s two ex-Blue Jays who have never made a postseason start and Sabathia, who has recorded an ERA of 9.47 the last two Octobers and is 0-2 with a 5.66 ERA against the Sox and Rays this season.

For all the internal reasons why it behooves the Sox to stand pat, none is as convincing as an external one: History indicates the teams that make the biggest moves at the trade deadline are not the ones that win the World Series. (More on that tomorrow)

More than two-thirds of the way into the season, a team—to borrow the most tired phrase of the decade—is what it is. Whomever is going to win the World Series is going to do it with a core it has been establishing since April, not players it’s adding this month. So as fun as it is to wonder how good the Sox would be with Halladay, Gonzalez or Martinez, the most exciting thing to happen today will probably involve adding another former big leaguer to Pawtucket’s outfield.

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