Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wednesday's deals are probably the main dish, not the appetizer

Theo from Brookline will spend plenty of time on the phone this month, but don't expect a blockbuster. Photo from this site.

Given that I was the guy who predicted Tuesday the Red Sox would not be tied for first place for long (positive spin: I was half right!), I probably shouldn’t be making any grandiose predictions for the rest of the week. But I will once again ignore common sense and type the following sentence anyway:

The trades the Sox made Wednesday are not the appetizer for a blockbuster involving Roy Halladay or anybody else.

That’s not to say the Sox are done dealing after acquiring Andy LaRoche and Chris Duncan, or that they won’t be linked to the big names between now and next Friday. Theo Epstein told reporters Wednesday he hopes to make at least another move and that the Sox are interested in players who can provide a “…significant impact on the roster.”

But Epstein’s history—and in particular his activity at the 2005 and 2006 trading deadline—suggests the Sox will tinker with instead of overhauling the big league club, even if the Sox (who lost their fifth straight game Wednesday to fall two games behind the scorching Yankees) look as if they’re in dire need of some help, especially on offense.

Like they were in 2005 and 2006, the Sox are stuck in some kind of baseball purgatory. They are neither the clear favorite to win the World Series nor one player away from earning that moniker. Yet even if the Sox were a “one player away” team, they probably wouldn’t part with a top prospect to get him, anyway.

Epstein has never made a mid-season trade that forced him to part with one or more of the Sox’ better prospects. He traded Freddy Sanchez to the Pirates in July 2003, but Sanchez was already 25 and did not emerge as a regular for the Pirates until two years later. He won the NL batting crown in 2006, but the Sox did pretty well in finding their own future second baseman: Dustin Pedroia won the Rookie of the Year in 2007 and the MVP in 2008.

Come to think of it, Epstein hasn’t made a winter trade in which he gave up the best of the farm, either: He was on sabbatical when the Sox dealt Hanley Ramirez to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell deal.

And if Epstein had the guts to stand pat in 2006—when he was a few months removed from his dramatic return to the general manager’s office, the Sox still led a very winnable division despite a July swoon and the Phillies willing to give Bobby Abreu to anyone willing to take on the rest of his contract—then he surely won’t be swayed by popular opinion this year, not with another World Series ring on his finger and a fruitful farm system as ready to begin harvesting position players now as it was ready to begin graduating impact pitchers then.

Lars Anderson, Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish aren’t likely to arrive as fast or as resoundingly as Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson and Daniel Bard have over the last two seasons, but the trio of position players—all of whom are currently at Double-A Portland—are still on pace to get to the majors by sometime in 2011. Come 2012, the Sox could have at least six homegrown regulars (Anderson at first base, Dustin Pedroia at second base, Kevin Youkilis at third base, Jacoby Ellsbury in left field, Reddick in center and Kalish in right), which would allow Epstein to spend the big money on a designated hitter to replace David Ortiz as well as at catcher and shortstop, two familiar problem areas for the Sox.

Yet, just like in 2005 and 2006, the Sox’ recent subpar play and the loaded nature of the American League demands Epstein do something to keep up with the Yankees as well as wild card contenders such as the Rangers and the Rays. And that “something” will almost surely once again involve mining the cutout bins in hopes of finding someone who can provide a boost at a bargain price.

The mid-season scrap heap doesn’t usually yield a difference-maker, though. The Sox were fortunate in 2005, when Tony Graffanino—acquired from the Royals for a pair of minor leaguers July 19—immediately became the starting second baseman and provided an appreciable upgrade over Mark Bellhorn. And Eric Hinske ended up being a valuable role player for more than a season after the Sox acquired him from the Blue Jays Aug. 17, 2006.

Far more common are the tales of Adam Hyzdu, Jose Cruz Jr., Mike Remlinger, Bryan Corey and Javy Lopez. Hyzdu, Cruz and Remlinger were all acquired in a three-week span in 2005 and were all designated for assignment by the Sox within a month of their arrivals. Corey was obtained from the Rangers July 30, 2006 and designated for assignment six days later. Lopez was obtained from the Orioles Aug. 4, 2006 and released Sept. 8.

Duncan, who has already been shipped to Pawtucket, appears likely to follow in the footsteps of Hyzdu and Co. LaRoche has a better chance of making a Graffanino-esque splash, especially if Mike Lowell remains hobbled, but the more likely scenario is he’ll make no real impact one way or the other and quietly sign somewhere else after the season.

Of course Epstein is going to allude to having bigger things in mind than acquiring the sons of two former big leaguers. That, like keeping quiet the plans to disable Tim Wakefield, is only good baseball sense. It behooves the Red Sox to be “in” on everyone, if only to jack the price skyward (see: Teixeira, Mark) for whomever lands the big prizes.

But Epstein’s not bluffing when he refers to the importance of “the outlook of the organization” and “subsequent years” in any trades he makes. And he proved in 2006 he’s willing to absorb a short-term hit if it means improving the Sox’ chances for long-term success. Keep that in mind if you’re disappointed when the Sox don’t land a Halladay-type over the next eight days.

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