It’s Time for the Red Sox To Change Gears

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020s have been a quiet time for the Boston Red Sox. Since winning the 2018 World Series, their fourth in a 15-year period, Boston hasn’t looked much like one of the titans, ready to throw down with the Yankees or Astros in brutal warfare for baseball supremacy. Instead, as an organization, the Red Sox have taken on the character of a genial, pastorale retiree, gently reclining on the porch of an American Craftsman house, as if they were in a 1980s lemonade commercial.

On Independence Day in 2022, Boston was second in the AL East with the junior circuit’s third-best record, but in the space of a month, it had lost Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Whitlock, Michael Wacha, and Rich Hill to injuries. It was the prime time to make trades, but the Red Sox did basically nothing that would have helped them maintain their playoff relevance; their pitching staff’s 6.30 ERA for July dropped them below .500 by the time the Sox made their pointless acquisition of Eric Hosmer at the trade deadline. At last year’s deadline, when they were just 3.5 games out of the final wild card spot, they decided the day was intolerably hot and they were content to sip the last of their sweet tea as they watched and waited for the fireflies to come out at the dying of the day. Once again, Boston is in contention during trade season, a half-game up on the Royals for the last AL playoff spot, and it’s time for them to get up off the porch.

The first and most important reason for the Red Sox to move on from their gentle retooling cycle is that they have more to gain in playoff probability than most teams by making a few good trades. Teams right on the cusp get the most benefit from adding talent, and that’s where the Red Sox reside. Helping their case is that they may not need to win as many games to sneak into the playoffs this season as was required in recent years. The final AL Wild Card team won 89 games in 2023 and 86 games in ’22, and it would needed 90 wins in ’21, the last year before the playoffs expanded to 12 teams; this year, ZiPS projects the average AL winner of the last wild card spot will have 85.5 wins. This means that, without making any trades, the Red Sox could go 39-37 the rest of the way and still have a 50% shot to snag the last AL wild card.

To demonstrate this, I calculated the ZiPS playoff probability of every team after Thursday’s games and compared it to the playoff probability if you added two additional wins to each team’s bottom line, one at a time.

ZiPS Playoff Probability (7/5)
Team Playoffs +2 Wins Change (Percentage Points)
Boston 51.8% 66.2% 14.4
Arizona 35.7% 48.9% 13.2
St. Louis 42.5% 55.5% 13.0
Kansas City 33.6% 46.4% 12.8
New York (NL) 40.5% 53.3% 12.8
San Diego 55.8% 68.4% 12.6
San Francisco 33.4% 46.0% 12.6
Houston 49.2% 61.5% 12.3
Seattle 62.1% 73.7% 11.6
Cincinnati 20.8% 31.5% 10.7
Minnesota 71.7% 81.6% 9.9
Tampa Bay 17.9% 27.7% 9.8
Atlanta 74.4% 83.6% 9.2
Texas 15.6% 24.6% 9.0
Milwaukee 78.8% 87.0% 8.2
Chicago (NL) 11.6% 19.2% 7.6
Pittsburgh 8.3% 14.7% 6.4
Toronto 7.3% 13.2% 5.9
Washington 3.2% 6.5% 3.3
Detroit 2.5% 5.4% 2.9
New York (AL) 94.6% 97.4% 2.8
Los Angeles (NL) 95.7% 98.1% 2.4
Cleveland 94.4% 96.3% 1.9
Los Angeles (AL) 0.6% 1.7% 1.1
Baltimore 98.6% 99.5% 0.9
Philadelphia 99.2% 99.7% 0.5
Chicago (AL) 0.0% 0.0% 0.0
Colorado 0.0% 0.0% 0.0
Miami 0.0% 0.0% 0.0
Oakland 0.0% 0.0% 0.0

As you can see, the Red Sox get the largest boost of any team from adding two wins of value to the roster. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee they will make the playoffs if they acquire two wins before the deadline, but this shows they have a lot to gain just by improving along the margins. Moreover, the Sox aren’t just incentivized to be aggressive at the deadline; they also have the ability to do this. In the last update last year, we ranked the Red Sox farm system as second in baseball, Keith Law ranked it eighth at The Athletic, and ZiPS ranked it highly. Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America were grumpier, placing Boston’s system at no. 13. Regardless of which version you agree with, the Red Sox have a farm system that’s at least slightly better than average, a maybe one of the best in baseball. Either way, Boston has the prospect capital to improve its big league roster without sacrificing its success in future seasons.

