In a move that drew ire nearly a year ago — as well as one of Dave Dombrowski’s first major moves at the helm of the Red Sox’ organization — the Red Sox shipped prized pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza to San Diego for starter Drew Pomeranz.
At the time, it was seen at best as an audacious attempt to shore up the roster’s greatest weakness in order to make a run in David Ortiz’s final season. At worst, and this was perhaps the overwhelming sentiment among Red Sox fans at the time, it was viewed as an irresponsible move of desperation. To part with a consensus top-20 prospect in baseball and the type of young, talented arm that has largely been deficient in the Red Sox farm system for an unproven starter with little experience in that role seemed misguided.
That prevailing sentiment only became more negative as last season wore on. Pomeranz sputtered down the stretch as he blew past his career innings high, not even making the postseason rotation as a result. His 4.78 FIP didn’t sit well with fans in his 68 innings with the team. We dealt the most prized pitching prospect in the farm since Clay Buchholz for this?
A year later, it would be easy to evaluate this deal in absolutes. We could note that Espinoza has pitched sparingly since the trade due to injuries, while Pomeranz has pitched — at times effectively. Or we could say that if they hadn’t dealt Espinoza, they could have plugged him into the Sale deal and still have Kopech in the system. But that’s all revisionist history, and frankly not all that helpful when evaluating whether the trade was good practice at the time (though I will absolutely argue that bust/injury risk is always higher with teenage arms, and should be considered as a factor in evaluating this trade’s success).
There is an important element in this trade that I think gets underlooked often in trades between one team contending and one rebuilding. Often times, teams will deal multiple prospects for one MLB player in order to withhold their elite prospects from deals. But this trade was one-for-one, and as a result lends itself to bigger “boom or bust” potential. We often rail against Dombrowski for the Kimbrel deal, but I think his biggest fault in that deal wasn’t necessarily the quality of prospects he gave up, but rather the quantity. Sure, he gave up Manuel Margot who is becoming an above-average MLB player, but he also traded Javy Guerra at his absolute peak value. It was the Logan Allen/Carlos Asuaje parts that really upsets most because, while they’re less regarded, it feels like that’s the kind of depth that a farm always needs. It just felt unnecessary.
In this trade, he only gave up one player. There were no Asuaje/Allen “add ons” to hassle over. Granted, he was an elite prospect, but that lends itself to a greater chance that the 18-year-old pitcher gets hurt or just doesn’t pan out — which, as it turns out, looks more likely than it did a year ago. And in Dombrowski’s case, his victory in this regard was unintentional. Here is what he told reporters immediately following the trade last year:
"I'd rather trade three [lesser]-type guys than Anderson, but that wasn't appealing to San Diego," Dombrowski said. "They really wanted more of the focus of the premium guy. There's always risk with pitchers, no matter how old they are. We know that Drew hasn't thrown this many innings. We think he can handle it. We also know there's a risk in Anderson, a young pitcher that we like a great deal.”
Some (Dombrowski, apparently) may disagree, but sometimes it’s just better to bite the bullet and trade one guy for one guy. Take the chance, especially when the guy is 18 and several years still away from Boston. Would you rather he have traded, say, Kopech + Dubon + Marrero? I wouldn’t.
To understand this deal you also have to consider the options available at the time — and they were slim. Would you have preferred to overpay for half a season of Jeremy Hellickson? How about ponying up for half a year of 36-year-old Rich Hill? Standing pat was not an option, and Pomeranz was one of the few on the market controllable past the season.
All of this — and the trade in general — hinges on Pomeranz’ performance in a Red Sox uniform, of course. Last year he was, for the most part, mediocre-to-bad in a Red Sox uniform. There are plenty of potential reasons for that. For one, he was traded to the Red Sox having already thrown 100+ innings for the first time in his career. Maybe he was also dealing with the infamous “transition to Boston” struggles.
But this season Drew Pomeranz has been the Red Sox’ second starting best pitcher, and I’m not sure it’s all that close. Over his last 10 starts, Pomeranz has a 2.71 ERA and has lowered his FIP to 3.62. In 13 of his 16 starts this season, Pomeranz has allowed two earned runs or fewer. He’ll never be a Porcello-level innings-eater or a model of WHIP efficiency, but he has become one of the more important and valuable players on the roster over the last year. Thanks in large part to his cutter usage, Pomeranz has single-handedly steadied an otherwise volatile rotation behind Chris Sale.
We love to rail against Dombrowski when he makes a bad move. Yes, he likes to deal prospects who we, sometimes rightfully, obsess over. He can be reckless at times. And, no, he’s not Theo. But maybe it’s time we acknowledged that he knew what he was doing when he made this move, and it was the right one for him to make.
(I’d argue the Kimbrel trade was also a good one too, but that’s for another time.)