The conversations started a few weeks ago. Padres CEO (and former Red Sox chief operating officer) Mike Dee, who regularly checks in with former colleague Sam Kennedy, alerted the Red Sox president that his team was ready to move players for prospects aggressively, including one — lefthander Drew Pomeranz — who seemed to represent an obvious fit for what the Sox needed, at a cost likely to be more palatable than, say, for Sonny Gray.
Most of the subsequent conversations between Dee and Kennedy were punctuated by similar mentions — unnecessary though they were, given that Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and Padres GM A.J. Preller were already talking.
These are the sort of conversations that characterize every trade deadline. This one, however, ended with the Red Sox sensing enough of a need for Pomeranz to bring the deal to fruition, even at the cost of Anderson Espinoza, the team’s first prospect with front-of-the-rotation stuff since the days of Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz (a trio that offers its own sort of reminder about the nature of prospect status).
The willingness to acquire a mid-rotation starter for a potential No. 1 — albeit one who is likely at least a couple years from the big leagues, and who, at 18, comes with his own considerable risks — underscores how the landscape has changed in the last 11 months, since the day Dombrowski joined the Red Sox and created a new operating order.
The Red Sox needed to upgrade a leaking back end of the rotation. Pomeranz, thanks to the addition of a cutter that has taken him from a two-pitch reliever to a three-pitch starter, emerged as an All-Star with a 2.47 ERA (a mark aided by the parks in which he most frequently pitches) viewed by a consensus of evaluators as a No. 3 starter.
If Pomeranz sustains something like his performance to date, he represents precisely what the Red Sox could use to deepen their rotation. The team had a need and filled it. It paid a price to do so. This is the Dombrowski way.
“Usually if you’re going to acquire somebody, you’re going to trade someone that you don’t want to trade,” Dombrowski said recently. “We want to try to win. We think we have a club that has a chance to win, and we’re going to do everything we can [to win].”
The one-for-one shape of the deal was particularly intriguing, representing a risk/reward calculus on both sides.
The Pomeranz profile
The Sox get a pitcher who was supposed to open the year as a reliever but instead has enjoyed a breakout year as a starter thanks to the development of a cutter to complement his low-90s fastball and a standout curveball. He’s had dominant outings against playoff-caliber teams such as the Cubs (six shutout innings, 10 strikeouts in a 1-0 win in May) and Giants (2.60 ERA in three progressively better starts).
Pomeranz has been excellent in his limited exposure to the AL East, with a 1.97 ERA while holding hitters in the division to a .193 batting average and .533 OPS. (Of course, small sample disclaimers apply. David Price owned the best ERA in Fenway’s history prior to signing with the Sox. He no longer owns that distinction.) From a scouting and track record standpoint, there’s reason for the Sox to believe that they achieved a noteworthy upgrade over the regular derailments that had come from the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in their rotation.
That said, until this year, Pomeranz was primarily a reliever who represented a weapon against lefties. This year, with the addition of a cutter, he has dominated righties as well, holding them to a .173/.250/.296 line, but it remains to be seen if that’s sustainable or if he’ll regress toward career norms.
His 3.6 walks per nine innings represent a source of concern. No AL East starter since 2012 (Matt Moore) and no Red Sox starter since 2008 (Matsuzaka) has had an ERA that was league average or better in a qualifying number of innings while walking as many batters per nine innings as Pomeranz this year.
It’s worth noting, however, that the high walk total derives in no small part from situational pitching. Against the top five spots in the lineup, he has walked 7.2 percent of batters; the majority of his walks have come while picking his spots against the bottom of NL lineups, as he’s walked 16.7 percent of batters in the six through eight spots.
Even if walks don’t become a major concern for Pomeranz, there’s a question of whether he’ll be able to sustain his performance based on his workload. Given his path as a reliever for much of his career, Pomeranz has never exceeded 150 innings as a professional or, until he arrived at 102 innings by the All-Star break this year, 100 innings in the big leagues.
Since 2000, of the 138 pitchers in their age-27 seasons who logged at least 162 innings, just 11 had never before thrown at least 100 innings in the big leagues. Of those 11, only two — Jeff Samardzija and Charlie Morton — have anything like the workload profile of Pomeranz, with Samardzija enjoying a healthy track record as a starter and Morton having endured the opposite.
So clearly, there’s an element of the unknown. But the same could have been said for the other pitcher who, along with Pomeranz, seemed likeliest to be moved this trading deadline season in Rich Hill. In all likelihood, there are no perfect pitchers available on the market this year. Pomeranz represented one whose availability was known, and the Sox saw value in the bird in hand, even if it meant sacrificing a very dear prospect.
Still, the limited nature of Pomeranz’s track record as a starter is a reminder that a deal for a big league pitcher in his prime comes with no guarantees. Last offseason, the Diamondbacks acquired Shelby Miller from the Braves for a three-player haul headed by 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick Dansby Swanson. On Thursday, Arizona optioned the struggling Miller (2-9, 7.14 ERA) to the minors.
