Friday, July 22, 2016

Stealing a Phenom: How the Padres Won the Drew Pomeranz Trade

Drew Pomeranz, Hot Stove Soapbox
Long time no post! I have been busy with volunteer service in the baseball-crazed island of Taiwan, but without internet I have missed some important news. On July 14, the Red Sox dealt top pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza to the Padres for lefty Drew Pomeranz, and in part of a joint article with partner site MLB Sweet Spot, the two blogs will debate which team won the trade. Alex Vacca of MLB Sweet Spot has written up a detailed analysis defending the Pomeranz acquisition from the Red Sox side, click here to read it. His analysis is much more metrics-based as there is more data available for major leaguers, but despite being a numbers guy myself, this piece will focus more on the scouting side.

Dave Dombrowski has long been revered as a GM aggressive on the major league market. Back in his Tigers days, he led the Detroit squad to multiple playoff appearances through big-name trades and signings, acquiring the likes of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Prince Fielder. It has, however, come at hefty prospect costs, and he left the organization with a depleted farm system with little impact talent. Now with Boston and with one of the league's deepest and most talented farm system at his disposal, he is free to return to his old dealing habits that brought him so much success. Trading away Espinoza, a top-15 prospect in the game, has been his biggest splash so far.

Anderson Espinoza shot up prospect rankings last winter after annihilating DSL and Rookie ball competition as a 17 year old. Hardly have Rookie ball pitchers ever been ranked so highly so quickly, but it is not hard to see why Espinoza is so special. At this age, many Latin teenagers flash potential plus fastballs with mid 90's velo, but they all have their warts due to youth and inexperience. Usually it is lack of command, underdeveloped secondaries, or just overall being a thrower instead of a pitcher. Espinoza, on the other hand, at just 18 years old, has a plus curveball and a tumbling change that is well beyond his years. Combined with a fastball that already reaches the upper 90's, hits triple digits, and has good spin and life, we are talking about a possible generational talent. His command could use a little more fine tuning, but for a teenager, the confidence and poise he has in his three pitch mix helps it play up. Espinoza is mechanically sound as well, with naturally fast arm speed that he matches on all three pitches to create deception. His delivery is basic and repeatable, with a clean arm action. He does a good job staying on balance and unlike his Latin teenage counterparts, hardly ever yanks off to the side in his finish. With a strong lower half, he is able to fire his hips to generate plus velo while still staying in control of his body and keeping the delivery repeatable. He also does a good job staying on top of the curve to ensure the big 12-6 break, and the change tumbles hard to the arm side. The curve is already a plus pitch, and the changeup has potential to be plus as well. Despite not having outstanding numbers at the A-ball level, keep in mind that he is the same age as a high school senior, and most players that age are still down in the GCL or AZL, much less full-season ball, and he has still been able to maintain a high strikeout rate regardless.

Drew Pomeranz is a great pitcher in his own right, an All-Star caliber lefty that has played on winning teams in Oakland. He can pitch, no doubt, and his development of a cutter has taken him from swingman to #2/3 starter status. In his breakout season this year, he has posted a 2.47 ERA, but a closer look at the circumstances show a switch from the AL to the NL and a move to the cavernous Petco Park. This goes along with a low BABIP and high strand rate, hinting that his current rate of success may not be sustainable. With a new third pitch, he has gotten better, and advanced metrics do show improvement as well, but a switch to the perennially tough AL East will determine just how much improvement. The biggest risk with Pomeranz, however, is the fact that he has never topped 100 innings ever in a single major league season. With the Padres, he has already thrown 103 in the first half alone. This begs the question: as a starter who moved to Petco Park and discovered sudden success, how much of his success can be attributed to actual development, and is the risk of acquiring a starter who has never even surpassed half a season's workload worth giving up possibly the best pitching prospect in all of baseball? 

Fangraphs recently released an article breaking down the trade (worth a read, click here), and discussed that pitchers ranked on prospect lists in the Espinoza range generally average around 8.3 career WAR, with 28% of them having zero or negative career WARs. Pomeranz, even with regression, should be able to easily reach that same 8.3 mark in his 2.5 years of team control with Boston. But this doesn't account for the fact that prospect lists are highly subjective and also account for a prospect's proximity to the majors. As noted in the article, other pitchers ranked near him include Jose de Leon, Josh Hader, and Jose Berrios, all of whom have extensive minor league track records and have reached AAA. Espinoza ranked this highly straight out of the Gulf Coast League at age 17, truly a testament to the kind of raw talent and limitless upside he possesses. By the time he reaches AAA and develops some track record of his own, he might be in the conversation for top 10 prospect in the game, and average WAR for those pitchers jumps to 14.6, with zero percent posting negative career WARs. Anderson Espinoza is not just another young, hard-throwing Latin lottery ticket. Anderson Espinoza is an absolute phenom. Is it possible that he could fall short of the 8.3 WAR mark? Sure, all pitching prospects are volatile, but with his kind of devastating stuff he carries a higher floor than most others. And is it possible he hits his upside and absolutely blows past that mark en route to becoming one of the best pitchers in all of baseball with career value much more than what Pomeranz will provide to the Red Sox? Most definitely. 

Usually when prospects are dealt for MLB players, the prospects are the risky ones and the big leaguer is a proven commodity. But when the major leaguer is a lefty who averages 91 on his fastball with a sudden breakout in Petco Park while topping just 100 innings for the first time, and the prospect is an 18 year old prodigy who has clean mechanics, a triple digit fastball, and not one but two plus offspeeds with command of all three pitches, who carries more risk? Dave Dombrowski is aggressive, and making this move could help them make a playoff push in David Ortiz's last season. A.J. Preller, the San Diego GM, has not been perfect in his tenure, but if this move pays off the way he hopes it will, with Espinoza fulfilling his lofty potential and Pomeranz falling back apart, San Diego may have pulled off one of the biggest heists in baseball in the 21st century.

To read Alex Vacca's post on MLB Sweet Spot about why the Red Sox won this trade, please click here.

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