ANAHEIM, Calif. — Imagine, for a moment, you are Dave Dombrowski. You’re searching for a middle-of-the-order bat to stir the Boston Red Sox’s offense and your greatest positional need is at third base. The best available options eight days before the trade deadline are Eduardo Nunez, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jed Lowrie.
What do you do?
You widen your search.
It didn’t take recording only six hits — only two after the second inning — in a 7-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday night to see that the Red Sox are one impact hitter short of having a real chance to run away with the division. They have the American League’s Cy Young Award front-runner in Chris Sale, its most lights-out closer in Craig Kimbrel and a starting rotation that is as talented and deep as any.
But the offense comes and goes like a rash. Boston racked up 47 runs in five games against Toronto and Texas, then scored only 20 runs over its next eight games. The Red Sox bust out for five runs in the first inning Friday night against the Angels, then score only four runs over the next 17 innings.
That’s what happens when you don’t hit home runs. Entering play Saturday, the Red Sox had the second-most hits in the AL (895) and scored the fourth-most runs (465), but were dead last in homers (98). A team that can’t go deep needs to string together two or three hits to score, which is a tough way for an offense to apply consistent pressure on opposing pitchers. At a time when homers are up almost everywhere in baseball, the post-David Ortiz Red Sox insist on building rallies the hard way.
And unless the Kansas City Royals, still within range of a wild-card berth, suddenly shop Mike Moustakas or the Texas Rangers unexpectedly dangle franchise icon Adrian Beltre while he’s on the verge of 3,000 career hits, none of the third basemen on the trade market fit as a middle-of-the-order bopper. If the best the Red Sox can do is Nunez or Cabrera, they would do just as well to stick with versatile Brock Holt as the everyday third baseman.
Dombrowski is said to be exploring outside-the-box options at third base. Jose Bautista would seem to fit that description. The Toronto Blue Jays slugger has played more than 3,000 innings at third base but only 11 since 2014. And while one AL talent evaluator doubted whether Bautista, at age 36, could play third base on a regular basis, a major league source familiar with the Red Sox’s thinking said the club hasn’t even discussed Bautista as an option.
Yonder Alonso? Another AL scout described him as a guy who “plays hitter,” meaning he isn’t a very good defender at first base or third.
But the Red Sox have a strong enough need for another power hitter that they should look beyond their list of players who could potentially move to third base, especially with Hanley Ramirez having started three of the past five games at first base. He’s expected to play there again Monday night in Seattle, a sign that his sore shoulders are holding up better than they did through the season’s first half when he was used almost exclusively as a designated hitter.
Ramirez will never win a Gold Glove at first base. On Saturday night, he cut off a throw to the plate from right fielder Mookie Betts even though Albert Pujols was hobbling around third base and almost certainly would have been out.
But if Ramirez can keep playing first base, it would free up Dombrowski to pursue the best available slugger regardless of position. The Red Sox could go after, say, Jay Bruce or Lucas Duda of the New York Mets, Detroit Tigers outfielder Justin Upton or even Bautista or Alonso. Any could serve as the DH and bat in the middle of the order, while Holt plays third base and slumping, banged-up first baseman Mitch Moreland moves to the bench.
With eight days left until the deadline, the Red Sox are believed to still be focused on more traditional third-base solutions perhaps in the hopes that Moustakas or Beltre will suddenly become available. At the moment, though, there are few real difference-makers to choose from.
It’s nearly time for the Red Sox to expand the search, add power to the offense and make life a little bit easier for those starting pitchers who can take them deep into October.