The Espinoza profile
Anderson Espinoza's first batter of minor league camp, according to those holding the gun: 94, 94, 96, 98. pic.twitter.com/szqa1ImiBe— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) March 17, 2016
A history lesson: At the 2012 trade deadline, Dombrowski saw a chance to turn the Tigers into a World Series-caliber team with the addition of a mid-rotation starter, even if it meant dealing a top prospect to do so. He landed Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante for righthander Jacob Turner (ranked the No. 22 prospect in the minors entering that year) and one of his best position players in Rob Brantly. Detroit reached the World Series — with Sanchez delivering dominant performances – but lost to the Giants.
Espinoza may be a pitching prodigy. He unleashes easy mid- to high-90s fastballs with the potential for two swing-and-miss secondary weapons (changeup and curve), all with a low-effort delivery that suggests the possibility of tremendous command.
The next person who sees him in person and says that his prospect status (No. 19 entering the year, No. 15 in Baseball America’s midseason recalibration) is not legitimate may well be the first. The closest thing to criticism of the righthander might be that he looks more like a Marcus Stroman, with the projection of a No. 2 or No. 3, than a Pedro Martinez.
But there are no guarantees even with top pitching prospects. Risk is inherent to pitching, of course, with the possibility that injuries will rob an 18-year-old of a season, or two, or of the stuff that made him so good — particularly someone who is in A-ball.
Espinoza may end up becoming Noah Syndergaard or John Smoltz or Pedro Martinez, dealt before he flourished into a superstar. But he may end up becoming Turner or even Andrew Miller, a pitcher whom Dombrowski dealt as part of the package for Miguel Cabrera, years before Miller emerged as a weapon. He may end up becoming the next Pomeranz, who was dealt by the Indians to Colorado less than a year after being drafted No. 5 overall in 2010 in exchange for Ubaldo Jimenez; it took Pomeranz multiple years and multiple organizations to make his big league impact.
Even so, the idea of using Espinoza as the anchor of a package for a starter caught a number of evaluators by surprise. One NL evaluator suggested that he wouldn’t have dealt Espinoza unless it was for “a more impactful arm,” citing Chris Sale and Jose Fernandez as the caliber of pitchers he’d want if parting ways with arguably the top pitching prospect in the low minors. An AL evaluator was stunned by what he viewed as “an incredibly high price” for a pitcher in Pomeranz with so many unknowns.
That said, some evaluators viewed the deal as solid for the Red Sox given what they’ve seen from Pomeranz (a No. 3-caliber starter), the multiple years of contractual control, and the uncertainty related to a pitcher in A-ball, particularly that inaction for the Sox didn’t seem a realistic option, and the opportunities for upgrades likewise might be limited.
“There were only a couple of pitchers we thought had a chance to be available that we thought would substantially upgrade our rotation, Drew being one of them,” noted Dombrowski.
The Sox were going to have to give up at least one prospect and it was going to have to be a good one. Perhaps they could have focused on a deal with the A’s for a pitcher such as Hill, but while that might have preserved Espinoza and the Sox’ other three most heralded prospects (Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers), the Sox still likely would have ended up dealing a player from their next prospect tier such as Sam Travis or Michael Kopech, and perhaps a second piece like Mauricio Dubon, for a rental.
The fact that the deal was a one-for-one, at the least, consolidated all of the risk being taken by the Sox into one prospect — albeit one with immense upside. After the 2010 season, for instance, the Sox struggled with including top prospect Casey Kelly (viewed then as a potential No. 2 or No. 3 starter) in any deal, but they included him nonetheless in the package for Adrian Gonzalez. But dealing Kelly has never cost them. The absence of Anthony Rizzo, on the other hand, the future All-Star first baseman who was the second piece in that deal, still reverberates.
The Sox didn’t risk the loss of another Rizzo. They consolidated their risk in one player.
“There was some appeal to just having a one-on-one and we still protected a lot of our quality prospects,” said Dombrowski.
For that reason, three evaluators of three teams suggested they liked the deal for the Red Sox. There is some question about whether the team maximized the value of Espinoza, whether he should have been used in a deal for a pitcher viewed as, at best, a No. 3.
Perhaps down the road he could have anchored a deal for a bigger fish (though the Fernandezes and Sales of the world would require not just multiple members of the top tier of the farm system but also likely one of the Sox’ young big league All-Stars). But that sort of speculation, waiting for that sort of opportunity, wouldn’t have improved the Sox’ position in 2016.
Espinoza is probably the best prospect dealt by the Sox (at the time of his departure) since Hanley Ramirez went to Florida as part of the deal for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell in 2005. They’d have preferred to keep him.
But clearly, Dombrowski isn’t someone who waits for the perfect opportunity. Instead, he makes decisions based on the landscape at the time of a deal and moves forward. He has charted the course for the rest of 2016, opting for a different route than the Red Sox have traveled in some time.
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Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.