After long courtship, Red Sox shouldn’t trade Craig — yet

Can Allen Craig rebound after his dismal 2014 campaign?

Greg M. Cooper/Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox waited eight years to get Allen Craig. They’re not going to trade him on a whim; nor should they when they’re one injury away from needing Craig badly.

Yes, the Sox’s history with Craig goes back much further than July 31, when they acquired the first baseman/outfielder and right-hander Joe Kelly from the St. Louis Cardinals for right-hander John Lackey, minor-league lefty Corey Littrell and cash.

The Sox wanted to draft Craig out of Cal-Berkeley in 2006, according to a source familiar with the club’s thinking. Blair Henry, then the team’s area scout in northern California (and now the Midwest), recommended Craig. The Sox believed in Craig’s bat, but — then as now — did not quite know where he fit defensively. No matter. The Sox’s plan was to grab Craig in a later round, then figure out his position over time.

Only the Cardinals beat them to it.

The Cardinals drafted Craig as a shortstop in the eighth round — No. 256 overall — and signed him for $15,000. In the days and years that followed, the Red Sox “kicked themselves” for not taking Craig sooner, the source said. And their fixation didn’t end there.

Entering the 2013 World Series, the Sox’s advance scouts worried about Craig as much as any Cardinals hitter, even though he was coming off a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot. Craig batted .375 with an .849 OPS in 17 plate appearances during the Series. He also sprinted home to score the winning run on the famous obstruction call in Game 3. But the Sox prevailed in six games.

Fast forward to the start of last season. The Sox recognized that they needed to build outfield depth. They knew the Cardinals had a surplus. They asked repeatedly about Craig, and Cardinals GM John Mozeliak did not relent on him until the final 48 hours before the Lackey trade, sources said.

AROUND THE HORN

Finally, the Red Sox had their man. But Craig — bothered by the foot injury, rattled by the trade — wasn’t the same player. In fact, he was downright horrible after joining the Sox, batting .128 with a .425 OPS in 107 plate appearances.

So now the Red Sox are going to trade him? No. Not yet. And maybe not at all, considering that Craig protects the Sox at four positions where they face age/injury risks — left field (Hanley Ramirez), right field (Shane Victorino), first base (Mike Napoli) and designated hitter (David Ortiz).

At the time the Sox acquired Craig, they knew that Victorino, Napoli and left fielder Yoenis Cespedes (since traded to the Detroit Tigers) would be free agents after the 2015 season. Craig, signed through ’17 with a club option for ’18, figured to fit somewhere long-term.

The Sox, though, kept adding outfielders — Cuban free agent Rusney Castillo on a six-year, $72.5 million deal in August, Ramirez on a four-year, $88 million deal in November. And don’t forget Mookie Betts, a homegrown talent who rocketed to the majors last season and likely will be the team’s center fielder in place of the injured Castillo on Opening Day.

Where does Craig fit in this crowded mix? He doesn’t. But his current trade value is limited — he not only is coming off his worst season, but also is owed $25.5 million over the next three years plus a $1 million buyout on his $13 million option for ’18.

So, all the Sox can do is wait.

Wait for Craig return to form; he went 2 for 2 with a double and two walks against the Orioles on Saturday. Wait to make sure that the four players blocking him stay healthy. Wait for the right trade partner to emerge.

On the other hand, the Sox can’t wait forever.

Craig, who turns 31 on July 18, will rot if he remains a bench player all season. No one even knows if he can handle such a role; he’s a rhythm hitter who needs at-bats and is accustomed to playing every day. A season of part-time work after a season of dismal performance only would make him more difficult to move. His salary rises from $5.5 million in 2015 to $9 million in ’16.

The Sox talked in the offseason about giving Craig occasional starts at third base; Craig bats right-handed, and Pablo Sandoval, a switch-hitter, is weaker against left-handed pitching. But club officials decided against forcing the issue, trying to create more at-bats for Craig at the expense of a free agent they just signed for $95 million.

The balance is delicate. The best solution is a trade. But the Sox are not going to jump. They would be foolish to jump. They understand the value of a player who eluded them eight years ago, and cannot rush into a deal because of a logjam that, for all anyone knows, might only be temporary.