BOSTON -- The club having plummeted to 12th in hits and homers, 13th in slugging, and 14th in runs scored among the 15 teams of the American League, it isn’t difficult to discern how just nine months and a day after celebrating a World Series championship the Red Sox had descended to the basement of their division.
On track to hit for their fourth-lowest average of the last century (.246), and even worse than that with runners in scoring position (.235), and even worse yet with two outs in those spots (.207), the problem has all along been the offense.
So on Thursday, as active and earth-shaking a trade-deadline day as the team has perhaps ever experienced, general manager Ben Cherington made it his mission to fix that problem. Simultaneously, he positioned the team to push its way back into contention by 2015. And to do so, he used his team’s greatest assets. Its pitchers.
He began with a blockbuster, sending left-handed ace Jon Lester to Oakland, along with outfielder Jonny Gomes, in exchange for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, the two-time reigning home run derby champion who hit 26 long balls last year and was an All-Star this.
A few hours later, Cherington shipped John Lackey and a minor-league arm to St. Louis for underperforming slugger Allen Craig — who received MVP votes each of the past two seasons — as well as 26-year-old right-hander Joe Kelly. Next, he moved lefty reliever Andrew Miller to Baltimore for a touted, 21-year-old southpaw.
Then, finally, just before the deadline he made the type of move that would only come in a full-blown firesale. He made a deal with the Yankees, who arrive this weekend with Stephen Drew, the infielder they acquired in a swap for utility man Kelly Johnson.
Add it to Jake Peavy’s exit last Saturday, and Felix Doubront’s departure on Wednesday, and that’s seven members of the 2013 title team shipped out in a six-day span. Yet, still, this seems more of a re-tool than a re-build for a team that may be intent on going from worst to first, back to worst — back to first.
“We wanted to see if there were opportunities to turn (the team’s position) into moves that give us a head start on building again, and getting better as quickly as we can,” said the GM from Plainfield, N.H., who said he was presented with a number of “attractive prospect packages” but was focused on adding to the major-league team.
“That was our general guiding philosophy this week. Hopefully we’ve turned it into some moves that make us better now, and will give us a real head start, with the full intent of building a strong, contending team for 2015.”
That an immediate return to competitiveness was among Cherington’s primary objectives was obvious in the returns the Red Sox received. In Thursday’s four trades, the team got back one minor leaguer — which is as many as they gave up. And that’s not the only clue.
Cespedes’ contract expires at the end of 2015, so he was not acquired for the long haul. Meanwhile, Craig is under team control through 2018, but he doesn’t make much sense from a positional standpoint as a player the Sox would target. In St. Louis he played first base and the outfield, where Boston already has Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mike Napoli, and now Cespedes. Brock Holt and Mookie Betts are in the mix there, too. And with David Ortiz locked up, there’s no room at designated hitter, either.
So, then, Cherington said there are more moves to be made between now and the start of next season. And that’s where Thursday’s selloff becomes really exciting for Red Sox fans.
According to MLB.com, six of the organization’s top 13 prospects are starting pitchers at Double- or Triple-A, and that doesn’t include Eduardo Rodriguez, who was the Orioles’ No. 3 prospect before he was plucked from Baltimore in the Miller deal. Given that glut of rising arms, and now with a surplus of serviceable-or-better, big league-proven position players, not only is the Sox’ existing roster cheap enough to be active in free agency, but they might have enough capital to target anybody they desire in a trade this winter.
So let the salivating begin over a guy like the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton, or the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki – or anybody else who furthers Thursday’s mission, and fetches the increasingly precious commodity of elite power.
They’ll need to add established pitching in order to contend, and Cherington acknowledged that he expects the team to be active in that pursuit over the offseason. But these days that’s easier to find than a big bat, and maybe significantly so, considering that through Wednesday only 26 major leaguers had more homers than Cespedes’ 17 this season, while 52 qualifying starters had a better earned run average than Lester’s career mark of 3.64.
And while the organization is ripe with pitching prospects, there’s no bat on the farm poised to provide the Sox with what they need.
“We’re excited to have him,” Cherington said. “He’s someone clearly we don’t have. As we were going through the options, finding something that we didn’t have was appealing to us.”
So he made the agreement with Oakland at some point between 3 and 4 a.m. on what became a sleepless night. It meant parting from Lester after 13 seasons in the organization, and from Lackey after he proved so important in last year’s title run. If the team had played better it wouldn’t have happened, he said, so there was “nothing celebratory” about what the team did Thursday.
But the front office didn’t want to miss an opportunity after stumbling into this position. And Cherington came away optimistic that they are now in a better position than they were a week ago.
“Clearly, offense has been an issue all year. Everybody knows that. We knew that was going to have to improve, no matter what, in different ways before next year,” said the GM. “We knew we were going to have to add to the offense in more than one way … and it’s not a particularly strong free-agent class in terms of offense. That became a priority for us, trying to get a little bit of a jumpstart on adding to the offense.”
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OTHER news of note from Cherington’s 40-minute session with reporters Thursday:
• The Sox want to see what Cespedes can do in right field, though he played left field in Oakland. Craig is expected to play left initially.
• After leaving Wednesday’s game with an injury, Victorino is expected to miss some time due to a back issue, and could wind up on the disabled list.
• Cherington wouldn’t comment on the possibility the team will pursue Lester as a free-agent after the year, but did say there weren’t enough conversations between the sides on a contract extension, in large part because Lester didn’t want to focus on that during the season. Once the season ends, though, it would seem the Sox are open to the possibility of talking more (and more seriously).
• With Drew gone, the plan is for Xander Bogaerts to move back to shortstop for the two remaining months. Will Middlebrooks is expected to rejoin the Sox today from his rehab assignment, and be the primary third baseman the rest of the way.
• Kelly, a sinker-baller whom Sox scouts have liked for a while, will immediately join the starting rotation, so Boston will need to make an addition to the bullpen before tonight’s game — when Anthony Ranaudo will make his major-league debut against the Yankees.
• Cherington said there were roughly 15 people — scouts, baseball operations staff, ownership included — who spent the Wednesday-Thursday overnight in the Fenway offices working through deals.
• According to the GM, the Sox were making calls and looking to acquire players after winning eight of nine — but changed their approach after losing three straight in Toronto, and losing five of the next six further solidified things.•The Sox received more calls on Miller than any other player, Cherington said.
• Durham’s Sam Fuld also went to Oakland, and could be part of a left field platoon with Gomes.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.