Red Sox: Short season leads to complicated trade deadline

This season will have a complicated trade deadline for the Red Sox.

The Boston Red Sox will play baseball this year but the 2020 season will be highly irregular. One complication of a 60-game season is how teams will approach a trade deadline that now falls before many clubs have established their identity.

According to MassLive’s Chris Cotillo, this year’s trade deadline has been moved from July 31 to Aug. 31. Clearly, the normal deadline date wouldn’t be feasible when Opening Day is expected to be either July 23 or 24 but this still leaves teams very little time to determine if they should be buyers or sellers.

Long before the season was delayed by a global pandemic, many predicted the Red Sox wouldn’t be contenders following a winter that saw the club slash payroll and trade away their best player. That may still be the case but we can’t rule out this team making a surprising run. There is more unpredictability in the small sample size of a 60-game season where a hot streak or two can carry a team into the playoff hunt.

Boston’s thin pitching staff is the glaring weakness for this team but the rotation won’t be exposed quite as much in a shorter season. The top arms might be able to pitch on short rest so that they can start a greater percentage of the schedule knowing that they won’t be piling up nearly as many total innings, potentially allowing the Red Sox to get away with a four-man rotation for at least part of the season.

While there are reasons to be more optimistic about this team than we were back in March, how certain can we be that they should buyers?  It’s difficult to get an accurate read on a team’s title chances after only about a month’s worth of games.

In 2015, Boston had a winning record on April 30 while sitting in the Wild Card spot and only one game behind the division-leading Yankees. If they had to decide at that point if they should go all in, they certainly would have approached the deadline as buyers. Well, the Red Sox finished dead last in the division in a dismal 78-win season that year. That team wasn’t a true contender despite the early rays of hope we saw in the spring.

Misjudging your team’s chances to contend will be more damaging than ever this year. Rental players acquired at the trade deadline will only be available for one month instead of two, plus the postseason. Well, hopefully the postseason. Upgrading at the deadline doesn’t necessarily mean a spot in the playoffs is assured, especially since teams will have limited time to separate themselves from the pack.

There is no guarantee that there will be a postseason this year with another wave of COVID-19 lurking as a potential threat. MLB will make every effort to complete the season before that happens but if an outbreak of the virus ravages rosters across the league then they might be forced to shut down again. That’s obviously a worst-case-scenario but it’s certainly within the realm of possibilities.

The bottom line is that there are no promises that the player you trade for at the deadline will be able to help you win a championship. Teams will be more hesitant to sell the farm for a difference-maker even if they feel they have a legitimate chance at the pennant.

This hurts sellers just as much. We saw the Red Sox sputter out of the gate last year and a similarly slow start could bury them early this season. Even if their record dictates that they should sell players approaching free agency at the deadline, that might be easier said than done.

Jackie Bradley Jr. would be an obvious trade candidate if the Red Sox are out of the hunt. The team hasn’t shown any interest in locking him up before he hits free agency after this season so it would be tempting to get some assets for him while they can. His bat is streaky but his stellar defense gives him value to a contender. Unfortunately, if few teams are buying then Boston may get stuck with a player they will soon lose for nothing.

Another change this year is that teams will be able to open the season with 30 active players. The roster must be trimmed to 28 by the 15th day of the season and to 26 by the 29th day, shortly before the trade deadline. Teams will already be jettisoning players from their roster around that time and acquiring more players via trade only adds to the shuffling.

Unless a team has several underachieving players who can be cut as dead weight, trading for additional talent only makes some tough roster cuts more difficult to make. A player really needs to move the needle to make a trade worthwhile. This could lead to fewer trades for role players since their ceiling isn’t much higher than those the team was already forced to trim from the active roster. Many of the players Boston might want to sell fall in that category.

This year’s trade deadline could be quieter than usual with so much uncertainty in the standings a mere month into the season. The top tier teams and the basement dwellers should know who they are but there will be a large clump of teams in the middle who might be hesitant to pull the trigger on a trade.

Nobody wants to give up coveted assets to improve a team that ultimately will be sitting at home in October. No team can afford to make a blockbuster trade only for COVID-19 to prematurely bring the season to a screeching halt, a nightmare scenario the Dodgers nearly faced when the season appeared in jeopardy after they had traded for Mookie Betts.

Regardless of if the Red Sox are buyers or sellers, the trade deadline must be approached with more caution this year. We might still see some big deals get done but the uncertain variables of a short season will make negotiations far more complicated.