Fueled by brighter times that have seen them win seven of their last eight games, including a three-game weekend sweep of the Kansas City Royals, the Boston Red Sox face growing uncertainty about their plans as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline draws nearer.
Though they are six games under .500 at 46-52 and in the American League East basement, percentage points behind Tampa Bay, the Red Sox have drawn within 7.5 games of first place Baltimore and six games behind Seattle for the second wild card spot. Will general manager Ben Cherington opt for buyer or seller status? Likely, it will be both.
Last weekend, Boston activated outfielder Shane Victorino from the disabled list and optioned rookie Mookie Betts to Pawtucket. That was a logical decision since Betts is only 21, has rocketed through the Red Sox farm system and can use more seasoning at Triple-A. Cherington will have more difficult choices when the club deems that third baseman Will Middlebrooks is ready to return from a prolonged rehab assignment.
The 25-year-old Middlebrooks – who the organization believes has 30 home run, 100 RBI potential – has endured a rash of injuries over the last two seasons. He can provide the Red Sox with desperately needed right-handed power. Yet when the club decides to bring back Middlebrooks to the big league level, there will be a logjam on the right side of the infield.
Currently, the light-hitting Stephen Drew occupies the shortstop position while 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts (whose preferred spot is shortstop) mans third base. Boston’s farm system is loaded with promising prospects, including third baseman Garin Cecchini and shortstop Deven Marrero, both of whom are in Pawtucket’s starting lineup. Red Sox manager John Farrell must also keep a lineup spot reserved for the versatile Brock Holt, who is an American League Rookie of the Year contender with his .326 average, .825 OPS and above average defense at every position except pitcher and catcher.
The most expendable Red Sox players appear to be the left-handed hitting Mike Carp since switch hitter Daniel Nava also plays the corner outfield spots and first base; Drew, because the Red Sox can return Bogaerts to shortstop and insert Middlebrooks or Holt at third base; and Middlebrooks himself.
Middlebrooks has trade appeal because he is under affordable team control and has the aforementioned power potential. The Miami Marlins covet him, though they appear unwilling to trade Boston’s desired target – right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. Of course, landing Stanton would require a package that would likely include Middlebrooks or Cecchini, a top pitching prospect such as Rubby De La Rosa or Anthony Ranaudo, one of the premium catching prospects (Christian Vazquez or Blake Swihart) and an outfielder like Jackie Bradley Jr. or Betts (whose natural position is second base).
Veteran outfielder Jonny Gomes might also be expendable since he can become a free agent at season’s end, and he mashes left-handed pitching. Yet, because of his right-handed power and his beloved presence in the clubhouse, Cherington will likely keep Gomes as long as the club keeps winning.
Though they have started to produce more offense over the last week, the Red Sox still need a lineup upgrade. Cherington is reportedly still searching for outfield help. Middlebrooks could offer that jolt if he continues to prove he can stay healthy and keep slugging at Pawtucket. There has been talk that he will be moved to left field, but so far he has remained at third base during his rehab.
Victorino collected three hits in his first two games back from the DL, and the Red Sox have missed his presence resulting from extended hamstring and back ailments. Bogaerts has a high ceiling and is unlikely to go back to Pawtucket or be dealt, even though he is batting just .234 with a .663 OPS. Holt is safe, as are core bats like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, which is why Carp and Drew are the position players who are most likely to wear a new uniform by the trade deadline.