The Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles don’t like each other very much these days, so perhaps it’s crazy to think the sides somehow could work out a deal before next Monday’s Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline.
ESPN’s Buster Olney acknowledged the unlikelihood of the Sox and O’s executing a trade last week when he suggested teams that should pursue Baltimore closer Zach Britton. But that didn’t stop him from including Boston on his list, which raises an interesting possibility given the Red Sox’s need for another late-inning reliever.
Boston’s bullpen has been good this season. The unit entered Tuesday ranked third in the majors with a 2.96 ERA. It boasts a 3.51 FIP (fielding-independent pitching) and a 3.61 SIERA (skill-interactive ERA) — two better indicators of the bullpen’s effectiveness — which is good for fifth and seventh in the majors, respectively.
Most contenders typically look for bullpen help this time of year, though, and the Red Sox are no different, especially since those numbers are skewed by the dominance of closer Craig Kimbrel, who’s already been used extensively this season, and setup man Joe Kelly, who’s currently on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. The Red Sox might be in good shape relative to other teams across the league, but there’s still reason to believe the bullpen could become a pain point.
So, is Britton a viable option for the Red Sox, as Olney suggests? Sure.
Look, we’re dealing with pure speculation here, although the trade chatter surrounding Britton has ramped up of late with the Orioles still struggling to gain traction in the American League East. And it’s nearly impossible to determine what the O’s are looking for in exchange for Britton, who was dominant as recently as last season yet has dealt with elbow issues this season that have forced him to miss significant time.
But trading for Britton, who has converted 55 consecutive save opportunities, is a high-risk, high-reward move that could completely change the MLB playoff landscape if he returns to being his dominant self. Plus, he’s not a rental, so his potential contributions aren’t limited to this season.
Just look at Britton’s numbers from 2014 through 2016: 1.38 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 2.40 FIP, 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2016, when he recorded a career-high 47 saves and posted a minuscule 0.54 ERA.
Britton has walked a tightrope in his first 16 appearances in 2017, so any team trading for him would be gambling that his track record before this season is a better indication of what’s to come. Given that he’s still just 29 years old and his velocity is near its normal level, that’s a reasonable roll of the dice, so long as the acquiring team is willing to absorb what’s left of his $11.4 million salary for this season and the roughly $15 million salary he could earn in arbitration for next season, in addition to whatever (perhaps significant) trade package it’ll take to pry the two-time All-Star away from Baltimore.
The cost could be high in terms of prospects, which ultimately might scare off the Red Sox, who already have relinquished several notable farmhands in trades for Kimbrel, Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz and Tyler Thornburg. At the end of the day, the Red Sox probably are better off opting for a cheap rental, with several such options reportedly available in the days leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.
But Britton is a proven left-hander — something the Red Sox could use given their right-handed-heavy ‘pen — who’s capable of inducing a key ground ball late in the game. He’d give the Red Sox a dominant 1-2 punch alongside Kimbrel, with Kelly squeezing back into a seventh-inning role upon returning from the DL. If the package is right, landing Britton is a very enticing possibility, especially with the New York Yankees — the team most likely to stand between Boston and an AL East title — recently solidifying their bullpen with the additions of David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle.
Of course, we’re probably wasting our breath here, as there’s reason to believe the Orioles and Red Sox won’t even look at each other — Britton actually criticized Dustin Pedroia’s leadership earlier this season, so they’d need to smooth things over — and Baltimore might choose to hang onto the veteran southpaw in the hopes of contending with him as the club’s ninth-inning man in 2018. It’s worth thinking big in addition to thinking small, though, and acquiring Britton is about as big a move as the Red Sox could make with regards to their bullpen. Perhaps injury concerns and a market littered with relievers will bring down Britton’s price to a somewhat reasonable level.
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