As contending teams come to grips with what they have and what they need, a market could evolve for Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo. What seemed unimaginable even a couple of weeks ago soon could become reality: The Red Sox could have a chance to trade Lugo to a contender in the National League like the Braves or the Reds and either get back a half-decent prospect or save a little bit of money on the $36 million Lugo still is owed.
How might this happen? Here's one completely hypothetical scenario: Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox has lost patience with middle infielders Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson. Escobar has clashed with Cox both over his effort and his attitude in the field, and Johnson has been benched in favor of the more productive Martin Prado.
The Braves need someone who can swing the bat. Prado won Tuesday's game almost all by himself, homering in the fifth inning and driving home the game-winning run in the 10th. But other than Prado and the ever-reliable Chipper Jones, no one has done much with the bat for the Braves all season. One of the best pitching staffs in the major leagues -- Derek Lowe's 4.44 ERA is the worst on the staff -- risks missing the playoffs because the lineup can't score any runs.
Lugo, conveniently, can hit. No one has ever questioned that. He's hitting .476 (10 for 21) since he was benched on June 5 and drove in the go-ahead run in the 11th inning on Wednesday.
"He's been good offensively," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "That hasn't been why he hasn't played."
He hasn't played, of course, because he has next to no range on the field. That could cause problems for a ground-ball pitcher like Lowe, but you sometimes have to sacrifice something in one area to gain something somewhere else. Escobar has not exactly been Omar Vizquel at shortstop this season, anyway.
On top of that, the Braves' other four starters all have induced more fly balls than ground balls, so poor defense at shortstop might not hurt them as much as it otherwise might. Javier Vazquez has the highest strikeout rate in the American League. He probably could win games without anyone playing shortstop at all.
In this hypothetical scenario, Theo Epstein picks up the phone and dial Braves general manager Frank Wren.
"Frankie," Epstein says in an effort to demonstrate that the two go way back and are pretty much best friends. "How are the three kids and wife?"
Once they get through the particulars -- the wife is fine, and two of the kids are doing great but the third is at the dentist with a toothache -- they get down to business. Epstein starts with a pretty simple offer: He offers Lugo for Escobar, saying right up front that he's willing to pay the $4.5 million or so Lugo is owed for the rest of the season.
"I know you can't take on much money," Epstein says. "We'll take care of that. John Henry won't even notice that $4.5 million, anyway. The guy has so much money he tried to fly to Baltimore to watch us play but accidentally ended up in South Africa."
Let's say Wren declines the offer. Epstein then sweetens the pot, proposing that the Red Sox pick up half of Lugo's 2010 salary, too. That's $9 million in total cost savings.
"You can pay the other half of next year's salary with the money you save when you nontender Jeff Francouer this winter," Epstein suggests helpfully.
The beauty of this scenario for the Red Sox is the fact that they already seem prepared to eat every penny of the $13 or $14 million still due Lugo. If Epstein and Francona intended to keep him on the roster, he'd be playing more often than once a week. Once Jed Lowrie returns, if no trade develops, it seems clear that Lugo will be jettisoned like a rocket booster in the stratosphere.
Cutting Lugo means eating his entire salary. If Epstein can get something back from him or save some money -- or both -- he'll have done his job.
You might wonder why the Red Sox would ask for Escobar when they already have Lowrie coming off the disabled list. The answer: It might seem as though Lowrie has played 10 seasons in the major leagues given the way his wrist rehab has been covered, but he still has fewer than 300 big-league plate appearances. He hasn't yet had a chance to prove he's a top-tier major-league shortstop. In a lot of ways, he's still a prospect -- and prospects, by definition, come with question marks.
Escobar, on the other hand, has a career .300 batting average and .367 on-base percentage in more than 1,200 big-league plate appearances. You know what he is and what he can do.
It might turn out that the Red Sox are a better team this season with Escobar as their starting shortstop and Lowrie as a super-utility guy who starts two or three games a week at third base. Baseball is all about collecting talent, and Escobar certainly has talent.
Wren shoots it down.
"No, thanks -- it's Theo, right?" Wren says, regaining the upper hand in the negotiation through the brilliant use of condescension.
Epstein then offers to pick up the entire remainder of Lugo's salary. Wren still declines. He's not trading Escobar no matter how much Cox begs him to do so. He's read the newspapers. He knows Escobar still might come around given the proper coaching and mentoring. He also knows he already traded away Elvis Andrus and has no other shortstop in the pipeline in the event the 33-year-old Lugo gets hurt or fails to produce.
But Lugo still has some value to the Braves. Escobar has hit .293 and OPS'ed .781 this season, but the Braves still rank 24th in the major leagues in runs per game (4.21) and 23rd in OPS (.720) and could use another hitter no matter where he plays in the field. If the Braves could find enough space on the roster, Escobar and Lugo could form something of a platoon -- the former is hitting .320 against righties this season while the latter is hitting .400 against lefties.
Wren comes back with another offer: Lugo and $9 million -- enough to pay two-thirds of what he's still owed -- for a B-level pitching prospect of Epstein's choice.
Epstein jumps on the trade. He didn't get Escobar -- but he didn't need Escobar. He has Lowrie. He manages, however, to get a prospect and save between $4 and $5 million and clear a roster spot for Lowrie as he returns from the disabled list.
And that's all he wanted to do in the first place. Anything else is gravy.