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Early Returns Are In: The Red Sox Won the Trade Deadline

Don’t look now, but Boston has built up a three-game lead in the AL East

Eduardo Núñez Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the morning of July 31, the day of the non-waiver trade deadline, the Boston Red Sox were half a game back of the first-place Yankees, and had lost six of their previous eight games. That morning, the back page of the Boston Herald read: “HELP WANTED: Slumping Sox need some relief as deadline looms.”

And they got some—even if it didn’t seem like enough at the time: President of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski brought in utilityman Eduardo Núñez from the Giants and reliever Addison Reed from the Mets during the late-July trading bonanza. Every contending team needs another reliever, but where the Red Sox got one, the Dodgers and Yankees got two, plus Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray, respectively. After acquiring Chris Sale in the offseason, the Red Sox were supposed to be the favorites in the AL East, and when the deadline came, they were not only trailing but going in the wrong direction.

The Red Sox are supposed to be a bully, a juggernaut, the kind of team that picks off its competitors’ best players by sheer force of will and financial might. But while the Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees all got another top-end starter in July, and the latter two teams are now kicking league-average starters out of their rotations, the Red Sox are clinging to Doug Fister (5.03 ERA) like he’s the last piece of debris still floating after a plane crash.

But whether by his own volition or by directive from ownership, Dombrowski held onto his top prospects and refrained from making any splashy moves. Since the deadline, the Red Sox are 6-0, and they’ve not only caught the Yankees, they’ve built up a three-game buffer in the AL East. In the past seven days, they’ve improved their Baseball Prospectus playoff odds by 18.5 percentage points, by far the largest improvement in the league.

Underwhelming as it was at the time, Dombrowski’s deadline approach works for several reasons. First, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Red Sox scrappy underdogs—this is still Boston we’re talking about, after all—but there’s nothing Dombrowski could’ve done to make them the American League favorites.

Even after this winning streak, during which the Astros have gone 3-4, the Red Sox are still 8.5 games back of Houston in the race for home-field advantage. The Astros have nine—NINE—players with at least 200 PA this year who’d be leading the Red Sox in OPS+. Boston could’ve traded for Darvish, Gray, Zach Britton, and J.D. Martinez and still not caught the Astros.

Even if Dombrowski had wanted to make all those trades, he’s spent a lot of his prospect ammunition already. Boston had two players make the BP midseason top-50 prospect list: third baseman Rafael Devers (5) and Jay Groome (43), an 18-year-old left-handed pitcher who’s thrown only 45 professional innings. Since taking over the Red Sox, Dombrowski has traded outfielder Manuel Margot (no. 14 on the 2016 BP offseason top 101) and Javy Guerra (56), plus two other prospects for Craig Kimbrel. Last summer he sent pitcher Anderson Espinoza (24 in last year’s midseason top 50) to San Diego for Drew Pomeranz, and this past offseason he picked up Sale from Chicago for a four-player package that included Yoan Moncada (no. 5 on this past offseason’s top 101) and flamethrowing Texan Michael Kopech (36).

This history of trading prospects means two things: First, if Dombrowski had wanted to get in on, say, José Quintana, he could have, but it would’ve tapped out the farm system completely. Second, it means that while the Red Sox aren’t at the top of organizational prospect rankings anymore, they do have Sale (the best starting pitcher in the AL this year), Kimbrel (the best relief pitcher in the AL this year), and Pomeranz (136 ERA+ in 120.2 IP). Those guys all still count toward how good Boston is, even if they don’t count toward a Trade Deadline Winners and Losers ranking.

The last thing that’s important to remember about what Boston did at this deadline is that Núñez is a lot better than people seem to think. Núñez spent his first four big league seasons trying to break into a Yankees infield that had Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez, which went about as well as you’d expect. That earned him a trade to Minnesota, where news of players becoming good frequently doesn’t make it back to New York and Boston.

But that’s what happened to Núñez once he got consistent playing time. He’s not a prototypical power-hitting third baseman, but in two and a half seasons with the Twins, he hit .280/.311/.422 while playing five positions, plus DH. Of the 208 players with at least 1,000 major league PA since the start of 2015, Núñez has the 21st-lowest strikeout rate, and he is tied for sixth in stolen bases over that time.

Last year with Minnesota and San Francisco, Núñez made the All-Star team and stole 40 bases. And not only did Dombrowksi get him for two minor league pitchers who, at best, might become MLB relievers, he assured that even if Devers isn't the second coming of Home Run Baker, the Red Sox won't revert to below-replacement-level production at third base.. All that would still be true even if Núñez weren’t hitting .400/.429/.800 with four home runs in nine games since the trade, and producing moments like this:

Reed and Núñez were so cheap in part because they’ll both be free agents after the season, but since Dombrowski didn’t trade Devers, the future is taken care of. In the meantime, the 20-year-old has planted his flag in third base sooner than anyone expected. Since his callup on July 25, Devers is hitting .349/.429/.605 in 11 games. That probably won’t continue—the best recent precedent for an AL East contender calling up a 20-year-old top-five global prospect to play third base in an emergency is Manny Machado in 2012, and he hit .262/.294/.445 in 51 games as a rookie. Devers isn’t exactly the same kind of prospect, but that’s a more realistic expectation than what he’s done in his first two weeks.

Even so, Boston has filled its one big hole, third base, and is in a great position to make the playoffs this year and in years to come. The result is a team that won’t be favored in a theoretical ALCS against the Astros, but one that has every chance of knocking them off should Houston falter. Boston’s deadline acquisitions weren’t splashy, but they fit the “HELP WANTED” headline in the Herald, and cost next to nothing to acquire.