The Boston Red Sox find themselves in a precarious situation as we enter the middle portion of the 2014 season.
On the one hand, the team is just 29-35, coming in at nine games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. With a run differential of minus-20, they're tied for 21st in the majors in that metric, also they also rank 21st in runs scored and 16th in ERA.
On the other hand, there's a lot more talent here than the team's record would indicate, and with several injured key players returning in the coming days, it's possible for the Sox to make one last run at contention this year.
With the defending champs left in limbo for now, it's difficult to tell if they'll be buyers or sellers at the deadline, and it's very likely that the club won't make a decision regarding the direction it will take until after the next 10 games or so. With that knowledge in mind, it's tough to suggest that the Red Sox should cash in significant trade chips for a major piece this year.
Instead, they’re likely better off addressing the periphery of the roster.
The infield, with the recent signing of Stephen Drew and the emergence of Brock Holt, appears set. The starting rotation has stabilized thanks to Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa. And the bullpen has been quite good, Edward Mujica aside.
But the outfield has been a different story this season. The Red Sox are ahead of only the White Sox, Tigers and Twins in terms of AL outfield bWAR, according to Baseball Reference, and they certainly have less talent than Detroit. The Grady Sizemore experiment did not work, Jackie Bradley Jr. does not appear to be ready to hit major league pitchers, Daniel Nava has underperformed, and Shane Victorino has missed a majority of this season with injuries.
Jonny Gomes continues to provide occasional right-handed pop, and Holt has been a pleasant surprise in limited outfield duty. But even with Mookie Betts waiting in Triple-A, the Sox need to upgrade their outfielders if they want a shot a contention.
These suggested trade targets aren't flashy, but each would allow the Red Sox to marginally improve their team now without truly mortgaging the future. (Sorry, folks: no Giancarlo Stanton this time.)
Chris Denorfia, San Diego Padres
The Padres have a surplus of outfielders, and their outlook on 2014 is even bleaker than Boston's. That's why Denorfia is such a natural fit as a potential Red Sox trade target, and he'd likely come at a modest price. The soon-to-be 34-year-old offers little in the way of upside or long-term prospects, but he could serve as an excellent short-side platoon option and stopgap solution this year.
While Denorfia is hitting just .240/.209/.340 against southpaws this season, he's a career .303/.370/.452 hitter against lefties, and he's decent enough in center field to serve as Boston's primary backup there, too. He's a free agent after the season, but that should just mean that the Red Sox don't have to give up much in the way of talent to acquire him.
As Brian McPherson of the Providence Journal noted on Twitter, whether the Red Sox should be giving up anything for a spare part this season is up for debate:
However, I'd rather see the Red Sox make this type of move than mortgage their farm system for a bigger player, and it's pretty clear that standing pat isn't going to cut it when it comes to the outfield. Acquiring Denorfia would allow the Red Sox to play him and Gomes against left-handers and Nava, Holt or Bradley against righties. Given how often Victorino finds himself on the DL, Denorfia could wind up seeing 200-plus plate appearances for the Red Sox if acquired soon.
It should only take a C-level prospect to get this deal done, so while the upside is minimal here, so is the risk.
Drew Stubbs, Colorado Rockies
Like Denorfia, Stubbs is a right-handed-hitting center fielder who plays for an NL West team that's even further away from contention than the Red Sox. But unlike Denorfia, the 29-year-old Stubbs brings more of a boom-or-bust aspect to his game.
Stubbs is enjoying his best season in quite some time, hitting .316/.353/.473 with four homers and seven steals. That line is largely a product of a .412 BABIP as well as the fact that the Rockies have shielded Stubbs from same-side pitching, but it has been an impressive start to the year for the outfielder, nonetheless.
While Stubbs has been atrocious against right-handers in his career, he's put up a .285/.358/.461 line against lefties in more than 660 at-bats. Add in his solid center field defense and his speed—an element the Sox are sorely missing this year—and he makes a ton of sense as an addition to this team for 2014 and beyond.
Stubbs won't reach free agency until after the 2015 season, which means it would likely take more to acquire Stubbs than Denorfia. But we're still not talking about premium talent exchanging hands here, and the Red Sox have some depth in their farm system that they can use to tempt Colorado. Forget anyone you've read about on a top-10 list, but guys like Drake Britton, Bryce Brentz and Sean Coyle could come into play.
With Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez both on the DL for the foreseeable future, the Rockies may be hesitant to gut their outfield depth further. But if the Red Sox dangle a decent enough package, there's no reason for Colorado to hold onto an extra piece like Stubbs.
Domonic Brown, Philadelphia Phillies
And now for something completely different! Brown is left-handed, can't play center field and is having a miserable 2014 season. So in some regards, he'd fit right in with the current batch of outfielders the Red Sox are rostering.
But if you're looking for a buy-low candidate who could pay dividends, not only in 2014 but in the years to come, Brown is a worthy candidate. An All-Star just one year ago, Brown is currently hitting .214/.263/.316, demonstrating an inability to make contact, walk or hit for power. However, Brown is actually striking out less this year than he did a season ago, and his line is being dragged down partially by a .247 BABIP.
Brown is only 26, was a top prospect and has already shown tremendous promise in hitting 27 homers a year ago. The Phillies are not going to just give him away, and he'd require a far more substantial package than would Denorfia or Stubbs. But in Brown, the Red Sox would acquire the type of power-hitting presence they lack in their farm system right now and a potential above-average player for years to come.
It's unclear as to whether the Phillies would sell low on Brown, but they need to start rebuilding. Could a package of Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo and Coyle get them to bite? Perhaps a deal with Ranaudo and Deven Marrero as the centerpieces would suffice? Sox fans may be loath to give up Marrero—and, for the record, I don't think they should be—but you need to give up talent to get talent.
There's a good argument to be made against trading for someone like Brown, and if the cost is too high, the Sox should absolutely balk. But he's a unique commodity in terms of potential trade targets, and the dividends could be significant.
The Red Sox need to do something to infuse some talent into their outfield, both for 2014 and beyond. They cannot count on Victorino to stay healthy, they don't know when Bradley will start hitting, they can't expect Holt to keep this up forever, and Betts cannot save the world by himself.
Despite their precarious situation, hopefully the Sox will find a way to take advantage of the trade market in the coming weeks.