Back before the Celtics became a (temporary, as it turns out) destination for Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, and Gordon Hayward, Danny Ainge watched from the sidelines while the Thunder traded budding All-Star James Harden.
Ainge knew Harden was an ascendant and transcendent player. He knew he could be the centerpiece of any rebuild. He also knew the Celtics didn't have the pieces to make it happen.
"We would've loved to be in on James Harden," Ainge told me in 2015, three years after the Thunder shipped the killer left-hander to the Rockets, where he has since blossomed into an MVP and Hall of Famer.
The Celtics rectified their assets problem by shipping Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for three first-rounders that effectively became Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Irving. When the next Harden came along, they had positioned themselves not to miss.
I can't help but think of Harden today with the news that the Tampa Bay Rays are willing to entertain offers on ace left-hander Blake Snell. MLB.com is reporting that the Rays might consider shipping out the final three years and $39 million remaining on Snell's eminently reasonable extension in order to create payroll flexibility after having their bottom line ravaged by the pandemic.
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom recently told WEEI that he wouldn't be worried about trading within the division with the Rays, whom he knows well from the dozen years he spent in the organization.
A call to his former coworkers about Snell would be a natural, except for one problem -- the Red Sox have almost nothing to offer. Unless they're willing to part with budding All-Star third baseman Rafael Devers -- who's more like the Harden in this scenario than Snell -- it's hard to imagine they'll be able to outbid a team like, say, Snell's hometown Mariners, who boast a deep farm system and a gambling GM in Jerry Dipoto who's not afraid to take big swings.
The Red Sox found themselves in a similar situation at this exact time four years ago when a pitcher with a résumé even more impressive than Snell's hit the market. Chris Sale also featured a team-friendly extension, but the White Sox knew he didn't fit the timeline of their rebuild.
When White Sox GM Rick Hahn engaged Red Sox counterpart Dave Dombrowski at the GM meetings that fall, the two sides already knew they made a potential match. Boston's farm system was swimming in elite talent, and a package featuring top prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech put the Red Sox in the driver's seat to acquire the multi-time All-Star.
Dombrowski's win-now approach yielded a World Series in 2018, but it left the Red Sox barren on the farm. Even if they pooled their three best prospects -- slugging first baseman Triston Casas, solid second baseman Jeter Downs, and hard-throwing right-hander Bryan Mata -- they'd come up woefully short against any package the Mariners could assemble, since Seattle boasts two of the top 15 prospects in all of baseball in outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez.
The Red Sox, in other words, are exactly where Ainge found himself eight years ago, on the outside looking in. We can quibble with the notion that Snell is a transcendent player, especially with an injury history that has turned him into a five-inning pitcher. But the larger point is that Trader Danny did something about it, snagging the pieces that made the Celtics relevant on the superstar trade market during the seven-year window that just ended with this year's draft.
Bloom wants to put the Red Sox in a similar spot, where a strong farm system makes them a threat to consummate any trade. They may eventually get there, but for now they may have to watch someone else go out and get Blake Snell.