Who are Noelberth Romero and Elio Prado, the prospects the Red Sox dealt to the Orioles to acquire Andrew Cashner?
The mere necessity of the question represents something of a sea change in how baseball does business, and suggests why a Red Sox farm system often characterized as one of the weakest in the game will continue to give the team flexibility to address in some form its needs as they emerge.
Some takeaways from the trade, with an eye towards what it says about how the trade market is functioning:
Who are the prospects?
Both Romero and Prado are 17-year-old Venezuelans among a large class of Red Sox prospects delivering outstanding performances in the Dominican Summer League, where the Sox are fielding two affiliates.
“I know these guys are far off, but it hurt. When they were coming up with these names, they weren’t guys that we were hoping they’d asked for, but when an opportunity comes to help out the big league team with a starting pitcher, it’s tough to say no,” said Red Sox assistant GM Eddie Romero. “We were able to create value quickly with these two guys. That’s a tip of the cap [to the international scouting department].”
Romero, a shortstop listed at 6-feet and 145 pounds, was hitting .264/.336/.364 with three homers. He has the hands and arm to suggest the possibility of staying in the middle of the field, and he has interesting upside depending on how he adds size and strength moving forward.
Prado, who’d played all three outfield positions (mostly center), is listed at 6-feet and 160 pounds. He was amidst an extremely impressive pro debut, hitting .303/.400/.418 with three homers, nine steals, and nearly as many walks (20) as strikeouts (21). His overall skill set – his hit tool, defense, and speed – suggests a player with everyday potential, though of course, it will take years to determine whether potential materializes into performance.
And that is precisely what makes this trade so interesting: The Orioles didn’t hold out for players with modest ceilings whose future big league roles are clear. They sought players whose pro careers have barely begun.
What’s happening here?
An N.L. evaluator recently noted that his club had just established a pro scouting presence to cover the Dominican Summer League. Historically, teams have committed few scouting resources to coverage of short-season levels, particularly the DSL. That’s changing.
“The Dominican Summer League is being scouted now more than ever. There are teams dedicating resources down there to get players. There’s a lot of upside down there, a lot of talent down there,” said Romero. “This is a really quick way to add to your [international amateur] prospect haul by being aggressive on guys you liked whether it’s through pro scouting or if you had a history with them and just signed someone else.”
For Red Sox, that change could be a big deal
As mentioned in this look at the Red Sox farm system, the strength of the organization is its young players with considerable upside who are far away from the majors. The lower levels of the system, from Single-A Greenville to the short-seasons, feature a growing number of scouting finds from the international and domestic amateur markets who are commanding attention. Among them:
Beyond top Red Sox prospect Triston Casas, Single-A Greenville features well-regarded third baseman Brandon Howlett and righthander Brayan Bello, a 20-year-old from the Dominican who on Saturday night struck out 13 batters over six shutout innings while eliciting 26 swings-and-misses, the majority on his changeup, while sitting at 94 mph with his fastball.
Short-season Lowell features a tools-laden group that includes outfielders Gilberto Jimenez and Nick Decker along with shortstop Antoni Flores and third baseman Nick Northcut.
In the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Ceddanne Rafaela (an 18-year-old from Curacao), Danny Diaz (an 18-year-old from Venezuela with huge power potential), and recently drafted shortstop Matthew Lugo show everyday potential.
In the DSL, shortstop Brainer Bonaci has been dazzling and 17-year-olds Albert Feliz and Bryan Gonzalez have shown startling power displays.
Many of these players will never see the big leagues. But some will, and there’s a good chance that there could be some everyday players or perhaps even a star or two in that mix. Yet the sheer volume of talent gave the Sox numbers from which they could work.
Under Romero, the Red Sox have done an impressive job of identifying international amateurs who were signed for relatively little money and emerged as prospects. Bryan Mata, the team’s top pitching prospect, was signed for $10,000; Darwinzon Hernandez signed for $25,000. The domestic amateur draft, too, has found players with promise on the second and third days of the draft; Bobby Dalbec was a fourth-rounder, Jarren Duran was taken in the seventh, Howlett in the 21st.
The Sox system is relatively deep in players who do not qualify as “top prospects” in the traditional sense because of their distance from the big leagues – but the trade value of those same players is higher than in the past with rebuilding teams who are eying the long haul and thus more willing to make upside gambles than rely on the performance certainty of players in full-season ball.
“We are really excited about who we have in the lower levels. I think that’s something any team can say comfortably because so many things can happen. Those are obviously the toughest ones to predict for success,” said Romero. “But we feel we have a couple of impact players down there. From Greenville down, incorporating the drafted players, to the recent class getting its toes wet in pro ball, we’ve been able to add talent that will impact us, that will be of value one way or the other. From some of the names being asked for or requested, there’s a level of interest in some of those players at those levels that hasn’t been there in the past.
“To see that there are other teams that are honing in on these guys and focusing on these guys, wanting them in the organization in exchange for as valuable an asset as Andrew Cashner is, it shows us that at least in this case we made two very good signs, and this is a good value deal for us.”
That said …
Of course, it’s also worth noting that the Red Sox opted to move quickly to land a solid option who was pitching well this year in Cashner rather than pursuing what president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski described as “premium starting pitchers.” While there are pitchers with more electric stuff than Cashner in the rumor mill — controllable options Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman, a rental in Zack Wheeler — the Sox opted for a pitcher whose success this year derives from bad contact (particularly ground balls) rather than overpowering stuff.
His acquisition reflects a few things: 1) The Orioles were willing to make a deal fast, and the extra three starts the Sox can get from him before the July 31 trade deadline matter to a team clawing in the wild-card race; 2) The Sox added him not to anchor the rotation but to solidify its woeful fifth starter spot; and 3) The lack of truly elite prospects – those who typically rank in the top 25 to 50 players in the game – demanded a measure of restraint as the Sox try to preserve and add to prospect depth that may be able to help them at the big league level in the next couple years.
The most highly regarded prospect dealt by the Red Sox in the 31 months since the Chris Sale deal was Jalen Beeks, a pitcher who projected as a potential back-of-the-rotation starter, who was dealt to the Rays for Nathan Eovaldi. (Coincidentally . (Coincidentally — or not — the role for which Cashner is now being acquired).
“We’re trying to win, but in addition build back,” said Dombrowski. “We’re trying to protect [the top of the farm system]. We’ve been doing that over the last few years, even last year when we made the moves in the middle of the season, we gave up guys we liked but I don’t think they were premium guys for us, and it’s the same way in this situation.”
But Red Sox keep having to backfill their rotation
It was interesting to note that on the day the Sox landed Cashner, the Dodgers featured a former All-Star on the mound as a fill-in depth option (Ross Stripling), and their bullpen featured an electrifying lefthanded arm (Julio Urias) who would be in the rotations of several teams.
The Sox have felt compelled to make midyear moves for starting pitchers for four straight seasons, adding Drew Pomeranz in 2016, Doug Fister in 2017, Eovaldi in 2018, and now Cashner. The cost of acquisition in each case hasn’t been crushing — Anderson Espinoza was an elite prospect when used to land Pomeranz, but he hasn’t pitched in three years and now has undergone two Tommy John surgeries. But for various reasons, the Red Sox have been unable to address their starting pitching depth internally.
The cratering cost of rentals makes that palatable
Teams just aren’t getting premium prospects for rental players who are just a couple of months from free agency, thus meaning that teams can address needs without giving up their best minor league talent.
For all of the talk of a depleted Red Sox farm system, the club has been able to make multiple moves every season to improve before the deadline without parting with the very best prospects in the system.