Mike Lowell's(notes) ailing hip, not a teamwide batting slump, triggered the Boston Red Sox's deal Wednesday for Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche(notes), while their dump of defensively challenged shortstop Julio Lugo(notes) to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Chris Duncan(notes) (whose glove may be even worse than Lugo's) and a player to be named later was designed to give the team some organizational depth.
The LaRoche deal was a necessary Band-Aid for the Red Sox to keep pace in an American League East race that Boston general manager Theo Epstein described as a "three-team dead heat" among the Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.
But Epstein acknowledged that the Red Sox still are interested in making an impact deal, and with Boston scouts in Toronto tracking the Cleveland Indians, it is clear that the club has not abandoned attempts to pry catcher Victor Martinez(notes) from the Indians. And while they appear long shots in the Roy Halladay(notes) sweepstakes, with the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers all boasting the advantage of not being in the same division as Toronto, the Red Sox remain invested in the action for the Blue Jays ace.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Epstein acknowledged that uncertainty about Lowell, despite his prodigious efforts to return from hip surgery and a follow-up procedure last month, led to the team's decision to acquire LaRoche from the Pirates, who are a popular trading-deadline partner for the Red Sox. Last season, the Red Sox pilfered Jason Bay(notes) in the three-team deal that sent Manny Ramirez(notes) to the Dodgers and Brandon Moss(notes) and Craig Hansen(notes) to the Pirates.
In 2003, Boston acquired starting pitcher Jeff Suppan(notes) and reliever Brandon Lyon(notes) from the Pirates. Wednesday, they settled on LaRoche for two minor league prospects, shortstop Argenis Diaz and pitcher Hunter Strickland, a far more modest price than they would have had to pay for the other first basemen they were looking at, a list that most prominently included the Washington Nationals' Nick Johnson(notes) and Baltimore Orioles' Aubrey Huff(notes).
Diaz was rated a plus prospect by one major league scout because of his defense.
"We think he has a chance to be an above-average player,'' he said. "Worst case scenario is that he'll be a 'catch-it, non-bat guy.' There's definitely risk in his bat.''
Strickland is a 20-year-old right-hander pitching in the Class A South Atlantic League who was not considered among Boston's top pitching prospects. The Red Sox recently bolstered their inventory at shortstop by coming to terms with Cuban phenom Jose Iglesias, whose defense has been likened to Ozzie Smith's.
Thus, the Red Sox have held onto their most attractive trading pieces should they decide to press forward on a deal for catcher Martinez or pitcher Halladay. It may take a big deal for the Red Sox to keep pace with the Yankees, who have won all six games they've played since the All-Star break and are 20 games better than .500 for the first time this season.
So far, Yankees GM Brian Cashman has engaged in only minor tweaking of his roster, sending two prospects to the Pirates for a left-handed bat, Eric Hinske(notes). The Yankees have no obvious needs other than to perhaps add a bullpen piece.
Tampa Bay is aggressively pursuing relievers, of which plenty are available, including Matt Capps(notes) and John Grabow(notes) of the Pirates, Arthur Rhodes(notes) and David Weathers(notes) of the Cincinnati Reds, Jason Frasor(notes) and Scott Downs(notes) of the Jays, and Chad Qualls(notes) of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Reds closer Francisco Cordero's(notes) name also has surfaced, though that would require a major financial commitment from any buyer.
But with two of the three teams almost certain to qualify for the postseason as division winner and wild-card entry, even minor tinkering could make the difference between playing in October or going home.
With the Red Sox locked in what Epstein called a "horrific" slump, Boston's more pressing need may be for a big bat, in a market where there are only a few potentially available – Martinez, the Oakland Athletics' Matt Holliday(notes) and San Diego Padres' Adrian Gonzalez(notes).
The Red Sox, who have lost four in a row and fallen into second place, 1½ games behind the Yankees, entering their Wednesday game against the Rangers in Texas, began the night batting a collective .223 in 16 games in July, with just 18 home runs. Lowell has hit well since his return, going 6 for 14 with a .429 average, but he is not moving well. Epstein reiterated Wednesday that Lowell is not expected to be fully recovered until next season.
The arrival of LaRoche means Kevin Youkilis(notes) will move more frequently from first to third, with the hope that frequent rest will allow Lowell to continue to be productive. When LaRoche stays inside the ball and goes the opposite way, Epstein said, his swing is ideal for using the Green Monster in Fenway Park. His penchant for strong second halves – in each of the last three seasons, he has batted better than .300 while averaging 14 home runs and 42 RBIs – also made him more attractive to the Red Sox, who despite their slump are fourth in the league in runs scored but rank just seventh in .OPS (on-base plus slugging) against right-handed pitchers.
Other than Dustin Pedroia(notes), production up and down the lineup is off this month. Four regulars came into Wednesday's game batting worse than .200 for the month: Jason Varitek(notes) (.195), Jason Bay (.180), Nick Green(notes) (.150) and J.D. Drew(notes) (.127). Bay is batting just .147 (11 for 75) with a home run and three RBIs in his last 22 games, raising the inevitable question of whether unfulfilled negotiations over a contract extension became a hindrance.
Duncan, who was optioned to Triple-A by the Cardinals earlier in the day, will be assigned to Boston's Triple-A team in Pawtucket. The Red Sox agreed to pay the remaining $13 million-plus on Lugo's salary, the shortstop having been designated for assignment last week. Duncan, son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, has struggled this season, batting .227 with five home runs.
The Yankees, with Mark Teixeira(notes) and Alex Rodriguez(notes) morphing into the 2009 version of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz(notes), and the Rays, loaded with talent, both have better lineups than the Red Sox, whose edge in pitching is not as great as their rivals' edge on the offensive side. If a big move is to be made in the division, look for Boston to be the team to make it.