Red Sox's motivation for Jake Peavy trade is easy: avoid the playoff play-in game at all costs

Two years ago, the Boston Red Sox do not make this trade. They do not give up Jose Iglesias and his metallurgical glove, they do not cede an A-ball pitcher named Frank Montas whose fastball pops triple digits on radar guns, they do not bother saying yes to two more prospects named Cleuluis Rondon and J.B. Wendelken.

This trade happened because of the second wild card.

If there is a compelling argument for watering down the baseball postseason, this is it: Teams really, truly, desperately want to win their division and avoid the one-game playoff between wild-card teams. And so the Red Sox, a half-game back of the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East, dealt four players, none older than 23, to acquire Jake Peavy, the biggest on-the-market difference-maker who wasn’t going to cost Boston an arm, leg and internal organ to be named later.

Peavy, 32, comes with a thick medical folder and a fat contract (about $20 million through next season), neither of which could overwhelm Boston’s biggest need: an impact pitcher. Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox’s ostensible No. 1, remains in disabled-list limbo. Jon Lester actually has the worst ERA among their starters, Ryan Dempster has pitched beyond seven innings in one of 21 starts, Felix Doubront in one of 19. John Lackey is Boston’s best pitcher.

And if they plan on dueling with Tampa Bay (David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb and a starters’ ERA of 2.21 with less than a baserunner an inning since June 23), the Red Sox needed more ammunition, something to counterbalance perhaps the most devastating offense in baseball. Though it is not in Boston’s DNA to sit around, the precision with which the Red Sox struck – waiting for Chicago’s price to come down, flirting with Cliff Lee and not giving up a single elite prospect – was impressive, another stealth move in a year of them for Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington.

Perhaps no GM is having as good a year as Cherington. Lest we not forget: The Red Sox were a blithering disaster at this point last season. Only a year and five days ago, Adrian Gonzalez sent the text heard ’round New England. Players were miserable. Bobby Valentine was a wreck. Internally and externally, the Red Sox were a joke.

To go from that, the worst Red Sox season in more than four decades, back into contention a year later is a testament to Cherington’s maneuvers. He dumped $300 million of Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett’s contracts (thanks, Dodgers), actually got to hire the manager this time (and made the right choice in John Farrell), reinvented the clubhouse culture with free-agent signings (even if he overpaid) and made some excellent scrap-heap pickups (Mike Carp: .324/.387/.614). The Red Sox weren’t nearly as bad as their record last year indicated. Cherington wants to make sure this year they’re as good as the near-.600 baseball they’ve played all season.

The Rays’ financial constraints prevent them from making a move like this, though it wasn’t just money that allowed Boston to pursue Peavy, Cliff Lee, Bud Norris and others. The growth of the Red Sox’s farm system over the last season has been staggering. Iglesias could go because 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts is big league-ready now and can take over at shortstop next season. If Will Middlebrooks struggles at third base, Bogaerts is an option there in the short term, at least until Garin Cecchini – “A lot like Alex Gordon,” one talent evaluator opined – is ready, which shouldn’t be too long.

It’s them and Jackie Bradley Jr. and Henry Owens and Anthony Ranaudo and Allen Webster and Trey Ball and Blake Swihart and so many other prospects primed to turn this incarnation of the Red Sox into mid-2000s redux, when Boston’s farm system spit out prospects like a vending machine. Need a second baseman? Press B3 for Dustin Pedroia.

With money and prospect capital to spend, the Red Sox looped in the Tigers, who needed a shortstop to replace the soon-to-be-suspended Jhonny Peralta, and got them to send outfielder Avisail Garcia to the White Sox as Chicago’s centerpiece of the trade. It strengthened Detroit, and Boston was OK with that, because October is a crapshoot.

Getting there in the right position is the difficult part. Atlanta won 94 games last season and felt like it didn’t even make the playoffs because of a quick-and-dirty exit from a one-game playoff. Teams fear being in such a position, and so if that means going after Peavy – a Cy Young winner and respected teammate who craves another shot at the postseason after bombing in 2005 and ’06 with an ERA over two starts of 12.10 – so be it.

When a team goes into August with a legitimate chance to win a division title, moves like this matter. Perhaps one of the kids will turn into an impact big leaguer and dwarf the year-and-a-third of Peavy. Oh, well. The New York Yankees are a mess, the sort of state in which they tend not to stay often. The Toronto Blue Jays are vicious underachievers despite a monster payroll. It’s the Rays and the Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles, and those odds make for a much safer bet.

The Red Sox didn’t take their win-now attitude too far. It’s not like San Francisco, which watched Zack Wheeler carry a no-hitter into the seventh inning for the Mets on Wednesday. Though the Giants take solace in the two championships they won surrounding the year they traded Wheeler for a rental of Carlos Beltran, the regret is palpable, even if it ought not be.

There is something admirable in trying to win, something that goes beyond a visceral want of a championship. Every team has a window to win, and judging that window is beyond difficult. Not every window deserves a jumper, but with this offense, this team, this close, the Red Sox were well within their rights to dive headlong. They’re here to take the AL East. No one-and-done affairs in October. Just a division title … and maybe more.

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