NEW YORK — Have the Red Sox begun free falling because they were destined to lose, or was Dave Dombrowski’s trade deadline a catalyst?
It’s a fascinating chicken-or-egg debate.
Despite a wealth of talent and baseball’s biggest payroll, the Red Sox have underachieved all season. They sit third in the AL East accordingly.
But their first Rays-Yankees week seemed to flash real potential. The Sox went 5-2, bludgeoned New York’s starters at Fenway Park, and won both series.
The rotation pitched well, Boston boasted the best offense in the majors, and they seemed a bullpen piece or two away from contending once more come October.
Could they have? Or was that week simply fools gold?
Dombrowski’s refusal to invest at the deadline spoke volumes about his own stance.
There’s no denying the abysmal play that followed Wednesday’s trade deadline non-action. That hasn’t been a mirage.
The Red Sox came into Sunday night’s game in the Bronx 0-5 since adding nobody, falling six games back in the Wild Card race and 13.5 behind the Yanks in the AL East at first pitch. They’d lost seven straight for the first time since 2015 and looked every bit a team going through the motions.
Sox batters struck out 52 times in five games, and players not named J.D. Martinez had only drawn six walks. It wasn’t a run of nasty pitchers. It was a team giving too many at-bats away.
Diplomatically, Alex Cora chalked the regression up to bad baseball.
“I think it’s just Rays and Yankees and us not swinging the bat well and pitching well,” the manager said.
But it was only a week ago they’d flexed their muscles against those same rivals.
Mookie Betts offered something a bit more revealing in the Bronx.
In an interview that he knew would air on FOX’s nationally-televised Saturday broadcast, Betts was asked whether the team was bothered by the fact that nobody was added at the deadline.
The seemingly always go-with-the-flow player paused for four seconds. Then he didn’t respond with the answer of least resistance.
“Ummm, I mean,” Betts hesitated. “You could say yes and you could say no. I think that’s all stuff, in the clubhouse that we can’t control.”
It certainly sends a message to the clubhouse, and the Sox wouldn’t be the first team to nosedive after not adding on July 31.
The 2017 Houston Astros were a first-place team that stood pat and responded with an 11-17 August. Because of the non-waiver deadline they were eventually able to deal for Justin Verlander, correct course, and win a World Series (Cora may have mentioned that), but they were a talented team playing dead baseball because their confidence had been shot.
There will be no such shot of adrenaline for these Red Sox, whose core was talented enough to win a World Series, too. The July 31 deadline is now a firm one, and what you see is what you get.
The small-market Rays, Boston’s chief competition for a Wild Card spot, decided to buy at the deadline. They’re 4-0 since.
Baseball may be a game increasingly governed by statisticians, but clubhouse messaging still matters. It helped propel the 2018 team to a championship.
Maybe the Sox didn’t deserve an upgrade. Maybe they did.
Following Dombrowski’s vote of no confidence, we’ll never really know.
Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Eagle-Tribune and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason