How to make the AL East's best team -- that's the Red Sox, not the Yankees -- even better

Mookie Betts and the Red Sox can feel good about where they're at heading into the season's second half, but a few fixes could help. Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

After playing 89 games and using 41 players -- eight at third base alone -- the Boston Red Sox are exactly where we thought they would be.

In first place.

It might have taken longer for them to get there than most people expected, and their lead in the American League East probably isn't as big as the preseason punditry forecast. But as the Red Sox open the second half of the season Friday night in Fenway Park, they are 3½ games ahead of both the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. And based on their talent -- in particular, a starting rotation led by Chris Sale and a healthy David Price -- they have a real chance to pull away from the field.

"I think we've come together as a club," president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. "We started to play better here over the last month, six weeks. We've put ourselves in a position where we control our own destiny, which is always good."

But the Red Sox can get better. Although Dombrowski suggested recently that standing pat is one possibility before the trade deadline, it also isn't in Dealin' Dave's DNA.

There are limits to what the Red Sox can do. Indications are that they still intend to remain below the $196 million luxury tax threshold, which would permit them to add about $9 million in salary. But with another division title in sight and July 31 approaching, it's hard to imagine Dombrowski not using every last resource to improve the roster.

Here, then, are three ways the best team in the AL East can improve for the stretch drive.

1. Bolster the bullpen.

Kudos to Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree and lefty Robby Scott for forming a sturdy bridge to All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. All have outperformed expectations and led the Red Sox to the majors' third-best bullpen ERA (3.08) in the first half. But now they need help.

The Red Sox are kidding themselves if they expect that group to pitch as effectively in the second half. There already are signs of slippage: Barnes has walked nine batters in his past nine innings; Scott has allowed runs in four consecutive outings and owns a 13.50 ERA in his past seven appearances.

Moreover, Carson Smith is not yet ready to walk through that bullpen door after enduring a few setbacks in his recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery. Tyler Thornburg, acquired in the winter to be the primary setup man, didn't throw a pitch before undergoing season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.

As always, there are options on the trade market. Given the year-to-year fluctuation in reliever performances and Dombrowski's spotty track record in bullpen building, the best bet might be a short-term rental, such as Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Pat Neshek, who is owed about $3 million before becoming eligible for free agency at season's end.

But the Red Sox have greater need for a lefty, as evidenced on Sunday, when manager John Farrell used Kelly over Scott in the eighth inning and lefty-hitting Tampa Bay second baseman Brad Miller smacked a go-ahead homer. Brad Hand of the San Diego Padres and Justin Wilson of the Detroit Tigers are likely available, but because each is under club control for another few years, the return figures to be more substantial.

2. Free the Panda.

Before July 31, the Red Sox will face another deadline with almost as much intrigue. Barring injury, Pablo Sandoval's minor league rehab assignment will expire on Monday, at which point the team will have to cease pretending he doesn't exist.

The Sox could give Sandoval one last chance to earn back the third-base job they are paying him a total of $95 million through 2019 to fill. If that was going to happen, though, it almost certainly would have by now. Instead, Sandoval went on the disabled list last month with an ear infection (apparently, amoxicillin wasn't strong enough), then was exiled to Triple-A Pawtucket.

With Sandoval out of sight, his unheralded replacements have played out of their minds. Light-hitting Deven Marrero and Double-A call-up Tzu-Wei Lin are providing solid defense and a spark at the bottom of the order, combining to go 29-for-85 (.341) with four doubles, two triples and a .408 on-base percentage.

"Sometimes you don't want to disrupt a good thing," Farrell said recently. "Clearly, [Lin] and Deven and what they've done at third base has given us a lot of momentum."

The odds are surely against it continuing. But how many times does Sandoval have to prove he isn't the solution? He neither runs nor hits, especially from the right side, well enough to play a role off the bench. And even if Marrero and Lin come back to earth, they still will play better defense than Sandoval, who has cost the Red Sox six runs in 213⅓ innings at third base, according to Baseball Info Solutions.

Sandoval is owed approximately $49 million, which won't go down easily for owner John Henry. But Sandoval was signed by former general manager Ben Cherington, leaving Dombrowski free to act without sentimentality, as long as he gets Henry's blessing.

For everyone's sake, the time has come for the Red Sox to move on from Sandoval.

UPDATE: The Panda has been freed!

3. Trade for a third baseman.

A year from now, maybe even by September, top prospect Rafael Devers might be ready to take over at third base. In the meantime, he's 20 years old and playing in Double-A, credentials that don't exactly scream out "missing piece of a World Series championship puzzle."

Besides, the Red Sox can continue to move Devers through the minors at a conservative pace, because there will be several third-base stopgaps on the trade market, even if the Kansas City Royals decide to keep Mike Moustakas.

Todd Frazier, for example, seems to make perfect sense. Not only will the Chicago White Sox make him available, but they can't expect a sizable prospect return because Frazier isn't signed beyond this season. Ditto for the Oakland Athletics' Jed Lowrie, whose $6 million team option for 2018 can be bought out for $1 million.

Multiple reports have linked the Red Sox to Miami Marlins infielder Martin Prado. But Prado is signed for two more years. The Sox won't want him to impede Devers' path to the majors, and it's unlikely they will want to pay Prado $13.5 million next year and $15 million in 2019 to be a utility infielder, especially if Brock Holt is able to make it back from his concussion/vertigo issues.

Regardless, Dombrowski will have several opportunities to upgrade a third-base position at which the Red Sox still rank last in the league with a .625 OPS, despite the dual Marrero-Lin phenomenon.