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Decision time for Ben Cherington, Red Sox

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 31, 2012 09:05 AM

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Ben Cherington

Will Ben Cherington be buying or selling at the trade deadline? (Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff)

To add or to subtract? At the trading deadline, especially, things are not always what they seem.

And so as the Red Sox rapidly approach today's 4 p.m. deadline for non-waiver deals, let's all remember that perhaps the Red Sox' most impactful trade of the last 15 years came in 1997, when the Sox were, of all things, sellers. The Red Sox sent reliever Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for catcher Jason Varitek and right-handed pitcher Derek Lowe, the latter of whom then general-manager Dan Duquette later admitted to having known very little about.

"Derek Lowe was from Michigan," Duquette acknowledged years later. "Randy Smith was the [Detroit] Tigers GM then and he was trying to acquire a local player. We knew that if Lowe didn't work out, we could always trade him to [Detroit]."

Lowe worked out. For that matter, so did Varitek. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004, Lowe and Varitek were Boston's starting battery in the decisive Game 4.

In between, Lowe won 75 games and saved 85 others in 384 games covering 1,037 innings for the Red Sox. Varitek merely went on to catch more games than anyone else in team history. The "sellers" indisputably won that deal, which is something the Red Sox should consider today -- and beyond -- as they consider what to do with a Red Sox team that has spent the entire season in no-man's land.

Of course, as the Red Sox are likely to remind us, the 2004 championship also might not have happened without the deal that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs which resulted in acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, a far bolder maneuver designed to affect the here and now. And so that is where rookie general manager Ben Cheringtion sits today -- somewhere between 1997 and 2004 -- in a conundrum the Red Sox really have not faced under this ownership.

Pay now?

Or pay later?

Last week, during a radio interview with WEEI, Cherington made an interesting observation: The Red Sox really have not been in this position in quite some time. Under the ownership of the John Henry group, the Red Sox have never really experienced a trading deadline where the right choice was so unclear. On the one hand, the Sox are just four games out in the race for the final wildcard spot. On the other, they are barely .500. Ultimately, Boston's current series with Detroit may mean far more than the recently completed weekend series in New York, if only because the next two nights may serve as the tiebreaker should Boston and Detroit end up even in the race for the final American League playoff spot.

The Red Sox are truly living one day at a time -- and have been for some time -- which makes Cherington's task especially difficult, at least under an ownership group that may be too proud to bite the bullet.

Here's the good news: Cherington might actually be able to do both, and not just because the Sox have some players (like Josh Beckett) whose departure might qualify as addition-by-subtraction. Today marks only the "non-waiver" trading deadline, which shouldn't affect someone like Beckett, anyway. Signed through 2014, Beckett still has slightly more than $37 million due on his contract. As a result, Beckett almost certainly would clear waivers next month, meaning anyone could still trade for him prior to the Aug. 31 deadline for postseason eligibility.

And if someone does claim Beckett off waivers, the Red Sox could simply let him go and unload the entirety of his remaining contract of the team claiming him.

For the Red Sox, that latter scenario is quite desirable, and not solely because Beckett has deteriorated into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Thanks largely to the unmovable contracts of John Lackey ($16.5 million annually) and Carl Crawford ($20.3 million), the Sox seemingly have little money to spend over the winter. Boston's biggest potential free agents are Daisuke Matsuzaka (a luxury tax hit of about $8.7 million) and David Ortiz ($14.5 million), the latter of whom the Sox have bent over backwards to retain in recent years.

If the Red Sox kept Ortiz then, after all, they are likely to keep him now -- so long as he remains productive.

For Cherington, that all means that any major changes he makes over the winter are likely to come via trade, which brings us back to the here and now. Cherington's most valuable chip over the winter might be Jacoby Ellsbury, who is eligible for free agency at the end of next season. Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, Ellsbury's value will drop the moment next season begins because any team acquiring him after Opening Day will not receive draft compensation if and when he leaves.

As such, Cherington might be smart to trade Ellsbury now, though the Sox have given no indication they will do so. Cherington and those above him seem committed to the idea that the Sox could make the playoffs this season, the team's success in the earlier part of this ownership prompts a far more relevant question.

Can the Red Sox win a championship with this team? While the instinct is to say no -- and that is the feeling here -- recent history suggests that lesser teams (or at least comparable ones) have made such impressive runs. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and 2011 despite relatively lackluster regular seasons, and the 2007 Colorado Rockies reached the World Series despite a 76-72 record on Sept. 15.

Can these Red Sox be like those Rockies, who went 14-1 to finish the regular season and 7-0 in the playoffs (making is 21-1) before running into the Red Sox? Or can they be like the 2011 Cardinals, who went 16-5 in their final 21 games last year to qualify for the postseason while the Atlanta Braves collapsed?

As for the 2006 Cardinals, everyone loves to point out how they qualified for the playoffs with 83 wins. But the 2006 Cardinals were 58-42 on July 26 and were on pace for 87 wins as late as Sept. 17, at which point they went into a relatively meaningless spin. Did they almost blow it? Sure. But one could also argue that they were better than their record indicated.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, have had ample time to prove themselves, particularly at the front end of the rotation.

And by 4 o'clock today, Cherington must decide -- at least in part -- whether the first 103 games of this season were the exception or the rule.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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