Boston Red Sox fans who were fretting over the unreliable health of near-acquisition Rich Harden should have saved enough breath to exhale a second of relief when the trade with Oakland was rescinded early Sunday morning. There is a whole lot more to this than anything pertaining to Harden or even pitching in general.
When Lars Anderson, the prime would-be export in exchange for Harden, was abruptly removed from Saturday night’s game in Pawtucket, the Rhode Island sector in Red Sox Nation had other reasons to worry. It appeared as though the PawSox were about to relinquish their cleanup hitter just as the team was venturing into the homestretch of the International League playoff push.
In fairness, it goes without saying that the priorities of the major league team come first in nearly every case. One noteworthy exception is a fire sale by a rebuilding cellar-dweller, which has hardly applied to Boston at any point in Theo Epstein’s tenure as general manager.
Furthermore, it must be granted that Epstein meant well for all parties concerned. After all, the BoSox needed insurance on the mound and Anderson yearns to go to a system with a little less blockage than the one that has locked away Adrian Gonzalez for at least seven years.
That having been said, this was simply not the best time for the Red Sox to jettison their hard-hitting Triple-A first baseman. Anderson can afford to spend at least another month-plus in the minors. And ultimately, that just might pay dividends for him and his fellow Boston prospects.
Entering the last full calendar month of the Triple-A season, Pawtucket is a half-game behind the Gwinnett Braves for the wild card and 2.5 games behind Lehigh Valley in the North Division.
The PawSox have lost a little footing in the wake back-to-back losses to the Louisville Bats, who are only three games back in the wild-card leaderboard. It’s hard not to think that the prospect of an Anderson trade had at least a mild effect on these last two games.
And looking ahead, if they are to prevail in this derby for a playoff passport, the PawSox’s top priority is tuning up their top-to-bottom offense. The likes of Daniel Nava are currently slumping and the instant impact of Ryan Lavarnway will likely taper off a little before long.
Of Pawtucket’s 34 remaining regular season games, four are against Gwinnett, whose pitching staff leads the IL with a 3.14 ERA and has only allowed 873 hits. Another six games are against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, whose staff is No. 3 with only 902 hits-allowed, No. 4 with a 3.87 ERA and who are only 1.5 games behind the PawSox in the standings.
With all that in mind, giving up Anderson might have led to Pawtucket’s equivalent of Boston’s homestretch collapse from the 2006 season.
Going forward, Anderson, Lavarnway and the No. 5-hitting Hector Luna need to form the nucleus that the rest of the batting order rallies around and steps up between now and Labor Day, when the playoff picture develops.
Granted, aside from the sentimental value it would deliver to the Ocean State (can you say “Win it for Ben”?), a minor league championship doesn’t sound immensely enthralling to most fans. Even so, the natural purpose of a farm system is to tune players up for the rigors of the major leagues and for an organization like Boston’s, pennant races are an integral aspect of the trade.
Accordingly, whether or not they ultimately claim that coveted playoff berth and do anything with it in September, it couldn’t hurt the Red Sox’s top prospects to experience the best possible simulation of an MLB playoff push. Even if they are breaking in at a venue other than Fenway Park later on, as Anderson will likely be, any playoff run can only give these players a chance to earn more stripes before they move up.
With every key player still in the clubhouse, the PawSox have that opportunity.