John Tomase

Red Sox shouldn't let playoff odds dictate trade deadline strategy

If the odds aren't in your favor, do something to change them.

NBC Universal, Inc.

There's a new nominee for the two most gutless words in baseball: playoff odds.

Tracked by everyone from Baseball-Reference to Fangraphs to Tankathon, playoff odds give cover to general managers/presidents of baseball operations/chief baseball officers to justify trade deadline inaction.

Former Red Sox boss Chaim Bloom memorably declared his team "underdogs" before last year's deadline, which signaled that help would not be forthcoming. Manager Alex Cora responded by wearing a t-shirt sporting the cartoon crime-fighting pup of the same name before the Red Sox did nothing, costing themselves even an outside chance at the postseason, and Bloom his job.

Now another trade deadline looms, and already there are signs that management's approach won't reward the clubhouse. Based on how little they invested in the roster this winter, it's clear ownership and the front office did not foresee this particular Red Sox team contending. Craig Breslow, Bloom's replacement, probably assumed he'd be holding a yard sale on July 31.

But no one told Cora or his young team, which won 15 games in June with an entertaining style of play, briefly claiming the third wild card spot before losing two of three to the Padres this weekend. The Red Sox remain a game and a half out, but perhaps more importantly, their playoff odds fell from 40 percent to 25.

If Breslow is looking for an excuse to sell expiring contracts like Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, and Nick Pivetta, Cora won't give it to him. The manager noted last week that teams that stand pat at the deadline actually suffer as rival contenders improve. Breslow responded in an interview with WEEI by guaranteeing that he would "pick a lane" and not get caught in the middle of trying to buy and sell.

So which lane will it be? Breslow may consider this Year 1 of a rebuild, since he just got here, but try selling that to Cora and the team's fans, who are now entering Year 5 of "just wait until we're really good at some future, undetermined date." In a true Year 1, Breslow would be free to sell and the decision would probably be met with some level of understanding. But not now. The Red Sox have only reached the playoffs once since winning the 2018 World Series, and it's not like they've lacked for opportunities.

Just two years ago on this date, for instance, their playoff odds stood at 80 percent. They were 10 games over .500 and building on the previous year's surprising run to the ALCS. Then came a miserable July and Bloom's attempt to buy and sell.

He sent starting catcher Christian Vazquez to the rival Astros in what has turned out to be an excellent deal for outfielder Wilyer Abreu and second baseman Enmanuel Valdez. He then tried to "buy" by adding outfielder Tommy Pham and first baseman Eric Hosmer. It didn't work, the mixed messaging discouraged the clubhouse, and the Red Sox won 78 games en route to a last-place finish.

John Tomase breaks down why the Red Sox MUST buy at the deadline... and what will happen if they don't

It's also worth noting that on this same date, the 2022 Mariners had just an 11 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. That didn't stop Seattle's front office from making an aggressive late-June trade for All-Star first baseman Carlos Santana. The M's responded by catching fire, winning 17 of their next 18, including 14 in a row. Santana only hit .192, but he contributed 15 homers and a walkoff, and his arrival told the clubhouse that the front office hadn't quit on the season. Seattle made the playoffs and swept the Blue Jays in the wild card before falling to the Astros.

Had president of baseball operations Jerry DiPoto heeded the computer simulations, his Mariners would've sold, because they had little mathematical chance of contending. What too many executives conveniently ignore, however, is that the odds aren't fixed. A GM has a chance to alter them significantly if he or she just makes the right moves.

Last year's Diamondbacks are the most recent example, nabbing closer Paul Seward and making a run to the World Series. But it needn't be that dramatic. Last year's Phillies were no better than a coin flip to make the postseason in July, but Dave Dombrowski went out and got right-hander Michael Lorenzen, who promptly threw a no-hitter. The Phils ended up in the NLCS.

Dombrowski has never been one to let long odds dissuade him from improving his team. And that's the most frustrating part of the analytically minded just throwing up their hands and refusing to invest in their teams – if the odds aren't in your favor, do something to change them.

Contact Us