Peter Gammons: For those with trader’s remorse

chris sale

We are so familiar with prospects we were stunned when Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez went in a trade for Adam Eaton. Never mind that one hybrid scouting and analytics general manager referred to Eaton as “one of the 15 best players in the game” and my personal fondness for Eaton’s game likeness to Ken Linseman, the deal was quickly and widely panned as a Mike Rizzo overpay. Until some began to dig deeper on Giolito’s onetime status as the best pitching prospect in the sport and discovered questions about makeup and changes that were made to his delivery, which may turn out to be as premature a judgement as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ assessment of Max Scherzer’s delivery.

In the same week the Red Sox traded one highly-touted prospect (Yoan Moncada) and their most touted young pitcher (Michael Kopech, of the 105 gun reading) for Chris Sale, to win in this 2017-19 window. Indeed, Jerry Reinsdorf and some White Sox people were concerned about Sale’s high elbow, low arm-slot, violent delivery and what it might do to his shoulder, but that March 1978 morning the Red Sox traded four players for Dennis Eckersley, Indians people said they thought Eck was a blowout waiting to happen at the age of 23. Twenty years, 157 more wins, a Cy Young Award and 390 saves later, Eckersley retired and soon was inducted into The Hall of Fame.

Unless you’re one of the half-dozen biggest revenue franchises, there will always be a tug between the present, the future and the consistent development production that Theo Epstein built in Boston. The Cardinals have developed and the Dodgers are trying to construct. In 2015, Dayton Moore said “you have to know when your now has come and go for it; hence he traded prospects for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, won the World Series and didn’t worry about the draft choices while more than a million Royals fans took to the streets of Kansas City.

It is easier for Dave Dombrowski to come to Boston, inherit arguably the best system in the game and trade a half-dozen of their best prospects for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Thornburg and Chris Sale. The Red Sox current core is young, with Andrew Benintendi rising, and with more than a dozen members of the Epstein/Ben Cherington front office departed, he doesn’t have the emotional ties he might have felt had he been part of the development system. Dombrowski came to Boston with the mandate to win one or two World Series to add on to their three in the 2004-13 decade, which is, after all, what the base wants.

The Dodgers did not pull an all-nighter contemplating not getting the Marlins’ pick in the June draft in the Kenley Jansen signing; they’re going for their fifth straight divisional title, which Joe Sheehan has pointed out would be topped in the six division era by only the ’95-’05 Braves and ’98-’06 Yankees.

Look, when it comes to young pitchers, there are no guarantees. Ted Williams said Herb Score was the best lefthanded pitcher he ever faced. In Score’s first two seasons with the Indians at ages 22 and 23, he won 36 games, struck out 508 batters, then at 24 was hit in the eye by a Gil McDougald line drive and was never the same, winning 19 games in his final six seasons.

The 2011 draft was renowned as the best of all modern pitching drafts. The first pick, Gerrit Cole, may well still find stardom. The second pick, Danny Hultzen, hurt his shoulder and has retired. The fourth pick, Dylan Bundy was called by several scouts “the best high school pitcher I’ve ever seen,” and injuries have limited him to 14 major league starts. The 14th pick, Jose Fernandez, was the best pitcher in the draft, tragically.

Go back to Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list at last year’s midway point. Best pitching prospect? Giolito. Gone. Number two? Anderson Espinoza? Gone, for Pomeranz, who at 27, the same age as Rick Porcello, was 3-5, 3.59 for a Boston team trying to win it all. Of the 14 top pitching prospects on the Baseball America list, eight have now been traded at one time or another since their original signings. One can ague that the Orioles’ giveaway of Josh Hader was foolhardy, the Francis MartesJarred Cosart and David PaulinoJose Veras deals boondoggled for the Astros, but such is the prospect world. If the Cubs hadn’t traded a top ten shortstop prospect for Aroldis Chapman and the Indians hadn’t traded two first round picks for Andrew Miller, we probably would not have enjoyed an unforgettable, historic World Series.

