As a rule of thumb, I hate the idea of trading for relievers because, well, let’s face it – trades involving relievers almost always end up as a losing bet for the team that needs one. We needn’t be reminded of that in Boston where we’ve been on both sides of that coin. In 1997, dealing Heathcliff Slocumb netted the Red Sox both Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe. Ten years, later, we traded for Eric Gagne. So there’s that. You get the picture.

Heading into tonight, the Red Sox find themselves in an odd situation – owners of a bullpen that have posted an ERA and FIP that rank in the bottom third of the league while also finding themselves in the top 3 in all of baseball in fWAR. Go figure, right? But with the back end of the pen drying up between injuries and overuse – the Red Sox find themselves scouring a relatively thin market in hopes of finding some reinforcements for their ailing bullpen. At this point, it’s not really a question of ‘if’ the Red Sox should go out and get another reliever, but rather ‘when.’

Sox Bullpen

The Sox bullpen is becoming a lonely place these days. (Credit: FLICKR)

And that ‘when’ is the topic of today’s piece. With injuries mounting to both the starting rotation and the bullpen, the back end is finding themselves working at a pace that won’t be sustainable for much longer. Should the Red Sox pounce now and bring in reinforcements or should they wait patiently for the best deal possible? Will the All Star Break be enough to take some of the pressure off of their premium arms? Obviously, these are the kinds of questions that need answers.

As for me – I’m not really sold in either direction. While that makes me mostly useless, it does make for some (I hope) interesting self-banter, of which I lay out before you now.

The argument against moving now

While there’s been a lot made of the stress that’s been placed on the Red Sox bullpen this year, the reality is that comparatively, the bullpen hasn’t been taxed THAT much as a whole. In fact, heading into last night’s game, the Red Sox bullpen has pitched the third fewest innings of any bullpen in baseball, with only the Giants and Phillies relief corps having worked less.

In fact, nearly all of the workload seems directly attributed to mop up guys NOT getting the job done as opposed to how the better half of the pen is being used. With the acquisition of a middling reliever, the Sox could shore up the back end of the pen without having to overpay for a more elite, back end option.

The other big part of the equation has more to do with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a very big market for relievers at the moment. With the expanded wild card system, teams like the Phillies – who as of this writing find themselves 5.5 games out of a playoff spot in the National League – will remain on the fence and may even decide to be buyers at the deadline. On the other hand, given a few weeks’ time, a minor losing stretch or a hot streak by another team could push the Phillies to 7-8 games out, forcing them to become sellers. Heck, they might even become BOTH.

Long story, short – the market hasn’t fully developed. We really don’t know who’s in and who’s out and as such, we’ve got even less of an idea of who might actually be available and for what. There’s an entire swath of borderline contenders who have decent bullpens, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that there will be some interesting pieces that could make their way onto the market that might not already be there.

And oh yeah – I’m not trying to self-anoint myself as an all-seeing sage, but people have looked at the schedule before the All Star Break, right? The Red Sox have two games left to play in Seattle and three in Oakland before their mid-season 4-day vacation. Both Seattle games will be played against a team with an exceedingly weak lineup. One of the Oakland games will feature John Lackey. All five games will be contested in extremely pitcher-friendly parks. So long as the Red Sox pitchers can do their job, there’s no reason to think they can’t get to the All Star Break unscathed and in the process, buy themselves some valuable time to do their due diligence on a more desirable trade target. And let’s face it– nothing sucks like being the guy who sets the market except for, of course, being the guy who sets the market for relievers. Let’s not be that. Let’s take our time.

Go get someone yesterday.

While it’s understandable that someone would want to wait for the market to sort itself out, the Red Sox really don’t have the luxury of waiting right now. With injuries to Franklin Morales and Joel Hanrahan, the Red Sox have been dealing with a shortage in the bullpen all year. But it’s been the subsequent injuries to Alfredo Aceves, Alex Wilson and Andrew Miller have turned the state of the pen into one of crisis.

Essentially, while the top five Red Sox relievers have posted a solid 3.49 ERA and 3.58 FIP, the other 10 have barely managed to post a paltry 4.81 ERA and 4.73 FIP for a combined -0.7 fWAR. A hypothetical list of interesting names who could A.) out perform that mark and B.) Could likely be had for a bag of balls includes: Matt Thornton, John Axford, Chad Qualls, and Michael Gonzalez. Again – I’m not advocating that any of those guys are an answer- but they’d be a significant upgrade over what the Red Sox currently have and would cost next to nothing – even at this point in the market’s development.

And as we mentioned before, the addition of a middling reliever, helps to address the true problem in this pen, which is not the lack of a closer or elite arm at the back end, but rather the guys who are there to give those guys the night off. Right now, the mop up corps can’t seem to hold those 4, 5 and 6 run leads. That mans an extra inning for Koji here, and a few more outs for Tazawa to make over there. As such, bullpen fatigue is rarely the result of a big explosion in so much as it is like death by a thousand paper cuts. Those extra few innings mean a lot, and they’re adding up fast. That’s where the stress is coming and that’s where the Red Sox can best improve themselves – right now – AND at an affordable price.

And what’s not being discussed is the potential leverage the Red Sox could have in going to GET a bigger, better, badder option at the back end of the pen once the market has matured. With less of a glaring need, it’d almost certainly improve the Red Sox bargaining position. In sum, it’d be the epitome of a smaller move helping to set up a bigger one.

Again – I’m not particularly sold either way, but if I were a betting man, I’d surmise the Red Sox make a move sooner rather than later. While they might be willing to ride things out through the All Star break, it’s going to be the ten games leading up to the trade deadline that could go a long ways towards deciding the division. When they get done with their four game vacation, they’ll have the Rays, Yankees and Orioles waiting for them – as will an opportunity to blow open a considerable lead in the AL East. You can bet the Red Sox will want as many bullets in the chamber as they can fit and one of them will likely include a new reliever.