Yesterday, it was announced that the Boston Red Sox acquired LHP Drew Pomeranz from the San Diego Padres in exchange for RHP Anderson Espinoza. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Espinoza as the 14th best prospect in baseball in his mid-season rankings.
Red Sox President of Operations Dave Dombrowski is, in my opinion, one of the best baseball executives of my life time, and a worthy future Hall of Famer even if he were to retire right now. In his prestigious career, he has made some trades that I’ve absolutely loved. His acquisition of Miguel Cabrera is one of the all time great trades.
Dombrowski’s greatest strength is his ability to make major league teams as good as possible, especially at the trade deadline. His MO has frequently been to leverage the farm system to overpay for major league talent. Now that’s a perfectly acceptable use of a farm system, to be sure. It’s not the goal of a major league organization to have the best farm system, it’s to have the best major league team. However, this approach has its drawbacks.
Depleting your farm system makes continued success very difficult, if not impossible. This problem is exasperated when you’re not getting good value back for your trades. Tigers fans understand all of this very well. Before 2015, the Tigers had one of the worst farm systems in baseball, and even after Dombrowski replenished it a bit before leaving it’s still in the bottom third of the league. Owner Mike Illitch has kept the team competitive by continually opening his checkbook, but eventually the team will have to bite the bullet and go through what will likely be a long and painful rebuild. The Cardinals and the Giants are two examples of teams who have found continued success because of their ability to keep their farm systems stocked1.
Though Pomeranz is not a rental nor was he acquired at the trade deadline, the dirty secret of trade deadline deals is that even the best major league acquisitions barely move the needle. Part of the reason for that is how late in the season the trade deadline is. It’s difficult to improve a team by even one or two wins with just two months left to go in the season2. That doesn’t mean these trades aren’t worthwhile, especially when one or two games could make all the difference in the division, which is fair to say of the AL East. It just means that you had better make your trades carefully.
Everybody knew that Dombrowski was going to do something like this. He already had before when he grossly overpaid for Craig Kimbrel. With over two weeks left until the trade deadline, he might again. If I were a Red Sox fan, I’d be scared. The fact of the matter is that Anderson Espinoza was too high of a price to pay for Drew Pomeranz.
Espinoza is only 18 and at least two years away from the majors, though most likely three to four. It is no secret that young pitchers like Espinoza come with a high amount of variance and a fair amount of risk. That being said, he has ace potential with the ability to become a special pitcher3.
Pomeranz is enjoying a career year with a 2.65 RA9 and 28 K%. The more advanced pitching metrics over at Baseball Prospectus like him too. He has a 2.76 DRA and 84 cFIP. His 3.2 DRA-based WAR is already more than twice his career best. His success this year, especially with respect to the jump in his strikeout rate, can be attributed to his new cutter. As a result, there is at least something real to Pomeranz’s improvement.
That’s the good news. Now here comes all the problems.
This season, Pomeranz has enjoyed a .240 BABIP, and his 8.8% HR/FB is over two percentage points lower than his career rate going into 2016. He has also benefited from a 80.8% strand rate that is on the high side and will regress. Pomeranz still walks too many batters, and Fenway Park is a bad place to do that.
The biggest problem is that Pomeranz has a poor track record of health. He has just now surpassed 100 IP for the first time in his career, and this is his fifth full season in the majors. It’s great that the Red Sox have him locked up through 2018, but that’s probably going to come with lots of time on the DL. As badly as the team needs help in the starting rotation, Pomeranz can’t help if he’s injured. Given his track record, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t land on the DL some time this season. This is why the A’s used him mostly in relief last year. They had lost all faith in the ability of Pomeranz’s body to endure the rigors of starting.
As a Boston resident who is married to a Red Sox fan, I have seen plenty of the dumpster fire that is their starting rotation. They are currently 19th in the league in ERA and 21st in FIP. Pomeranz could be a 2-win upgrade if he makes the rest of his starts. If he keeps pitching like he has been, that could go up to 3 wins. That could make all the difference in the world in a heated AL East race. You cannot deny that the Red Sox desperately needed to do something with their starting rotation.