Prospects are, of course, not the only way to acquire players. You can buy talent with prospects, but you can also buy talent with money, and the Red Sox have the ability to eat other team’s large contracts in order to conserve their prospects. In recent years, Boston has made an effort to cut back on its spending; the franchise has exceeded the first luxury tax threshold just once over the past five seasons, including this one, and even in the year that the Red Sox did pay the tax, 2022, they ranked sixth in spending. All this is to say that it’s safe to assume that Boston will not exceed the CBT threshold this year, even if it decides to take on larger contracts in order to keep its top prospects. No matter, though, because the Red Sox are about $19 million below the tax line this year, which would be more like $40 million because any contract they take on would be prorated for the remainder of the season. So, realistically, that means the Sox could afford anyone who might be available while still staying below the threshold. And they have even more flexibility next season if they want to go big for someone who could help for more than just the remainder of this year; Boston is currently about $100 million below the $241 million tax line for 2025. The team has four players eligible for arbitration this winter, but three of them will be heading to arbitration for the first time, so the amounts are likely to be fairly small, and the fourth, Reese McGuire, is a non-tender candidate.

Should the Red Sox go crazy and trade one of their top two prospects, Roman Anthony and Marcelo Mayer, for two months of a third-tier starting pitcher? Of course not. But as the month goes on, more teams are likely to join the league doormats and fall into the seller category. The Rays, a team always willing to trade talent, are likely to be there, as are the Blue Jays, who have plenty of desirable players under contract beyond the end of this season. Two teams with high hopes coming into the season, the Cubs and Rangers, may find themselves retooling as the playoff math becomes too treacherous. There are certainly a number of interesting players who could become available in the right scenarios. I know the Rockies say they’re not trading Ryan McMahon, but he’s having his best season and has a lot of experience at second base. Bo Bichette’s line drive swing could make him a beast at Fenway. The White Sox are a husk of a team, but Garrett Crochet and Erick Fedde are worth picking up for any contender.

While it’s not explicitly required for my job, I like to keep tabs on how the passionate portions of individual fanbases perceive their favorite teams. This is one of the reasons that you’ll see me lurking on team subreddits or blogs, even finding me in the most random internet arguments. (My penchant for getting into arguments is another one of the reasons.) One of my favorite things to do at games is to completely avoid the press box and just wander around talking baseball with fans, especially ones who are clearly rooting for the visiting team. There was a lot of unhappiness after the Mookie Betts trade, but the overall impression that I get these days isn’t necessarily rage against the ownership, but a dull apathy toward the organization. In a lot of ways, this kind of grim acceptance is harder to turn around than white hot anger.

How much more apathy will be created if the Red Sox, for the third season in a row, simply twiddle their thumbs at the thought of contention? The Kyle Schwarber trade in 2021, their only big acquisition that year at the deadline, should be the type of thing that a big market club like the Red Sox repeats every summer. Being aggressive certainly has its risks and comes with no guarantee of success – just ask the Padres – but not doing anything yet again has risks of its own. Fans will accept retooling only for so long. At some point, they want their team to rage against the dying of the light, and they’ll be more supportive of a team that puts up a good fight and loses than one that doesn’t go for it at all. Organizational apathy begets only apathy from the fanbase.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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LesVegetables
19 days ago

Need to see how the next 3 weeks play out but I agree with this. The difference this year is that this roster is not going to change much over the next few years. Barring some blow-it-up situation which is extremely unlikely, Devers, Duran, Bello, Houck, Crawford, Rafaela, Abreu, Casas, Story, Yoshida, Wong and Grissom are going to be getting the bulk of playing time. The prospects in the upper minors will slowly trickle in as well. But this is the team they have decided to field.

