The great news for the Boston Red Sox is that their 47-33 record, as of Thursday, plants them in first place in the American League East.
The not-so-great news is that, with only 6.5 games separating them from the last-place Toronto Blue Jays, they have a lot of competition in their quest for the playoffs.
In order to keep their winning pace, the Red Sox must make some trades to bolster their club. While the team has been great on the season, some chinks in their roster are becoming more pronounced as the season progresses.
Boston has had the most productive offense over the first half of the season, scoring 405 runs over its first 80 games. It is tough to find fault with a unit doing so well, so as far as making trades for positional players, there is no need.
The pitching situation has been another story. In the bullpen and in the rotation, the Red Sox have exposed flaws, which left unfixed will end up costing them greatly down the stretch run.
The most dire need the Red Sox need to address is in the backend of their bullpen. With Joel Hanrahan out for the season and Andrew Bailey struggling mightily, the role of closer is up for grabs in Boston.
The team is tied for the fewest saves in the majors (13), and it has the league's second-worst save percentage (54 percent). Obviously, no first place club should have those numbers tacked to their resume.
In order to fill the gaping hole at the end of the bullpen, the Red Sox are forced to consider using effective middle relievers, such as Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara as makeshift closers. Even if one of those guys found his niche as a closer, the Red Sox would be left with the issue of filling the middle of their bullpen.
Without addressing the need of a closer, it is easy to imagine this Red Sox team dying of a heartbreaking blown save in some critical game. Let's look at some guys who could help fill the ninth inning void.
Francisco Rodriguez, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers
Francisco Rodriguez could come in and address the need at closer immediately. After a turbulent 2012 season, Rodriguez has rebounded in a remarkable way.
In 16 appearances this season with the Milwaukee Brewers, Rodriguez has posted a 0.59 ERA, a 0.72 WHIP and has converted each of his six save opportunities.
The Brewers have every reason for wanting to move Rodriguez. The team has Jim Henderson and John Axford on the roster already, both of whom have proven themselves to be dependable at closing out games. Furthermore, they sit just a game out of last place in the NL Central, so a 31-year-old closer having a resurgent season does them little good (unless they move him, of course).
Rodriguez should have a cheaper price tag than other closers out there, such as former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, so the Red Sox might not have to part with their most coveted prospects in order to get him. And with him in the mix, they would be able to optimize guys like Tazawa, Uehara and Andrew Miller by not trying to use them to close out games.
Kevin Gregg, RHP, Chicago Cubs
Kevin Gregg of the Chicago Cubs is another closer the Red Sox should consider.
After an ineffective 2012 season with the Baltimore Orioles, Gregg has turned things around with the Cubs. This season he has converted each of his 11 save opportunities, and has done so in an impressive fashion. He has an ERA of just 1.11 to go along with an impressive WHIP of 0.95.
The 35-year-old has proven himself a reliable closer over the course of his 11-year career, when given the opportunity. Of the 190 save opportunities Gregg has been given, he has converted 155 of them.
Given the last-place status of the Cubs, it is likely they will be open to moving Gregg for a prospect or two. As long as the Red Sox hold on to their blue chip prospects, bringing in Gregg would be the perfect move to stabilize the bullpen.
With Jon Lester in the midst of a prolonged slump, and Clay Buchholz on the disabled list, the Red Sox rotation is beginning to look a little thinner.
Lester has been disastrous since starting the season 6-0. In his past seven starts, the lefty has gone 1-4 with a 7.30 ERA over that span. If he continues to struggle so mightily, the Red Sox will have trouble staying in first place.
John Lackey has been a welcome surprise over the first half of the season, and Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster have brought stability to the back-end of the rotation. But beyond those guys, the Red Sox have no real safeguard against injuries. Allen Webster has struggled in his first big league action, and Franklin Morales is back on the disabled list. Alfredo Aceves can be depended on to make some spot starts, but it's tough to rest a season's hopes on the unpredictability that Aceves brings to the table.
The Red Sox have to consider moving for some depth in their rotation, at the very least. It will be a tall order for them to weather the dog days of July and August with only the current cast of characters starting on the mound.
If they are concerned about the front end of the rotation, a minor move will not suffice, and they will need to part ways with some prized prospects. Whatever they do, they must get some more able bodies into their rotational mix.
Cliff Lee, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Little needs to be said about the kind of pitcher Cliff Lee is.
The former Cy Young winner has gone 9-2 with a 2.51 ERA with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2013. One especially enticing statistic of Lee's is his innings pitched. The 118.1 innings he's thrown are the most in the league, and put him well on pace to complete his sixth consecutive season of 200-plus innings pitched.
His impact has been felt in mid-season transactions in recent years. In both 2009 and 2010, Lee was traded in the middle of the season (in 2009 he was shipped from the Cleveland Indians to the Phillies, and in 2010 he was sent from the Seattle Mariners to the Texas Rangers). In both of those seasons, the team which received Lee in the deal made a run to the World Series.
The Red Sox have both the deep farm system and the payroll flexibility needed to obtain a guy like Lee. Boston has a payroll of under $160 million, according to deadspin, which is quite a bit lower than it has been in years past. They could certainly take a large chunk of the money that Lee is owed over the remaining two-and-a-half years on his current deal. Additionally, they have elite prospects in the higher levels of the minors, so they have the luxury of being able to move one of them.
Despite the price, the Red Sox should make a serious push for Lee. Along with Clay Buchholz, he would create an unhittable tandem that could carry the Red Sox to postseason glory.
Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Miami Marlins
If the Red Sox are unwilling to make the blockbuster deal needed to reel Lee in, they should consider Ricky Nolasco of the Miami Marlins.
The 30-year-old right-handed starter is wasting away with the cellar-dwelling Marlins. If not for the mediocrity of the Miami lineup, Nolasco might have more than a 4-7 record to show for his 3.68 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.
The Marlins don't seem so keen on paying their players, so it seems unlikely they will pay Nolasco the money he will command when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season. If the Red Sox were to swoop in and offer the Marlins a decent prospect or two, they might be able to add Nolasco to the mix.
While he is not the difference-maker that Lee is, Nolasco will bring a stability to the Red Sox rotation. He has started at least 26 games every year since 2008, so he can be counted on to stay healthy. The Red Sox will need that kind of rotational depth if they are going to make the playoffs.
The downside about Nolasco is that he is not talented enough to usurp any of the top three (or perhaps four) Red Sox starters, so he would do little to improve their odds if they make the playoffs.
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