One of my criticisms of this trade is that Espinoza is worth far more than Pomeranz. He could’ve anchored a deal for a much better pitcher. The problem is who would have parted with such a pitcher? Contending teams are obviously not going to do so. The White Sox are not going to part with Chris Sale or José Quintana. The Marlins are not going to part with José Fernández. The Braves are unlikely to part with Julio Teheran for anything short of a godfather offer. He’s under control through 2019 and the Braves are likely to be competitive again by then.
Here’s a list of the best starting pitchers going by this season’s stats4. Interestingly enough, I would say that every pitcher above Pomeranz on that list is absolutely not available for trade. Masahiro Tanaka might be by the end of the month if the Yankees front office sees reason, but his elbow is a ticking time bomb and the Red Sox and Yankees would never make a significant trade with each other5.
Teams are also aware of how poor the upcoming free agent market will be. Just look at these free agent pitchers. As bad a the Sox starting rotation is, I’m not entirely sure that any of those pitchers would help much. At the very least it will cost too much to find out.
This transaction could be a sign of what the current trade market is, at least for starting pitchers. Lack of availability of impact starters in free agency and trade has the possibility of drastically driving up the amount of talent a team is going to have to give up to get any kind of starting pitching help.
Even with the loss of Espinoza, the Red Sox still have a great farm system that I’m guessing most prospect analysts would rank in the top ten. Though that’s not an excuse for giving up so much surplus value, the team was trading from a position of strength.
The reasons above help to explain why the Red Sox had to do this. That does not mean that they should have. It’s not as lopsided as their acquisition of Craig Kimbrel, but it’s still too much for what they’re getting back. You can’t even say that the Sox are in win-now mode. With the strength of their farm system, their big market, and young controllable talents of Bogaerts, Betts, and Bradley Jr., this team can remain competitive through the end of the decade. In other words, the Red Sox are likely to be competitive whenever Espinoza is ready.
Trades should only ever be evaluated based on the information available at the time of the transaction. That being said, if Espinoza comes close to reaching his ceiling, the team will end up being excoriated by their fans and the media.
I would have like to have seen Dombrowski attack the starting rotation problem more creatively. Seeing how he acquired David Price in Detroit, I know he’s capable of doing it. If I were him, I would’ve tried to get the Padres to include a prospect themselves. Maybe get Javier Guerra back? How about Hunter Renfroe or Colin Rea? Or a few lesser prospects? Just something to even out the value a little bit more. I can only speculate since I know nothing about the negotiations, but Anderson Espinoza is a heck of a bargaining chip to hang above a rebuilding team. I have a hard time believing that Padres GM A.J. Preller wouldn’t have included more if pressured to do so.
I cannot believe that Preller outGM-ed Dave Dombrowski again. Since deciding to rebuild, I’ve been very impressed with Preller’s work. Very impressed. Espinoza is an excellent return for a pitcher who will not be with the team when they are competitive again. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re only a few years away from seeing the best team the Padres have ever fielded, a team that can make multiple consecutive playoff appearances. That’s pretty special for a franchise with only five playoff appearances in its history.
- Excellent player development is also a factor with those two teams as well. ↩
- I do believe that trading for a top-of-the-rotation starter is especially useful come playoff time. ↩
- I’ve come across a lot of Pedro Martínez comparisons which I have a hard time taking seriously. Don’t get me wrong though, because I would love for that to come true. ↩
- That’s a poor way to evaluate talent, yes, but trades are about leverage as much as anything. In-season stats are inferior to larger samples and projections, but they carry the most leverage because front offices suffer from recency bias. ↩
- Which is stupid. If the best trade available is with an in-division rival, then you do it. If it makes your team better, who cares? ↩