Sox begin crucial stretch before Trade Deadline

Sox begin crucial stretch before Trade Deadline

Sox begin crucial stretch before Trade Deadline
BOSTON -- When they emerge from the All-Star break, the Red Sox -- an underachieving, injury-riddled group to this point -- face perhaps their most crucial stretch of the season.

Not only are the Sox desperately trying to get back into the American League East race and stay close for one of the Wild Card berths, but they will basically determine what direction the organization will go in at the end of July.

For the last decade-plus, the Red Sox have just about always been buyers at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

That's because they've just about always been in contention.

If they drop back any further, general manager Ben Cherington could be hard-pressed to throw in any future chips for a quick fix.

But that is not the plan.

"I don't envision a scenario where we're sellers, in the traditional sense of the word," Cherington told reporters in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Thursday evening. "We have some potential surplus in areas we've talked to teams about, and maybe there was ways that could help us now and in the future. But every year in Boston is too important. We're focused on winning this year, and still believe we can."

Already, Cherington has made a big move, and it was one with the eye on the present and future. By deciding that Will Middlebrooks is his third baseman of now and many years to come, Cherington dealt a core veteran in Kevin Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox.

The 43-43 Red Sox need to get hot coming out of the break, otherwise Cherington might be tempted to send away some other veteran pieces and start turning it over to more of the young guys.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher Ryan Lavarnway are probably the next two prospects knocking on the door. If manager Bobby Valentine's team can get hot and stay hot, those two highly-touted players probably won't be seen until September callup time.

That's why, starting with this weekend's three-game series at Tropicana Field against the Rays, this is going to be an intriguing time to follow the Red Sox.

"It has to," Cherington said, asked specifically if what happens coming out of the break will impact how he approaches the deadline. "We're always going to do whatever we can to give ourselves a chance to win. There's no such thing as taking a year off in Boston. We feel like we're right in it and have as good a chance as most teams to be there at the end.

"But we have to play well and give ourselves that chance, and we'll do everything we can to improve the team in the meantime. We'll see where we are as we get to the later part of July. We've got some ways to improve the team internally, potentially. And we've started to look at ways to improve the team externally. If we play to our capability with the guys we have here, our hope is we don't have to make a lot of moves."

If Boston can just get healthy, Cherington might not be forced to be as aggressive on the trade market as some of his counterparts.

Jacoby Ellsbury hasn't played for the Red Sox since April 13, but he is due back to start the second half. In other words, that basically amounts to a trade acquisition.

Ditto for left fielder Carl Crawford, who hasn't played at all in 2012, thanks to left wrist and elbow injuries. He should be back within a week or so.

There is also closer Andrew Bailey, who has yet to throw a pitch in a Boston uniform, thanks to right thumb surgery that happened the day before Opening Day.

"We've been saying for a while that we feel like we have a good team here, but at some point you have to show it on the field and the reality is we're at .500 the day after the All-Star break," Cherington said. "We have good players that have been playing. We have good players on the way back who are getting healthy. But at some point you have to stop talking about the cavalry coming back and start winning games. So, we have to do that."

How can anyone really know what these Red Sox are when they haven't been close to full strength?

"We haven't been able to work as a group," said designated hitter David Ortiz. "A lot of injuries. There's not too much detail you can give about [what kind of team we are] when we have that many injuries. I don't know if you remember that at one point, we had the whole regular outfield on the DL, and even [Ryan] Sweeney went to the DL."

Ortiz feels there is time for the gang to get back together and make a run.

"Yeah, we're going to have a lot of guys coming back -- a lot of the regular guys coming back for the second half," Ortiz said. "Things are going to be in better shape going into the second half."

But the Red Sox can't just say that -- they have to do it.

Otherwise, Cherington is going to be left with some tough decisions in the days and hours leading up to his first July 31 as a general manager.

Ian Browne is a reporter for Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.