The Boston Red Sox sit at 48-57—dead last in the American League East—and general manager Ben Cherington has to be wondering just what happened in the wake of his team's fabled World Series run a year ago.
With so much baseball left to play, especially considering the value of a second wild-card slot, it is hard to fault Cherington and the Red Sox for not conceding the season earlier. Teams do get hot down the stretch, and why not keep that hope alive for as long as possible?
But a five-game losing streak starting on July 22 has most assuredly put the final nail in the coffin of Boston's 2014 playoff hopes.
Perhaps Cherington and the Red Sox's front office have already started the process of unloading players they no longer deem as being part of the franchise's future. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is gone as in offseason pitching acquisition Chris Capuano. Veteran righty Jake Peavy is the latest to depart.
All of these moves suggest an emphasis on Boston's future. We could indeed be viewing the transition from an older cast of Red Sox players into a new, younger generation of talent.
Sometimes these changes go over smoothly. Other times they do not.
If you noticed the title of this article, you may be asking yourself a question, "Why would Cherington be trading away prospects when the Red Sox look to be sellers at the deadline?"
That's a good question and one that deserves some perspective.
Evaluating the Red Sox's Future
Unless something absolutely off the radar transpires in the next couple of days, Boston isn't going to make any moves for two-month rentals, sending away prospects in exchange. If anything, the opposite would happen, much like the deal with the San Francisco Giants for Peavy that brought in two minor league pitching prospects.
So instead of limiting this concept merely to the trade deadline, let us increase the scope and speculate some of Boston's actions after the deadline and into the offseason—one that guarantees a restructuring of some significant proportion.
Here is where trades can make sense, even of talented prospects.
Without getting into too much detail, we can speculate about some of the areas the Red Sox would like to see upgraded in 2015. The team's outfield obviously needs some help. Anyone who has watched Boston this season can tell you that.
With Peavy gone, who is next? Buster Olney of ESPN feels that Jon Lester is the next veteran to be dealt. John Lackey has a vesting option for 2015, and it is hard to fathom the Red Sox not wanting him to return.
But behind him, how much faith does the franchise place in Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront after their respective lackluster seasons?
So we could safely assume the Red Sox may be interested in dealing for some pitching this offseason.
Let's jump into the remainder of our discussion by asking a proverbial question: Which would you rather have? A MLB-untested prospect taking over a full-time role? Or would you take a bona fide major leaguer with a proven track record?
This is where trading prospects away can happen. It has before, and it will again.
Now the Red Sox are in a good position to deal some of their prospects en route to the 2015 season. Their developmental talent pool is deep, and other teams are assuredly interested. Cherington may be interested in bringing in major league talent in exchange.
But if teams start calling between now and the start of the 2015 season, here are three prospects that Cherington needs to keep off the market.
Mookie Betts—Second Base, Outfield
The first of Boston's not-for-sale players is an easy one—top prospect Mookie Betts.
Fans have already caught a glimpse of the 21-year-old second baseman turned outfielder when he made his MLB debut back in late June.
Betts' torrid minor league pace was worthy enough of consideration—he is batting .347 with an OPS of .957 split between Boston's Double- and Triple-A affiliates Portland and Pawtucket, respectively.
Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe summarized the call-up by writing:
This is what the fans want. This is what the fans need. And so the Sox summoned a 5-foot-9-inch, 156-pound, 21-year-old kid who has played exactly 77 games above Single A ball. They called up a kid who was not invited to the big league clubhouse in spring training.
In a way, the call-up was probably a little too much for Betts to handle. With the Red Sox's outfield floundering, Betts simply could not be the end-all solution that would turn everything around in short order.
Manager John Farrell seemed to acknowledge this via Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston:
It's a quick ascent, no doubt about it. But every level he was assigned to, or challenged with, he's answered the call. He outpaced some of the projections, but players tell you when their time is come. The next challenge was here; the need was here.
Indeed, Betts' ascent was quick, and his subsequent demotion back to Triple-A on July 19 is evidence enough that the young phenom may not be quite ready for life at the big league level.
But Betts' upside still makes him a legitimate piece in Boston's future. We've touched upon his batting prowess already and can combine that with a minor league .407 on-base percentage. Add that statistic to his 88 career stolen bases in the minors, and one can notice a trend.
Do you see a potential leadoff hitter in the making?
This author noted before the 2014 season that the Red Sox would have a tough time finding a replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury after he departed via free agency. If Betts continues to develop like he has been, Boston could find its replacement as soon as 2015.
On top of that, Betts' possible contributions as an outfielder would help upgrade this unit to a large extent in years to come and at a reduced price for the foreseeable future.
No way should the Red Sox fathom dealing him.
We can't dive too far into the development of the next prospect on this list without making a brief evaluation of Boston's unsuccessful plan of signing veteran backstop A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year deal before the 2014 season.
