When the Red Sox announced the acquisition of Eduardo Nunez early Wednesday morning, the move was notable for what was said – and what wasn’t.
In the official press release that accompanied the trade, Nunez was identified not as a “third baseman,’’ or even “infielder,’’ but rather, “utility player.’’ And in discussing his attributes, both John Farrell and Dave Dombrowski repeatedly cited the newest member of the team’s “versatility,’’ and called his skills “useful.’’
Not “impactful.’’ Not “game-changer.’’
As the non-waiver trade deadline inches closer, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Dombrowski as unlikely to make any other moves to help the everyday lineup. He may still go after a significant bullpen piece, someone who can be Tyler Thornburg, if you will, in Thornburg’s absence.
But if you’re waiting for a big bat to come along to jump-start the Sox’ moribund offense, you may have a long wait. Maybe Dombrowski doesn’t like what’s available, or maybe he doesn’t like what’s being asked of him in return. Or maybe he can’t fit that kind of player into the team’s payroll and still remain under Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax threshold.
Whatever his rationale, Dombrowski doesn’t seem poised for a big strike. And he said as much when talking in the aftermath of the Nunez deal.
“Some of the times,’’ said Dombrowski, “guys have to do it themselves, from within. That’s what it really comes down to. The only way (you make a big acquisition) is if you start replacing players in your lineup, and I’m not sure who you would really replace from that perspective.’’
Loosely translated, Dombrowski seemed to be saying: if the guys here don’t pick it up, landing a player – no matter how significant -- isn’t going to save the season. That’s on the regulars here: Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland.
The relevant question might be: Is his faith misplaced?
Of the seven regular everyday position player on the Red Sox roster, it could be argued that only Pedroia has met or exceeded offensive expectations this season. Others (Bogaerts, Ramirez and Moreland, in particular) have been limited by injuries. And still others (Betts) have underperformed, at least somewhat.
The dip experienced by Bogaerts is easily the most alarming. He was hitless in the road trip finale Wednesday, dropping his average to .284. Less than two months ago, Bogaerts was at .339. Since May 30, Bogaerts is slashing .233/.288/.364 for a rather lackluster .652 OPS. Some of the slump can be traced to being struck on the right hand by a pitch in the final series before the All-Star break, but his slide started weeks before that. And while the hand may still be somewhat sore, Farrell said Wednesday that, having watched Bogaerts drive the ball with authority in batting practice, the issue is more about finding his timing at the plate again.
Moreland, too, seems largely recovered from the broken toe suffered last month, but again, the production has yet to demonstrate the kind of production he showed before the injury. After carrying the Sox through the first two months of the season, Moreland has been entirely ordinary. At the end of May, he had an OPS of .846; after the West Coast trip, that number had sunk to .733, turning him from an above-average offensive force to merely ordinary.
(It’s worth noting that Moreland’s current OPS is only a bit below his career OPS of .754, so perhaps this downturn is nothing more than a regression to the mean).
One of the biggest mysteries has been Betts, who earned a starting All-Star spot, but has not been the same brilliant player he was a year ago when he finished second in the A.L. MVP balloting to Mike Trout. His .820 OPS is far from embarrassing, but it’s nowhere near the .897 he finished with last season.
There could be reason for optimism where Ramirez is concerned, since his shoulder seems to be less debilitating of late, and Ramirez has a history of enjoying better second halves. Already, he has flashed more power in recent weeks.
None of the players upon whom the Sox are depending are past their prime, and with the possible exception of Benintendi, could be considered unproven. They have track records, and good ones. What they don’t have, to date, is the kind of production the Sox had reason to expect from them this season.
That’s the gamble Dombrowski seems to be taking -- placing his faith in players who have, to varying degrees and for an assortment of reasons, underperformed in the first four months. If his vision is validated, the Sox could be tough to beat. If things don’t get better, their post-season stay -- should they qualify at all -- could again be short-lived.