The Red Sox were one of the first teams to take the plunge and trade away prospects to help the current major-league roster when they dealt a pair of DSL players — Noelberth Romero and Elio Prado — in exchange for Orioles starter Andrew Cashner. It makes sense that they jumped into this trade season relatively early. Boston had a clear position of need and were in a spot where it was possible, in the worst-case scenario, that they’d fall out of the playoff race. Dave Dombrowski and company were not about to risk that, so they added a guy who is a clear upgrade on the roster.
So, in that sense, it’s hard to argue against the fact that this front office sees this as a winning roster that is worth investment to get them over the top. However, when you give this move more than a cursory glance, that’s not really the takeaway. The front office probably does see this as a potential winning roster, but they aren’t willing to make the big move to get them over the top. Instead, at least in this specific case, they are adding a marginal player to the relative fringe of the roster. What they are doing with this trade, more than adding an impact player, is putting an even stronger and more obvious onus on the players who were already here to play up to their potential. Specifically, it’s something of a signal to the rest of the rotation that they need to pitch like they can if this team is going to go anywhere in the second half.
This is not to throw shade at Cashner, who is a solid pitcher and will be a legitimate upgrade on this roster. The right-handed veteran is having himself a very good season. Through his first 17 starts with the Orioles, pitching on a terrible team in a bad park for pitchers, Cashner has pitched to a 3.83 ERA, a 4.23 FIP and a 4.62 DRA. So, there is likely some regression coming based on his peripherals, but whichever way you want to look at it he’s been an average pitcher this year. He’s done so, too, while average 5 2⁄3 innings per start. To say that is an upgrade over what they’ve gotten from the fifth spot in the rotation since Nathan Eovaldi went down with his injury would be the understatement of the century.
The issue with Cashner, insofar as there is one, is that the ceiling really isn’t any higher than what we’ve seen to this point in 2019. Once upon a time he was seen as a high-ceiling, hard-throwing righty. That was more than a decade ago, though, when the Padres traded Anthony Rizzo in exchange for Cashner. Despite his big fastball, he has never really been able to miss bats at a rate you’d expect from him while also struggling with command. That has all led to three below-replacement seasons in the last five according to Baseball Prospectus’ DRA-based WARP. As mentioned above, there were plenty of options available around the league right now who would have provided significantly more upside. Dombrowski and company clearly decided to go in another direction, sacrificing said upside in exchange for holding on to their more highly-rated prospects.
In defense of that plan, on paper this rotation as the chance to be very good. It’s not quite as exciting as it was before the season when Nathan Eovaldi was the de facto number five in the unit, but the potential is here for them to be a very good group. If everyone pitches to their potential, Cashner as the number five with the way he has pitched this year is easily a playoff-caliber group. Of course, with the way this season has gone, that “if” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that hypothetical.
The fact is that the rotation hasn’t come close to pitching like it should this year. Some of Chris Sale’s problems have been bad luck and poor support from his lineup and bullpen, but a significant chunk has been him simply not making the pitches he’s needed at certain times. Rick Porcello has had a few flashes here and there, but on the whole he’s been terrible. Among 103 pitchers with at least 75 innings he has the ninth-worst ERA, 35th-worst FIP and 18th-worst DRA. Eduardo Rodriguez has been closer to league-average than Porcello, but it’s been a rollercoaster with mind-numbing inconsistency. We know the talent all of these guys possess, but right now there’s not really any sign they are ready to turn it around besides blind faith in their true-talent level.
Overall, at the very least it is an interesting approach from Dombrowski in which he’s sort of having his cake and eating it too. With this move, he gets to say he’s doing something to help this team win now while not really dipping into the valuable parts of a farm system without many valuable players. It’s hard to blame him for this strategy, either. In theory, this plan should work. The roster as currently constituted is good enough to make noise in the American League. We saw it last year, and while there was a fair amount of luck involved in that run — no run of that caliber happens without good fortune — there’s a whole lot of room between what the Red Sox did in 2018 and what’s happened so far in 2019. It’s perfectly defensible to let it ride with all of the pressure on the returning players. Plus, if it doesn’t work out there’s an outside chance the Red Sox could turn around in a couple weeks and flip Cashner again. With the righty’s previous statements about not wanting to be traded that’s probably a long shot, but one worth mentioning.
Ultimately, I don’t really know if this was the right move or not. I do know that it wasn’t the best move they could have made for 2019. If they really wanted to do everything they could to make a push in 2019, they would have traded for Wheeler or Stroman or one of the other higher-upside starters available. That said, as I’ve mentioned above, there’s merit to the strategy of keeping the onus on the players already here. The issue is that, even with a new player added to the roster, we’re in the same situation we’ve been in all year. That is to say, if the Red Sox are going to succeed it’s going to be because of the players returning from last year’s roster. Whatever you think of the Cashner deal, the signal I’m getting from it is that there is no savior on the way.