Friday, June 19, 2009

Epstein in uncharted waters as July 31 approaches

With all the talk about John Smoltz and Brad Penny and Jed Lowrie and David Ortiz and the July 31 trade deadline, something seems to have been overlooked: This Red Sox team doesn't need anything.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Barring injury, this Red Sox team doesn't need anything. There's nothing at all out there that would give them reason to trade away Michael Bowden or Josh Reddick or Casey Kelly.

There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on Lowrie. There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on Ortiz. There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on Rocco Baldelli or Mark Kotsay. There's not much on the market that would be an upgrade on anyone in the majors' best bullpen.

That's almost unfathomable. The July trading deadline is fast approaching, and the first item on the agenda of general manager Theo Epstein is going to involve trading away a former All-Star Game starter or doing some creative juggling with the two-time Most Valuable Player of the World Baseball Classic so as to make room for a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.

It's amazing how far this franchise has come in the last six years. But the position of power in which the Red Sox find themselves now only looks more amazing when you look back at some of the deadline moves the Red Sox have had to make since Epstein took over as general manager:

Needs: Pitching, pitching and pitching. John Burkett and Casey Fossum both had ERAs over 5.00, and Ramiro Mendoza looked like he was still being paid by the Yankees rather than by the Red Sox. Someone named Jason Shiell allowed five earned runs in one three-game stretch in the last week of June.
Acquisitions: Byung-Hyun Kim, Scott Sauerbeck, Scott Williamson and Jeff Suppan.

Kim pitched better than posterity has given him credit for; he had a 3.18 ERA in 49 appearances, including five starts. Suppan, on the other hand, wasn't particularly effective -- he had a 5.92 ERA in his 10 starts in August and September and did not pitch in the postseason. Sauerbeck, too, was something of a disaster; he allowed 12 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings pitched and made just one postseason appearance.

Williamson, though, almost pitched the Red Sox to the World Series. (We all remember it: "Timlin in the eighth. Williamson in the ninth.") By the ALCS against the Yankees, he effectively had become the Red Sox closer -- and had Grady Little opted to use him when Pedro Martinez ran into trouble, he could have clinched a pennant for the Red Sox.

Needs: Defensive help -- and a total shakeup, particularly after Nomar Garciaparra made three errors in two midsummer games at Yankee Stadium and sat out the third. The Red Sox were swept.
Acquisitions: Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mienkiewicz, Dave Roberts.

You know the story.

Needs: Pitching, mostly. Jonathan Papelbon was a starter. Curt Schilling was the closer. Wade Miller was in and out of the rotation. Chaos.
Acquisitions: Chad Bradford, Alex Cora, Jose Cruz Jr.

"Moneyball" hero Bradford had a 3.86 ERA in 31 appearances out of the bullpen, but he allowed five earned runs in his final 5 2/3 innings as the Red Sox slipped into a tie for first place with the Yankees in the final week of the season. (They then would be swept by the eventual World Series champion White Sox in the Division Series.)

Cora spent the next three seasons as a valuable utility infielder with the Red Sox and won a pair of World Series rings. Cruz, on the other hand, appeared in just four games with the Red Sox before he was placed on waivers and claimed by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Needs: Pitching, mostly. Bronson Arroyo had been traded away, and Matt Clement, Kyle Snyder and Lenny DiNardo weren't exactly doing the trick. The bullpen was populated by guys who were too young (Manny Delcarmen) or too ineffective (Jermaine Van Buren) or both (Craig Hansen).
Acquisitions: Bryan Corey.

The Red Sox were in first place by a game when the deadline passed despite a thin starting rotation and an even thinner bullpen. Corey had a 4.57 ERA in 21 2/3 innings with the Red Sox down the stretch as part of a pitching staff that saw 27 different pitchers make at least five appearances. (So far this year, the Red Sox have had just 14 pitchers make at least two appearances -- a particularly impressive feat given that they carry 12 on the staff at any one time.)

The Red Sox lost seven of their next nine after the deadline passed and had a 5.27 ERA as a team en route to a third-place finish behind the Yankees and the Blue Jays.

Needs: Relief pitching. The Red Sox led the American League East by seven games at the deadline and had a formidable starting rotation, particularly with rookie Jon Lester making his way back from cancer treatment. But things got a little dicey deep in the bullpen after you got past Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and the ageless Mike Timlin.
Acquisitions: Eric Gagne.

Whoops. Gagne had a 6.75 ERA in 20 appearances down the stretch and a 6.23 ERA in five postseason appearances. It ended up being youngster Manny Delcarmen who stabilized the bullpen, compiling a 1.52 ERA in August and September.

Needs: For Manny to Be Manny somewhere else. Oh, and pitching. Clay Buchholz flopped in his first full-time opportunity with the Red Sox, and Bartolo Colon (seven starts) and David Pauley (two starts) weren't exactly what the doctor ordered.
Acquisitions: Jason Bay, Paul Byrd.

In the team's most ground-shaking trade since 2004, the Red Sox shipped Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-way deal that landed them Bay from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ramirez immediately went on a tear that may or may not have been chemically assisted. Bay hit .293 and slugged .527 down the stretch and hit .341 and slugged .634 as the Red Sox took the Tampa Bay Rays to Game 7 in the ALCS.

Byrd made eight starts and compiled a 4.78 ERA. He was included on the postseason roster as a long reliever but made only one appearance.

Needs: None. As long as Lowrie can play above-average defense at shortstop, there aren't any. The Red Sox have never enjoyed the depth of talent they enjoy this year. Never.

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