They still have a few clear holes but the roster they are going to field for the next 2-3 years is ~90% set. Time to complete it and try to compete.

sadtrombonemember
18 days ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

I am having a hard time imagining what sorts of players would be serious upgrades here. The obvious choice would be a high quality middle infielder and a 3+ win starter. But that’s what almost everyone wants. They going to trade Roman Anthony and / or Marcelo Mayer to the Blue Jays and let them torment Boston to get Bo Bichette? Or to try and outbid the Mariners / convince the Rays to trade Brandon Lowe? Or for Crochet? I’m not seeing it. Kiner-Falefa seems like a more appropriate target. This is also one of the few teams that needs warm bodies for the infield, so even DeJong would help them out. These don’t seem like difference making moves but they would keep them out of replacement level. As far as pitching goes, I would think Fedde would be a logical target to slot into the rotation and protect against injuries to their top 2. Might be able to get away with not trading Mayer / Anthony / Teel for him.

LesVegetables
18 days ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It’s really just another starting pitcher to go along with the above group of guys, who will replace Pivetta when he walks. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the of the Crochet tier – but it should be someone that is <27 with 3+ years of control and who has a starters pitch mix. Won't be cheap but the Red Sox have been cheap for many years now, I think it's time to splurge a little.

sadtrombonemember
18 days ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

That seems like it would be a lot easier to address in the offseason. Or to just sign Pivetta to an extension.

bosoxforlifemember
18 days ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

As, at worst, one of the longest bonafide members of Red Sox Nation on the Fangraphs blog I agree with you 100%. I feel that Dan has quite accurately measured the mood of the fans of New England. I know that I am not screaming that a trade needs to be made. I can live with Houck, Crawford, Pivetta, Bello and Winckowski in the rotation and the pen is as solid as most, if not all, of the rest of baseball. There is a also good chance that Liam Hendriks will join the group shortly. Is Wong now a capable catcher? I certainly think so. Will Story ever contribute? Count me in there as well. 2024 and beyond look to be very interesting and sending any of the top prospects from the recent list off for a pitcher is a foolish gamble. A quick look at the returns on in season acquisitions like Montas by the Yankees in 2022 or Flaherty by the Orioles last year show them to be disasters. The reports on Anythony, Teel and Mayer are getting better and the new prospect, Campbell, is turning heads. As long as the team doesn’t become the White Sox or the Rockies I, and I believe most of Red Sox Nation, are willing to wait, are quietly comfortable with the path that the old town team is on.

tz
18 days ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Ditto to all the above.

Smiling Politelymember
18 days ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

I am less sanguine about Story, who hasn’t had a wRC+ over 100 since 2019 (edit: whoops, 2020), when he was 5 years *younger*. His defense can still play, which is impressive, but the bat (in only 34 ABs, to be fair) has been downright bad, with poor power and contact. Maybe he perks up, but I’m not sure there’s good reason to be optimistic.

I’m also blown away by how Connor Wong is all that’s left from the Betts trade

Last edited 18 days ago by Smiling Politely
tomisphere
18 days ago

I agree on Story. At this point, I’d rather see David Hamilton in there than Story.

If you count the return from the Alex Verdugo trade as part of the return on the Betts trade (I do), then the Red Sox also have right-handed pitchers Richard Fitts, Greg Weissert, and Nicholas Judice left from the Betts trade. It remains to be seen what value they bring, but yeah, I’d still rather have Betts (he was my favorite player). Though without Wong the Sox would probably be worse off at catcher for 2024.

Proph of the Sandlot
18 days ago
Reply to  tomisphere

Cora doesn’t trust Hamilton defensively….I expected him to play more the last ten days.

PressXToJason
18 days ago

Which is insane given he’s been up for about half a season total. So many worse butchers have gotten much more run with Cora, and few also hit .270 with a bunch of SBs.

Smiling Politelymember
18 days ago
Reply to  tomisphere

I understand why one would count the 2nd degree acquisitions from the trade. To me, it’s a tougher sell because one of the justifications for trading Betts was to remain competitive by trading one possible HoFer for multiple long term starters rather than going full rebuild/prospect hunting. Consequently, I’m less inclined to see a starter traded for prospects as a success from the Betts trade (though the Verdugo trade might very well turn out to be a big win for BOS). And Jeter Downs never seemed viable.

I’m willing to believe in long term catcher development. Especially when they come from the Dodgers; their farm system is like Catchers University.

Last edited 18 days ago by Smiling Politely