Following the free-agent departure of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Boston scurried for a replacement knowing full well that prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart were not quite ready for MLB action.
But the Pierzynski deal didn't work out as planned. Offensively, Pierzynski's free-swinging approach didn't gel with Boston's coaching staff, and his stats simply weren't making the cut per Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com.
Defensively, he remained a liability as well.
Vazquez was the next in line to get the call and eventually worked his way up to the Red Sox on July 9.
So what about Swihart?
This author has been high on the 22-year-old for some time now. A switch-hitting catcher with RBI potential—148 RBIs in three full minor league seasons—is a great commodity to have in the farm system.
But another, perhaps even more important, aspect to Swihart's game is his leadership—an element described in further detail by Alex Speier of WEEI.com:
Swihart shows an overall diverse skill set. He’s a switch-hitter who barrels the ball for loud contact from both sides of the plate. He hit .298 with a .366 OBP and .428 slugging mark in High-A Salem this past year, with an outstanding .367/.419/.519 line against lefties and a solid .279/.352/.404 line against righties, all while showing the bat speed to expect that he might add more extra-base ability down the road. He’s described by team officials as having “off the charts” makeup and leadership abilities.
With Vazquez on the roster and undoubtedly part of the Red Sox's future plans—along with a possible re-signing of 37-year-old veteran David Ross—one has to wonder where Swihart will fit in.
But one American League scout stated via Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, “Swihart is going to be the All-Star of the two,” when referencing the future of both Swihart and Vazquez.
Let's think about this for a moment—a leadership-minded, switch-hitting catcher with the potential of becoming an All-Star?
That sounds like someone the Red Sox should hold onto for a very, very long time.
Perhaps we are witnessing the development of Boston's next Jason Varitek. If Swihart develops into anything resembling Varitek, this author—and all of Red Sox Nation—would be thoroughly pleased.
Henry Owens—Left-Handed Pitcher
We have already covered the potential future of what may happen with Boston's rotation following this season. Lester could be dealt, Lackey's option may not be picked up and the futures of Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront are questionable at best.
On the positive side, Boston has plenty of amicable arms developing within their farm system. Young hurlers like Trey Ball, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes and Allen Webster all inspire hope.
But one name that tops that list is 22-year-old left-handed starter Henry Owens.
Owens is perhaps the most touted pitcher in the Red Sox's farm system and is ranked as the 40th-overall prospect by Baseball America.
The former 2011 first-round draft pick of the Red Sox may still need a little more development in the minors—already MLB-debuted pitchers like Webster and Brandon Workman are ahead of him in this regard—but there is little doubt that Owens has a high ceiling.
Owens is tearing things up for Double-A Portland this season—commanding a 2.56 ERA and a WHIP of 1.103.
But as Speier pointed out back on July 13, the time has come for Owens to make the next step in his road to the majors:
Though known as one of the more light-hearted players in the Red Sox system when not on the mound, Owens has now moved well beyond the “just for fun” stage of his career. His dominance this year in Double-A—he is 12-3 with a 2.21 ERA, 111 strikeouts and 40 walks in 105 2/3 innings while holding opponents to a .183 average—suggests that his big league future is coming closer into view, a notion further reinforced by his presence in the Futures Game.
In short, there may not be room for Owens at the big league level in 2015.
At least not yet.
Here is what this author envisions—let's speculate that the Red Sox hold onto Lester for next season, somehow working out an extension. Lackey's vesting option is picked up, and the team elects to try another season with Buchholz and/or Doubront.
At most, that leaves two rotation spots open. Perhaps just one. As stated, Workman or Webster should be touted before Owens.
Owens will likely get the start at Triple-A next season, but if any of Boston's major league starters struggle or suffer an injury, expect Owens to be the next guy in line.
Some, like Marc Normandin of SB Nation, feel Owens has an excellent shot at being a No. 2 starter with the Red Sox in the very near future.
With the myriad of questions facing the Red Sox rotation in coming months, why would they fathom sending off what promises to be a legitimate MLB talent?
Hold onto him, it's that simple.
Of course the argument remains the same—if some other team offers up a package that is too good to pass up, Cherington and the Red Sox could easily send away some of their top talent in exchange.
There is the notion that bona fide major leaguers are much better commodities than unproven minor league prospects. It is hard to argue that.
But successful teams are made up largely of home-grown talent. All too often we have seen what trading away prospects can do to a franchise, even in the most desperate of times. While the Red Sox have a deep pool with which to use, some of them need to be a part of the team's future.
Additionally, there are a number of other players not on this list that Boston should consider holding onto instead of trading away. But for the sake of argument, these three should be classified as untouchable.
It may be in 2015, perhaps even later. But these three—Betts, Swihart and Owens—could very well be the linchpins of the Boston Red Sox for a very long time.