By far the most aggressive team in this trading season, the Red Sox struck again Friday evening, acquiring All-Star lefthanded starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz from the Padres for highly-touted 18-year-old righty Anderson Espinoza, whom Baseball America rated the 15th-best prospect and fourth-best pitching prospect in the game on their midseason list released on Monday. The trade comes just five days after the Red Sox acquired reliever Brad Ziegler from the Diamondbacks to buttress an injury-ravaged bullpen and is part of their ongoing effort to fortify a pitching staff that had undermined the majors’ best offense during the first half of the season.
The Red Sox lead MLB with 5.6 runs scored per game in the first half, but they entered the All-Star break two games behind the Orioles and tied with the Blue Jays for second place in the American League East. That’s thanks in large part to their pitching staff, which has allowed 4.9 runs per game on the season, a figure that bests only the Twins and the Athletics in the AL. Boston’s rotation has benefited from a breakout season from All-Star knuckleballer Steven Wright and a career-best performance by 27-year-old Rick Porcello, but big free-agent addition David Price has disappointed, and the six pitchers who have been deployed in the final two rotation spots have combined for a 7.22 ERA in 33 starts.
In Pomeranz, Boston has acquired a former No. 5 pick who is having a breakout season of his own at the age of 27. Pomeranz leaves the Padres ranked fifth in the National League with a 161 ERA+ and fourth in unadjusted ERA with a 2.47 mark. He was also in the top 10 in the league among qualified pitchers in WHIP (1.06), strikeouts per nine innings (10.15), total strikeouts (115 in 102 innings), fewest home runs per nine innings (0.7) and Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (3.0).
One might naturally have some concerns about a late-blooming pitcher who found success in a pitchers' park in the NL moving to Fenway Park and the league with the designated hitter, but a deeper dive into Pomeranz’s numbers this season quells concerns that his breakout is a product of a favorable environment. Start with that ERA+, which adjusts for his now-former home ballpark. Add the fact that he has pitched better on the road (2.32 ERA in nine starts) than at home (2.64 ERA in eight starts) this season. It’s also worth noting that, while Pomeranz hasn’t pitched in any AL parks this year, he spent the last two years as a swingman with the A’s and posted a 3.08 ERA (125 ERA+)—proof not only that his success this year didn’t come completely out of the blue, but also that he has some track record of success against lineups that include the DH.
Finally, there’s Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average, which attempts to adjust for every external factor impacting a pitcher’s results, from defense to ballpark to pitch framing to home plate umpires to the weather. Per DRA, Pomeranz, with all of those things factored out, has deserved to be charged with 2.76 runs, earned and unearned, per nine innings this season. That’s the tenth-best mark in the majors among pitchers with 80 or more innings pitched, better than any current member of the Red Sox' rotation.
Pomeranz’s jump to elite status this season has been in part the result of a change in repertoire. A game of catch with former minor league catcher Travis Higgs over the winter resulted in Pomeranz learning a cutter that he has thrown more than 10% of the time this season. Pomeranz is also throwing his changeup and curve more than he ever has before and been more selective about the use of his four-seam fastball. The result is that he has become less predictable with a deeper repertoire, throwing pitches with movement nearly 65% percent of the time this season compared to barely more than 40% of the time last year. Mix in a reduced fly-ball rate, and he should have no problem with the transition to an admittedly far-less-friendly pitching environment in Boston. If he can improve his still sub-par control, he could take yet another step forward.
That last bit of improvement is unlikely to happen over the remainder of this season, but Pomeranz is no rental. He joins the Red Sox with two arbitration years remaining following a mere $1.35 million salary this year; the Red Sox now have Price, Porcello, Pomeranz and Wright all under team control through at least 2018. The prospect of upgrading the rotation not only for the remainder of 2016 but also for the following two seasons helps explain why Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski was willing to give up Espinoza, who some say has future ace potential.
Getting Espinoza also tells us a lot about how Padres GM A.J. Preller’s evaluations of his organization have changed in the last 12 months. At last year’s trading deadline, Preller refused to cash in pending free agent Justin Upton, instead adding relief help and insisting that his team, then 49–53, could still contend. San Diego ended up finishing 18 games out of first place in the West and even further out of the wild-card race. Over the winter, Upton and Ian Kennedy left for free-agent riches, and Preller began to sell off the team he claimed to like so much. He traded his top two relievers, Craig Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit, to Boston and Seattle, respectively; dealt infielder Jedd Gyorko the Cardinals; and sent first baseman Yonder Alonso and deadline relief acquisition Marc Rzepczynski to the A’s for Pomeranz. Just last month, he traded would-be ace James Shields to the White Sox and Kimbrel’s replacement at closer, Fernando Rodney, to the Marlins. Now Pomeranz is gone as well, and the return is telling.
Espinoza is an elite prospect, but he’s also just 18 and has a 4.54 ERA in 18 Sally League starts since being promoted to that level at the very end of last season. A six-foot-tall beanpole, the Venezuelan righty has also pitched into the sixth inning of a game just once in two professional seasons and has yet to throw more than 92 pitches in a game. Physically and developmentally, he is light years from the majors, even if he has the stuff—upper 90s fastball, plus curveball, solid changeup—the mechanics and the mound presence to move quickly through the system.
There is a zero percent chance that Espinoza will be a better major league pitcher before the end of the 2018 season than Pomeranz is right now. There is only a slightly better chance that he’s even in the majors by the end of 2018, and no guarantee that he will ever be a better pitcher than Pomeranz has been either this season or possibly even through and beyond his remaining team-controlled years. It is quite possible that Espinoza will be a better pitcher than Pomeranz in the next decade (which is to say, the 2020s, not strictly the next ten years), but that simply serves to emphasize the radically different timelines on which these two general managers are working.
With this move, more than any other he has made since the end of last season, Preller is making clear he does not expect the Padres to contend before his contract expires at the end of the 2018 season. If he did, he would have kept Pomeranz, who would have been under control for the same span of time. What will be interesting to see now is whether or not Preller can do enough to build San Diego’s farm system over the next 2 1/2 years to keep his job beyond his current contract. So far, his best work in that direction has come via his transactions with Dombrowski, who has provided the Padres with three of their top four prospects in Espinoza, centerfielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra (though Guerra has been lousy in his high A debut this year).
As for Dombrowski, with the Red Sox already well-stocked with young talent (five members of the starting lineup are 26 or younger, and three of them were All-Stars this year) and his team in position to win right now, he has prioritized seizing the present opportunity over long-term team-building. From here, that looks like exactly the right decision, no matter how bright Espinoza’s future may be.