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Posted at 10:52 AM ET, 07/21/2011

Red Sox will play trade game, but may be just browsing

The best team in the American League just completed a three-game series in which its starting pitchers were, respectively, a soon-to-be-45-year-old knuckleballer who was nearly released in spring training, a 24-year-old fringe prospect making his second career big league start and a 26-year-old former phenom lugging around a career ERA of 5.83.

In all three games, this team used as its No. 5 hitter a guy who was hitting .230 at Class AAA at the time of his most recent call-up (and who now appears to be the everyday right fielder). In the No. 6 spot was a $142 million outfielder with a .666 OPS.

This team, of course, is the Boston Red Sox, who went into Thursday’s off day with the best record in the AL (59-37), a 1½-game lead over the New York Yankees in the AL East, and an eight-game cushion over the nearest wild-card hopeful (Tampa Bay). Filling in the blanks above, the three starting pitchers they used this week, in taking two of three from the Baltimore Orioles, were Tim Wakefield, Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller. The No. 5 hitter was Josh Reddick. The No. 6 hitter was Carl Crawford.

In this age of extreme parity, there are no flawless teams, and it is easy to pick apart the Red Sox’s deficiencies – particularly as the approaching July 31 trade deadline has spawned the usual avalanche of rumors and speculation. The Red Sox, with a rabid fan base, a huge media pack, a historically aggressive front office and a healthy farm system, are at the epicenter of the rumor mill.

But despite their holes and their wherewithal, the Red Sox appear just as likely to do nothing as to pull off a blockbuster deal for someone such as Colorado Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez or New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran. And the safe money is on the Red Sox doing something in between, and smaller – perhaps acquiring a right-handed-hitting platoon outfielder or a left-handed reliever.

The Red Sox, rightly so, feel pretty good about their club as currently constructed. The rotation might not look like much in the snapshot provided by the recent Orioles series – so it goes when 60 percent of your opening day rotation is on the disabled list -- but ace lefty Jon Lester is scheduled to come off the DL on Monday, and right-hander Clay Buchholz should be back in early August. (Daisuke Matsuzaka, on the other hand, is out for the season, which may not be such a bad thing.)

Buchholz is clearly the key to the Red Sox’s fortunes. Barring a shocking collapse, they will make it to the postseason. But to go deep, they need Buchholz, 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA before getting hurt, to join Lester and Josh Beckett as the core of their October rotation. If Buchholz is fully healthy – and the Red Sox believe he will be -- that trio is as strong as that of any AL contender. Even Colorado’s Jimenez, the best available starting pitcher on the trade market, wouldn’t be an appreciable upgrade.

“If I could name one guy to acquire for this team,” Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said Thursday morning in his weekly radio appearance, “it would be just a healthy Clay Buchholz — and I think we’re going to have that.”

In the meantime, the Red Sox are satisfied with the depth provided by some combination of Wakefield, Miller and Weiland to get them by. None of them is likely to get anywhere near the mound, except perhaps in mop-up duty, in October.

As for right field, the Red Sox are beginning to think Reddick, who in recent days has supplanted veteran J.D. Drew, has had a breakthrough -- and his .375/ .432/.671 batting line in 95 plate appearances in the majors supports that view. On Thursday, Epstein said Reddick “maybe is demonstrating that the light has gone on for him.”

The Red Sox will be linked to Beltran over the next 10 days, in part because that’s the way the rumor mill works, and in part because the Red Sox, always cognizant of how their involvement can drive up prices for their competitors, like it that way.

But don’t be surprised if this current Red Sox configuration, plus Lester, Buchholz and perhaps a rent-a-bat for their bench, is the same one they carry into October. The Red Sox might like Jimenez and Beltran, but they certainly don’t need them.

By  |  10:52 AM ET, 07/21/2011

 
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