After deadline inaction, which direction are the Red Sox headed?

The 2019 Boston Red Sox have been a team searching for its identity the entire season, marked by a series of false starts. At times, this club has shown flashes of being capable of making noise in the postseason. The latest example came over a week ago, when Boston wrapped up wins in five of six from the division rival New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, stoking excitement around Fenway Park and in the fan base that the team was finally primed to make a run to October and climb up the wild-card standings.

But just as frequent as the highs have been the swift, harsh lows. Boston followed up its series victory over the Yankees by getting swept by the Rays, followed by losses in all three games against the Bronx Bombers so far this weekend at Yankee Stadium. Red Sox pitching has gotten clobbered, allowing 51 runs during the seven-game losing streak, unable to stop the bleeding and highlighting the lack of pitching acquisitions at the trade deadline by president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.

Every confidence high seems to be followed immediately by emotional lows, in often gut-wrenching fashion.

Boston now sits 5.5 games out of even making the playoffs, trailing both the Rays and the Oakland Athletics in the fight for the second American League wild-card slot. Slowly, the realization is settling in that the 2019 Boston Red Sox might be like most sequels to Hollywood blockbusters, and the worst-case scenario for a baseball team in Boston: extremely expensive and utterly forgettable.

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To be clear, this isn’t a bad baseball team. Boston boasts MLB’s best offense, leading all teams with 642 runs, nine more than the second-place Minnesota Twins. Xander Bogaerts has arguably been the best shortstop, ranking second among AL position players in FanGraphs WAR at 5.4, hitting .309/.389/.570 with 25 homers, 37 doubles and 84 RBIs, a would-be candidate for the MVP if Mike Trout wasn’t already so far ahead of the pack. Just 22 years old, Rafael Devers has turned into one of the most offensively dynamic third basemen in baseball, spraying liners to all fields to the tune of .323/.372/.567 with 22 homers. Mookie Betts has had an up-and-down season, but still ranks among the top 15 in fWAR. In the rotation, David Price has quietly put together a consistent, strong season. Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman have emerged as the team’s lockdown relievers. While the offense was largely inconsistent in the first half, it has put together a strong second half, leading MLB with 139 runs scored.

Many of the team’s concerns now fall squarely onto the pitching staff. Fervor rose among Red Sox fans at the trade deadline when the team did not go out and acquire more arms. Many in the clubhouse were angry when Boston did not add relief pitching at the deadline, according to multiple sources. Fox’s Ken Rosenthal asked Betts before Saturday’s doubleheader if the team was bothered by the lack of a move for a reliever at the deadline.

“You could say yes, you could say no,” Betts said. “That’s all stuff in the clubhouse we can’t control. It’s from the top. We’ve got a talented group and we’ve proven that we can do it. It’s a matter of going out and executing and taking care of what you can.”

Dombrowski’s deadline inaction was only further underlined by Houston’s acquisition of Zack Greinke as its third starter. Tampa Bay also made several moves to improve its team, highlighted by the deal for slugger Jesus Aguilar from the Brewers. Dombrowski defended the inaction by citing his trade for right-hander Andrew Cashner.

“You know, we didn’t make a trade on the trading deadline day last year,” Dombrowski told the media after the deadline. “We did get Cashner already, so it’s not like we haven’t done something to help our ballclub.”

In his four starts since the trade from Baltimore, Cashner has posted a 6.94 ERA in 23⅓ innings, allowing 18 runs while striking out 16 and walking 10 batters. Left-hander Chris Sale has openly admitted to the media this season that he’s been terrible, posting a 4.68 ERA, a huge drop-off from his 2.11 mark in 2018. Among qualified starters (excluding Price, due to his brief stint on the injured list), Eduardo Rodriguez currently owns the lowest ERA in Boston’s rotation at 4.19. That group ranks 20th among all MLB teams with an unsightly 4.99 team ERA.

Boston’s lack of a deal to add a reliever shines a spotlight directly on Nathan Eovaldi, whom Dombrowski touted as a major addition to the bullpen when the flamethrowing starter returned from the IL. “We are going to add Nathan Eovaldi,” Dombrowski said two weeks before the deadline. “Some people seem to not grasp onto that. He’s a big addition for us.”

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Eovaldi’s five relief appearances so far have been a mixed bag; he has allowed five runs in 4⅔ innings, though his initial rustiness after not throwing in a game for more than two months is understandable. Lefty rookie Darwinzon Hernandez could be a difference-maker, touching 97 mph on the radar gun, striking out 15 (but walking five) in 6⅔ innings since returning to the majors July 16.

One of the major conversations heading into the season was about Boston’s risk of having to pay luxury-tax penalties, potentially preventing the team from making a significant move at the trade deadline. The impetus fell on Dombrowski to decide how to use that money. The decision to sign postseason hero Eovaldi to a four-year, $68 million contract had already locked up $17 million for this season, a large financial commitment to a pitcher who had undergone two Tommy John surgeries and has started more than 30 games once in eight seasons. Owner John Henry, who committed to the largest payroll in baseball heading into the season, told that the team did not face luxury-tax issues.

“We’re already over budget and we were substantially over our budget last year and this year,” Henry said. “We’re not going to be looking to add a lot of payroll.”

Eovaldi’s deal erased the possibility that Boston would re-sign Craig Kimbrel or Joe Kelly, let alone spend big on relievers. The Red Sox also signed Steve Pearce to a one year, $6.25 million deal after his World Series heroics, further restricting any financial flexibility to make a big trade at the deadline. By the end of April, Eovaldi found himself on the injured list with loose bodies in his throwing arm, returning in July as a reliever. He has thrown 25⅔ innings this season. Pearce has spent most of the season injured, hitting .180/.245/.258 in 29 games.

The team needed to be perfect during this decathlon stretch of 14 games against the Yankees and the Rays, arguably the toughest portion of its entire schedule. Boston has barely hung on, with a 5-8 record in those contests going into Sunday. But the persistent question about whether the Red Sox could turn their season around has been with them for months — it started two weeks into the season, after they started 3-8 on the West Coast swing against the Mariners, Athletics and Diamondbacks and hasn’t stopped since, with two months left in the regular season.

That question might come to define the entire year for the Red Sox.

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