In the wake of a dizzying trade deadline day, 2015 begins now for the Boston Red Sox.
Over the span of hours yesterday, the club reshaped its present and future with deals that included left-handed ace Jon Lester, durable right-handed starter John Lackey, right-handed hitting outfielder Jonny Gomes, dominant left-handed reliever Andrew Miller and the expendable Stephen Drew.
In return, the Red Sox received power-hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig, right-handed starting pitcher Joe Kelly and a highly regarded 21-year-old left-handed prospect in Eduardo Rodriguez, veteran utility player Kelly Johnson along with a competitive balance round draft pick (from Oakland in the Lester deal).
Including the trade earlier in the week that sent left-hander Felix Doubront to the Chicago Cubs for a player to be named later, and the transaction that shipped Jake Peavy to San Francisco earlier in July, Boston has dealt away 28 percent of its opening day roster in a matter of days.
Red Sox fans and players alike did not want to see Lester traded. The 30-year-old veteran of nine Major League seasons established himself as one of the top starters in baseball, and his 0.43 ERA in three World Series starts significantly contributed to Boston’s World Series titles in 2007 and 2013. Yet the Red Sox ownership group is reluctant to offer more than a five-year deal to a player who is already in his 30s.
Since it is likely Lester requires six or seven years, general manager Ben Cherington was tasked to yield a return beyond the draft pick Boston would have received had it extended a qualifying offer in the offseason.
It became apparent that the Red Sox were concerned that Lackey would not be happy with the $500,000 Major League minimum salary he is slated to receive in 2015, which was triggered by a contract clause when he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the 2012 campaign.
The 29-year-old Miller has developed into one of the best set-up men in baseball. He is eligible to become a free agent at season’s end, and the Red Sox reportedly plan to pursue him in the off-season.
Getting Rodriguez, who was No. 65 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list entering the 2014 season, further bolsters Boston’s enviable pitching depth at Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. Left-hander Edwin Escobar and right-hander Heath Hembree – the prospects Boston received from the Giants for Peavy – add to the depth.
Trading Drew was necessary. The Red Sox have a logjam on the right side of their infield with current Major Leaguers Xander Bogaerts, Brock Holt, and Will Middlebrooks along with top prospects Deven Marrero and Garin Cecchini at Pawtucket. Johnson, who can play multiple positions, is a free agent when the season ends.
At 48-60 and stripped of three veteran starters, the Red Sox are no longer contenders for a post-season spot, but the remainder of the 2014 campaign is critical for determining 2015 and beyond.
Here are key questions the Red Sox must answer in the final 54 games.
Is Will Middlebrooks the third baseman of the future?
August and September are key months for the 25-year-old Middlebrooks, who club officials believe has 30 home run, 100 RBI potential. He has shown flashes of power, but the athletic right-handed slugger has also struggled with pitch recognition and injuries.
Next season, Middlebrooks could be the team’s starting third baseman, or he could be dealt in the offseason. The Red Sox have Cecchini, who is a more patient hitter, at Pawtucket.
If the team believes that the defensively steady Marrero is the best option for shortstop, then Bogaerts can move to third and Cecchini or Middlebrooks to the outfield.
Is Xander Bogaerts a shortstop or a third baseman?
The Red Sox envision the 21-year-old Bogaerts as a fixture for the long-term future, but will it be at shortstop or third base? Bogaerts prefers shortstop, but he has the athleticism to play third base, though he has 16 errors this season, including several throwing miscues from the hot corner.
Drew’s departure paved the return to shortstop for Bogaerts. August and September are important months for the rookie to show he can be a run producer and a steady defensive presence.
Where does Brock Holt fit?
Boston’s version of Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist, Holt has carved a niche as a do-it-all player who is valuable for the present and the future.
Now that Cespedes and Craig have arrived, Holt will likely see little time at the corner outfield spots. He will likely see most of his action at all four infield positions, giving a breather to the regulars while keeping his bat in the lineup on a consistent basis.
How will the young arms react to their chance in the rotation?
Undoubtedly, the Red Sox will pursue frontline starting pitchers in the free agent and trade markets this off-season. They will try to bring back Lester, likely inquire about James Shields and attempt to acquire Cole Hamels with an enticing package of prospects.
World Series titles are not won with promising young arms, but the Sox have a plethora of high-ceiling starting pitching prospects that will give them a deep and talented rotation when combined with at least two veteran frontline starters. August and September are months when the club will get a long glimpse at Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo (who was summoned from Pawtucket to make his Major League debut tonight against the Yankees).
Some of the aforementioned names will etch a spot in the rotation in 2015. Others will fill bullpen roles or serve as trade chips in the off-season. Thus another reason why these final 54 games are worth watching.
Will Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly be part of the plans in 2015?
At times over the course of his eight-year Major League career, Buchholz has looked like a formidable frontline starter. Other stretches have seen him struggle to remain in the rotation. This year is a prime example.
At 29, Buchholz is now the elder statesman of the rotation. He is signed for $12 million next season, and then the club has a $13 million option or a $245,000 buyout before the 2016 campaign.
The remainder of this year is critical for Buchholz. Though the Red Sox will need to acquire at least two frontline starters this offseason, Buchholz could be expendable if he continues to flop this year.
As for Kelly, the 26-year-old right-hander represents a potential long-term middle of the rotation option. He is under team control through 2019 and posted a 10-5 record with a 2.69 ERA in 37 games (including 15 starts) for the Cardinals last year. He limited the Red Sox to two runs and two hits over 5.1 innings in his lone World Series start.
Is Jackie Bradley the answer in center field?
The Red Sox suddenly have a crowded outfield with Cespedes, Craig, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. The most pivotal player in this group is Bradley, since the Sox must determine if he is the long-term answer in center field. Betts is also an intriguing prospect who can play all three outfield spots and second base.
On defense, Bradley is one of the best in baseball. He has speed, range and a powerful throwing arm. At the plate, the left-handed hitting Bradley produced at every level of the minors, recording a .297 average and a .876 OPS in 893 at-bats. He has now shown consistency in the majors so far, hitting .224 with a .604 OPS in 313 at-bats. July was his best month as he registered a .278 average in 72 at-bats, but Bradley has scuffled over the last 10 games with a .156 mark (5-for-32).
Victorino is under contract for $13 million in 2015. Cespedes is signed through 2015 as well. Likely, the Red Sox will retain Cespedes, Craig, Nava and Victorino for next season, unless a trade for someone like Giancarlo Stanton changes the outfield composition. Because of his exceptional defense, Bradley has appeal, but he must show he can consistently hit Major League pitching to serve as the long-term center fielder in Boston. If not Betts could be the answer.
Who will emerge out of the bullpen?
The club plans to bring back Koji Uehara, even if it takes paying him around $15 million by extending a qualifying offer. Junichi Tazawa is under team control. Edward Mujica is under contract for $4.75 million for 2015, but the Sox will probably trade him this off-season, even if they have to eat part of his remaining salary.
Workman, De La Rosa and Webster are guys whose futures could be as late-inning relievers. The Sox called up left-hander Tommy Layne to replace Miller, and Layne could carve a spot for 2015. Escobar is a potential closer, though he has opened his Red Sox tenure in the Pawtucket rotation.