Next, look at the 2016 Top Ten in Pitcher’s Wins Above Replacement:

No. 2? Corey Kluber. The Indians got him in a three-way deal with the Cardinals and Padres, giving up Jake Westbrook.

No. 3? The Tigers and Dombrowski got him from Arizona in a three-way deal in which the Yankees got Curtis Granderson and the Diamondbacks for Ian Kennedy.

No. 6? Tanner Roark, whom the Nationals got from Texas for Cristian Guzman. Hey, Jon Daniels is one of the best general mangers in the game and he traded Roark and Kyle Hendricks for Guzman and Ryan Dempster. It happens.

No. 10? The Mets got Syndegaard from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade.

Post-Fernandez, the Marlins are thrashing through the swamps looking for minor league, low-cost, and draftable pitching. Dombrowski told his assistant GM Eddie Romero and his scouting director Mike Rikard that he is confident they can find another Espinoza or another Michael Kopech. One thing Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has always done is find talent, especially big power pitchers.

In 1989, Expos owner Charles Bronfman, a glorious man, told his general manager, Dombrowski, that since the Expos were in contention in the National League East, he had to see if for once and for all if they won, whether the fans would come to their quirky little ballpark and appreciate more than Youppie the mascot. Dombrowski thus traded for the best pitcher on the market, Mark Langston of the Seattle Mariners.

The Expos were in first place in mid-June. With Langston, Dennis Martinez, Bryn Smith and their pitching, they actually were up 3 ½ games the last week of July, and while Langston went 12-9, 2.39 (before hitting the free agent market), they stopped hitting and eventually finished fourth.

When the trade was made, the Mariners were in Boston, and the players I interviewed—including Harold Reynolds—were outraged at what was perceived as a fire sale. In the next three days, I polled esteemed Montreal scouting director Gary Hughes and eight other front office executives around and the game to rate the three pitchers Dombrowski traded. From first to third, the ratings were 1.Brian Holman, 2. Reliever Gene Harris and 3. Randy Johnson.

At the time of the deal, Johnson was already 25 years old. He was 0-4, 6.67.

Twenty-six years later, Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Pedro Martinez, a 303 game winner, arguably one of the five greatest lefthanded pitchers of all time. Dombrowski was there in Cooperstown, aware that he might be in his last week with the Tigers, to honor the 25 year old kid he traded for the pitcher his owner needed to determine whether he would sell or keep the Expos.

It was about pitching, and, with pitching, it happens.

Comments

  1. Francis Ryan says:

    Great read Peter, you are the best at connecting events and dealings of the past to relevant events and dealings of today. I have always enjoyed your takes, and today is no different. Always appreciate a good Expo story.

  2. “The Dodgers did not pull an all-nighter contemplating not getting the Marlins’ pick in the June draft in the Kenley Jansen signing; they’re going for their fifth straight divisional title, which Joe Sheehan has pointed out would be topped in the six division era by only the ’95-’05 Braves and ’98-’06 Yankees.”…. Right but these Dodgers are maybe the biggest artichoke-artists year in and year out in the game today. They are shoveling money into a industrial sized furnace.

    • truth, with all the money they make/spend they simply cant figure out how to be the best team on the field come october.

  3. Stan the Man says:

    “I think Adam Eaton is one of the 15 best players in the game.”…. right about that one.

  4. People like to for give Dombrowski crap for trading away prospects wherever he goes, and to an extent it is very true, but he has always had a realistic view on going after it when a window presents itself. Winning is never guarenteed and a good idea today is always better than the promise of a great idea tomorrow.

    • Grant Clark says:

      and you can take that to the bank. If I had a nickle for the amount of number one prospects that never or barely panned out to the hype, well I’d have a lot of nickles. I’ll take Sale today, everyday, and twice on Sunday.

  5. not a Giolito fan, but I wouldn’t have traded for Sale. Then again I’m not very smart.

  6. I do not know if Randy Johnson was one of the 5 best LH pitchers, but he was among the best who could not pitch in New York.

  7. Phillies already have 5 division titles in a row, 07-11, toping LA