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Every baseball season, the days leading up to the July 31st trading deadline offer teams the chance to evaluate their place in the league and decide whether or not to invest more or less into the active season. The Red Sox are no amateurs when it comes to making deadline deals, whether it be the controversy surrounding trading away hometown hero Nomar Garciaparra in 2004 or the not so hometown-friendly Manny Ramirez in 2008, general manager Theo Epstein understands the ways of the market.
This season, with the Sox in contention for another World Series run, it seemed more than likely that the Red Sox would address some of the weaknesses of the team, such as right field, the starting rotation, or the bullpen. As it turned out, the Sox ended up making two notable deals, first trading for utility man Mike Aviles from Kansas City and then in the seconds before the deadline making a three-way trade for Erik Bedard of the Mariners.
While neither move seems to significantly upgrade the team, Bedard has the potential to be a more reliable postseason option than John Lackey, and Aviles is a great option against left handed pitching in a heavily left-handed lineup.
Now that the deadline has come and gone, the playoff picture is even easier to see and the Red Sox certainly appear to be a strong choice to win it all, especially after emerging from their first 20-win month since 2007. However, with the deadline comes the big deals made by other contending teams to upgrade their ball clubs, and I think there are five teams in baseball who have the ability to match up with Boston and defeat these Red Sox in October.
The 2010 World Champions were sure to make a trade of some magnitude as they hold a surprisingly small lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West. San Francisco decided to trade with the New York Mets for Carlos Beltran, who was largely seen as the best all-around bat to move at the deadline. With Beltran, the Giants now have an offensive threat that was missing from their lineup due to the season-ending injury of star catcher Buster Posey. The team seems to have enough of an offensive presence to back up their pitching.
A series against the Giants would be a good test of the Red Sox offense, as the Giants carry what is perhaps the most complete pitching staff in all of baseball. Despite low win totals, aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain have the ability to matchup with any of the top pitchers in the game, and the surprise season of Ryan Vogelsong gives the Giants depth at the back end of their rotation along with Madison Bumgarner and the ever potent Jonathan Sanchez. In a seven game series, any of these pitchers could add to the Giants’ bullpen as well, which is already enforced by Brian Wilson on the back end.
Offensively, the Giants can’t really compare to the Red Sox, as the best offensive threat San Francisco carries is Beltran. The Red Sox are an all around better team than San Francisco despite the star power of the Giants pitching staff, but pitching is everything in the postseason so it would be quite the battle.
Contending in what is largely viewed as a four-team race in the National League Central, the Brewers stayed relatively quiet at the trade deadline but did acquire Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez in the weeks prior to add to their bullpen. Milwaukee has an above-average starting rotation and bullpen, and probably the best lineup amongst the contenders in the division. The lack of experience of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the loss of Colby Rasmus for St. Louis makes me like Milwaukee even more to win the division in the end because they are the most complete team of the contenders. When healthy, the Brewers can be a scary team to have to go up against in any postseason series.
While the Brew Crew might not seem like one of the obvious teams lined up for a World Series run, they certainly have to be in the conversation. Their lineup includes the presence and speed of Nyjer Morgan and Rickie Weeks and the middle-of-the-order power of Corey Hart, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. The Brewers also have a great front three in their rotation, with aces Zack Greinke (though he has struggled) and Yovani Gallardo to go along with ex-Blue Jays pitcher Shaun Marcum. Milwaukee also boasts a good bullpen with closer John Axford having a very good season under the radar, and now complementary closer Francisco Rodriguez joining the club from New York. The Brewers have enough power and speed to give the Red Sox problems, as well as enough pitching to carry them through the playoffs. The biggest question for the Brewers is whether or not they are going to be able to make it to October at all with the Cardinals and surprise Pirates in hot pursuit of the National League Central title.
The Phillies addressed one of their biggest faults and acquired Hunter Pence from the Houston Astros at the trade deadline. Right field had been a problem for Philadelphia all season and the team was finding itself to be more offensively challenged than in years past, so the move to bring in the great hitter Pence should certainly excite Phillies fans with hopes of a championship this year.
After the offseason acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, many fans were penciling in a Philadelphia vs Boston World Series, and not too much has changed since then. While the Red Sox certainly did not make the deadline splash that the Phillies made in acquiring Pence, the Sox still match up decently well against what many consider the best team in baseball. Led by a well-documented rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, the thought of having to go on the road to Philadelphia to start a World Series is scary because of the ease with which the Sox could find themselves in an 0-2 hole. The Phillies offense isn’t what it used to be with the loss of right fielder Jayson Werth, but they still have one of the best top-to-bottom lineups in the game from Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco at the top to Pence, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard all driving in runs and hitting for power. The Philadelphia bullpen is also much stronger, with less dependence on the occasionally shaky Brad Lidge because of closer Ryan Madson. The depth of the Red Sox rotation could be a huge factor in a matchup with Philadelphia, as a healthy Bedard and an improved Lackey would be critical in the middle games of a series at Fenway Park.
The Rangers are looking to avenge last year’s World Series loss to San Francisco with another run at an unlikely title. The loss of Cliff Lee certainly hurts, but the Rangers have found pitching depth through their strong bullpen, which was solidified at the deadline with the acquisitions of Koji Uehara from Baltimore and Mike Adams from San Diego. Along with a stellar lineup and solid starting staff, the Rangers’ bullpen is set to dominate late in games down the stretch as they head for October baseball.
I had personally thought the Los Angeles Angels would make a run towards the end of this season and capture the West title, but a lack of activity to acquire a bat at the deadline and the large improvements in the Texas bullpen give me little reason to believe that can still happen. Texas was already quite good, with a solid front two of former relievers Alexi Ogando and C.J. Wilson and a now seemingly untouchable bullpen consisting of Adams, Uehara, and closer Neftali Feliz. If any team in baseball can out slug the Yankees or Red Sox, it’s got to be the Rangers, whose potent lineup is loaded with the likes of Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, and Ian Kinsler. The surprise this season with Texas has been the pitching though, with Ogando delivering an extremely good season to this point to make up for the loss of Lee, and pitchers such as Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison delivering well enough from time to time. The Rangers are a good bet to smash through a first round series and could be a tough test in the Championship Series for the Red Sox.
The Yankees were surprisingly quiet at the trade deadline, not making a single move despite discussions with San Diego about closer Heath Bell and Houston Astros about ace Wandy Rodriguez, both of whom failed to change teams. It seems like every year, no matter where the Yankees are in the standings and what moves they make at the deadline, they seemingly find their way into October. This season is likely no different, with New York just a game back of the Red Sox despite playing poorly against Boston in head to head games thus far this season. As acquisitions go, Alex Rodriguez could be due back for the Yankees from the disabled list within weeks which could provide another bat to an already strong lineup.
While they certainly haven’t played well against Boston this season, we’ll see if anything changes this weekend when the Yankees visit Fenway. Where the Yankees could potentially establish an edge against the Red Sox is in the bullpen, where the injured seasons of Pedro Feliciano and Joba Chamberlain have been replaced by a terrific year from David Robertson, and the possibility of Rafael Soriano pitching up to his contract sets up a deadly seventh, eighth, and ninth with Mariano Rivera closing the door on teams down the stretch. The Yankees also hold the best starting pitcher between the two teams in CC Sabathia, who could be in the midst of a 20-win Cy Young award winning season. However the inability of the Yankees to prove that they can beat the Red Sox this season doesn’t make them seem like too much of a threat right now, but we all know anything can happen when it comes to Boston and New York, especially in October.
In the end, I think that the Red Sox are clearly one of the top three teams in baseball, but they have weaknesses and question marks just like every other team. Neither a championship nor a World Series appearance is a sure thing quite yet, especially with the injury of Clay Buchholz and the roller coaster performances of Lackey. And while the team is putting up historically good offensive numbers, the playoffs will provide many of the toughest pitchers in the game, making the ability to score runs secondary to keeping your opponent off the board.
If the Red Sox want to be able to win a title this year, they need either Lackey or Bedard to perform up to their potential and be reliable in October, but right now, it’s hard not to like the way the team looks.