BOSTON — The biggest problem with trading Rafael Devers now would be selling low.
Trading away Devers with five years of control remaining is not the drawback to focus on when discussing whether the Red Sox should be willing to move Devers this deadline. Because almost universally, when a team with a chance to win looks to upgrade, it has to sacrifice controllable talent.
Even the Justin Verlander trade last August, one the Astros certainly do not regret after winning the World Series, had questionable math: Daz Cameron, the top prospect in the deal and the son of former Sox outfielder Mike Cameron, could give the Tigers years of strong all-around production.
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"The math doesn’t necessarily ever work when you’re trading for an elite player, trying to accomplish short term goals,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said last year. “You give up a lot of future value, and we did in this deal. We were pretty disciplined about looking at all of our alternatives and trying to pick the deal that we give up the least amount of future value for the most amount of present value. And I think we were able to do that. But you know it goes beyond math when you’re trying to win a championship in the short term.”
It does, indeed go beyond the math: it’s about how many ways one can upgrade a team, needs, windows.
Sources with knowledge of the Red Sox thinking were dismissive of the idea the Sox would move Devers. Let’s consider why: in the case of Devers and the Sox’ third base situation, the issue settles on the type of player Devers projects to be, should be and will be. Most indications are that he is well better than he has shown at the plate in his first full big league season.
In a hypothetical world, if the Devers you see today is the one he will be going forward — without significant improvement — the Sox would be justified in moving him. His 13 errors are tied with Jurickson Profar for the most in the majors. (FanGraphs’ defensive rankings doesn’t dock Devers too much, and he has made some fine plays even as he’s botched some routine ones.)
Five years of control of that player, or something like it, is worth giving up for Machado. Devers this year is slashing .235/.286/.698 with 10 home runs in 276 plate appearances. His 74 strikeouts are 12th most in the majors.
There’s no doubt the Sox would be better off with Manny Machado in 2018. The Sox have the second worst production at third base in all of the majors per Baseball-Reference.com.
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But if Devers were producing as he did in 2017, with an .819 OPS, .284 average and 10 home runs in 240 plate appearances, the upgrade to Machado’s .957 OPS this year for half a season would not come to close to full value for Devers.
So it comes down to a matter of talent evaluation. If Devers is the player the Sox have long believed him to be, and the player he has shown he can be already, then moving him is a mistake. But if he is not that player, if their internal projections are starting to change, then moving him while his value is still very high could be smart.
The central issue is the one that every front office has: player forecasting. In this case, with a thin farm system, gambling that Devers would disappoint would be highly risky. But that's the only way a trade has any logical jumping off point: if the Sox think Devers is something other than the All-Star caliber player he's been described to be. There's no indication their thinking has changed, or that it will.