The first two months of the 2019 Major League Baseball season have come and gone, and the playoff picture in the American League is looking more crowded than many expected. At the moment, the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, and Houston Astros hold the top spots in their respective divisions.
The American League Wild Card, on the other hand, represents a more muddled situation, with just a handful of games separating seven teams for the two spots. The Tampa Bay Rays, who are an impressive 36-23, have control of the first Wild Card spot with the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox currently tied for the second spot. The unexpected early success from clubs such as the Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, and Chicago White Sox have created a small logjam for the second spot.
For the defending World Series champion-Red Sox, a spot in the Wild Card race is a blessing considering the slow start they got off to in April. The Red Sox went 12-14 in April which included losses to the Yankees, Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles, harming the team’s position in the AL East. The reason for the poor start was twofold: the team hit a collective .236 during that month, and the pitching staff racked up a collective 4.66 ERA, including three blown save opportunities.
The script was flipped in May when the team went 16-11, hitting a collective .276. The pitching staff was also able to turn things around, compiling a combined ERA of 3.82 and holding opposing batters to a .222 batting average.
Despite the turnaround, there is still a myriad of issues surrounding the Red Sox and, unfortunately, there may not be any viable solutions on the horizon. “Solutions,” in this case, are having the definition of front-line, impact talent that can launch them ahead of the Yankees and Rays and back into the discussion for winning their division.
That is where the problem lies for president Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox; there simply is not any major talent upgrade that they can afford via free agency or trade given their current situation. Craig Kimbrel, who was a valuable member of the 2018 Red Sox club that won the World Series, has just been scooped up off the free agent market by the Chicago Cubs. While Kimbrel’s price tag (Kimbrel agreed to a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs) was well beyond what the Red Sox were willing to spend, his prowess closing out games could have significantly helped Boston’s pitching staff — which has already blown nine save opportunities this season.
Dallas Keuchel, a former Cy Young Award winner who was instrumental in helping the Astros win the World Series in 2017, was also just plucked off the market by the Atlanta Braves. Again, Keuchel’s reported $13 million price tag for the rest of the season may have dissuaded the Red Sox, but his presence in their starting rotation still could’ve provided a major boost. Chris Sale has righted the ship after a rocky start, and David Price has been a model of consistency for the Red Sox up to this point. Beyond those two, however, the Red Sox starting rotation has been plagued with inconsistency from Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello, as well as injuries to Nathan Eovaldi, Brian Johnson, and Hector Velazquez.
There are a good number of valuable players that will be available on the trade market, as we head towards the July 31 MLB trade deadline. The most notable pitchers who are said to be available include Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, Trevor Bauer, and Brad Hand. As for position players, David Peralta and Edwin Encarnacion are rumored to be available.
The options are there, but the problem for the Red Sox comes down to their inability to put together a competitive offer for any of those players. Their farm system is desolate, with their most recent star prospect being Michael Chavis, who has now been press-ganged into serving as the team’s full-time second baseman due to the prolonged absence of Dustin Pedroia. The Red Sox still have some promising prospects including pitchers Tanner Houck and Darwinzon Hernandez, but the simple fact remains that they don’t have enough talent in their farm system to compete in the trade market. Their competitors within that market, such as the Yankees and San Diego Padres, have stronger and deeper farm systems from which to form a package that would land them a star player.
This leaves the Red Sox with only one option: win with the roster they currently have. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it probable? Only time will tell, but their next two series against the Rays and Rangers will serve as the litmus test.
Boston currently sits six and a half games out of first place in the AL East while currently being tied with the Rangers for the second Wild Card spot. With Kimbrel and Keuchel off the board and trade targets likely out of reach, Boston’s current roster must step up and play them back into contention. The offense has improved, and the team is expecting to get Eovaldi back from the injured list soon. However, the bullpen, particularly in the late innings, is still a major concern. Manager Alex Cora has yet to find a stable, consistent closer to handle the ninth inning.
It hangs on this group, the same group that dominated the league in 2018 on their way to a World Series championship, to seize the opportunity in front of them over the next seven days. Otherwise, the defending World Series champions may find themselves on the outside looking in as the rest of the season unfolds.