Last week, the Red Sox acquired lefty Drew Pomeranz from San Diego for the 18-year-old, prized pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza. The move drew ire from a fanbase that salivates over, and often overrates, their prospects. However, it was neither a signal that the days of Ben Cherington hoarding each and every prospects throughout the development are over, nor such an indication that Dave Dombrowski intends to sell the farm. A steep price? sure. But a calculated risk, especially given the Red Sox’ recent history developing both pitching and hitting prospects.
The last successful pitcher the Red Sox developed in their system was Clay Buchholz – and even his success is relative, as the franchise is likely weeks if not days away from ending his tumultuous era. Since then, there have been plenty of busts (Casey Kelly, Michael Bowden, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens spring to mind), few of whom have been accurately “sold-high.” After all, nobody can keep every one of their prospects; half the value of a farm system is evaluating those who are likely to succeed and those who won’t and getting value for the latter. There is plenty of reason to assume this is an institutional issue throughout the organization. Concerning, no doubt. But that is not the only reason Dombrowski chose to ship off the uber-talented youngster.
If we’re operating under the assumption that the Red Sox needed to acquire a starter to solidify their rotation – and I am – it makes sense that Espinoza was the asking price, and it also makes sense that the Red Sox were willing to part with him over Rafael Devers, Yoan Moncada, or Andrew Benintendi. Because if the task is evaluating those prospects that are more likely to succeed and selling high on those who aren’t, then it’s essential to understand this glaring dichotomy between the development succcess.
The Red Sox’ organizational philosophy – whether intentional or (more likely) unintentional – in the last decade or so has been to develop young hitting and acquire pitching from outside the organization. And maybe that isn’t such a bad strategy. The error has been the tendency to bank on those fringe pitchers (Owens, Webster, De La Rosa, Johnson, etc.) to be successful. While the media and fanbase has focused solely on the inability to develop pitching, the overwhelming success of the hitting development in the last decade+ has been overloooked, and offers an explanation as to why this trade made the most sense among the options on the table.
A study conducted by Scott McKinney of SBNation several years ago evaluated the success rates of top 100 MLB prospects relative to expectation. Using 2.0 WAR/season as a baseline for an average to slightly-above-average player, he concluded that approximately 36.36% of top 100 prospects meet or exceed that expectation. Essentially, two out of every three major position-player prospects fail.
Using that same metric, however, the Red Sox’ position player prospects greatly exceed the norm. Since 2004, the Sox have had 22 position players become top five prospects in the system, according to SoxProspects.com. Of those 22 players, only one failed to reach the majors (Ryan Westmoreland, due to a medical condition). Here is the full list:
Prospect/Career WAR (per baseballreference.com)/average WAR per season
Bradley Jr. 10.7/2.67
Y Navarro -1.0/-0.25
Lars Anderson -0.3/negligible
If organized into catagories of “Star” (4+ WAR/season), “Above Average” (2.6-3.9 WAR/season), “Average” (1.5-2.5 WAR/season), “Below Average” (0.5-1.4 WAR/season), and “Bust” (0.4 or below WAR/season), it looks like this:
Star (4+ WAR/season)
Above average (2.6-3.9 WAR/season)
Average (1.5-2.5 WAR/season)
Below average (0.5-1.4 WAR/season)
Bust (0.4 or lower WAR/season)
That’s good. And performing a similar exercise with the pitching prospects would not look nearly as good.
It’s far too early to catagorize Swihart as a bust, and seems almost inevitable that Bogaerts and Bradley will ascend to become stars, given how the struggles of both early in their careers diluted their numbers. While the struggles of Will Middlebrooks and Lars Anderson, and the injuries of Ryan Kalish and Jed Lowrie will haunt the minds of Red Sox fans, the results are overwhelmingly positive. Excluding Swihart, the split between meeting/exceeding expectations and falling below expectations is exactly 50/50, a far better ratio than the rest of baseball. What’s more, it is worth noting the majority of the core of the current Red Sox lineup is homegrown and young. Imagine if they had traded Bogaerts for Cliff Lee. Or Betts for Cole Hamels. Or Bradley for peanuts last offseason.
What does that all mean for the Espinoza trade? Pomeranz and his fit in the AL aside, it provides clarity and some reasoning to what otherwise may seem like an overpay. Dombrowski, unlike his predecessor, is done waiting to see if the young arms pan out. Prospect development and talent evaluation is about being selectively patient, and this is an instance of attempting to maximize value. Espinoza has special talent, but given the failure to develop similar arm talent and the risk of injury that follows pitchers, it’s fair to speculate that Espinoza’s value will never be higher. So he identified that risk and turned it into a cost-controlled arm in the prime of his career. And while dealing Espinoza instead of, say, Devers may be an admission of the flaw within the system, it may not be the worst thing in the world. If they can continue to churn out position-player talent, it makes sense to acquire their pitching almost exclusively externally, while building the lineup in-house.
After all, who needs pitching when you have this 2017 opening day lineup: