The cost was an 18-year old pitcher Pedro Martinez called “one guy we cannot trade,” but there is cost attached to finishing last in three of the last four seasons with a starters’ earned run average precipitously close to taking the Fifth.
Anderson Espinoza may indeed be a once-in-a-decade talent, a ‘Julio Urias‘ as one general manager called him. But the issue Dave Dombrowski, Mike Hazen and the Red Sox faced was that, on the one hand, their development of power pitchers has produced 16 starts, two wins and a 6.13 ERA from Clay Buchholz and Henry Owens in 2016. And as they learned when they had to pay David Price, the free agent market price for elite pitchers touches the sky.
So Dombrowski gave up someone he did not want to give up, but in the year of David Ortiz, he has theoretically stabilized the starting rotation, and he now has Price, Rick Porcello, Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz through 2018, when the siren song of free agency will be heard in the distance for all stars Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr.
And while Espinoza, who was being developed cautiously, may have been ready by 2018-19, so too may be Michael Kopech—who hit 105 MPH in Salem Thursday and is comped to Noah Syndergaard—and Jason Groome, who by consensus had the best arm and highest projection of any pitcher in this June’s draft. That was then, this is now.
What they do not know is how Pomeranz will pitch in a pennant race in a division where four of the five parks—Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium, Rogers Centre, and Fenway Park—may be four of the five most offensive parks in the game.
If you’re Dombrowski and Hazen, you know he’s pitched in Colorado. If you’re Hazen, you’ve talked to your former roommate, Jays GM Ross Atkins, who was Pomeranz’s farm director with the Indians. Yes, the tension level in Fenway is far, far different from anywhere else he has pitched, but Pomeranz’s 2.32 road ERA is a good indicator, and, anyway, if you go to the ESPN Ballpark Factors, Petco Park in San Diego is the 15th best home run park in the majors, Fenway is 21st in homers, first in doubles.
This season, Pomeranz has lost 1-0 to Clayton Kershaw, beaten John Lackey 2-1, lost to all star-starter Johnny Cueto 2-1 and 1-0, and beaten Syndergaard 2-0. So he hasn’t been matched up with dozens of John Wasdin clones.
Dombrowski and Hazen and their pitching scouts and analysts see a 6-foot-6 lefthander who is on his way up into his prime, controllable through 2018. He ranks seventh in the National League in strikeout rate. His batting average against is .184, better than Kershaw’s .185, although that isn’t going to continue in those AL East parks.
He long has dominated lefthanded hitters, important since Fenway is a lefthanded hitters’ park. But this year, he has dominated righthanders as well. “This spring Darren Balsley got him to buy into getting his fastball in on righthanders, and as he was doing that, he came up with a cutter,” says one Padres front office official. “The two pitches completely changed him. Finding a lefthanded pitcher who can locate his fastball in on righthanders and bury them with a cutter is rare, a guy like Jon Lester.” Numbers vs. RHHs:.173/.250/.296.
The walk and command numbers could be an issue playing against the AL East teams, but that will be addressed. He is third in most pitches per batter, a flashing red alert.
Since Dombrowski arrived, he has traded for Craig Kimbrel, signed Price, traded for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias and another all star-closer, Brad Ziegler, before the Pomeranz deal. He fortunately inherited Steven Wright, and Porcello, the same age as Pomeranz, has blossomed into a rotation metronome.
Eduardo Rodriguez’s Saturday start is the beginning of an important career rehabilitation for the lefthander. The Red Sox need him, and Dombrowski all along has believed he had been a front end starter. They have to decide Clay Buchholz’s direction; these days it seems that he’s a train either way, leaving every day, and that he may be better served somewhere else.
As long as Kimbrel comes back healthy next month, he, Ziegler, Koji Uehara, the emerging Matt Barnes, Robbie Ross and Heath Hembree can be a solid bullpen, made significantly better if Joe Kelly and/or Buchholz can be effective leading to the eighth inning and if Barnes continues his ascent to dominating with his 98 MPH fastball, power curve, and the progression of pitching inside more consistently. Brian Johnson Thursday threw five shutout innings for Lowell, has allowed two earned runs in three rehab starts, and may be on his way back to being a significant depth piece.
And, like the Cubs drafting hitters because Theo Epstein said, “free agent bats don’t get to free agency, pitchers do,”, the Red Sox have slotted in behind ‘The Three B All Stars’ some of the best prospects in the game: Yoan Moncada, who once player personnel director believes “is the best prospect in the game;” Andrew Benintendi, who reminds me of a Fred Lynn circa 1974, and Rafael Devers, who one Sox official says “has the best power in the whole organization, and he’s going to be a good third baseman.” And Blake Swihart is a remarkable athlete who can play virtually anywhere on the field when his ankle is healthy. To avoid rushing these players, Aaron Hill was a significant acquisition.
It was written Thursday that Dombrowski did what Ben Cherington would not—trade top prospects. Of course, that ignores the fact that Cherington was a major figure in developing this very talented, young positional player team, and if he reacted to what much of the media demanded, Betts, Bogaerts and Bradley would have been starting in the All Star Game wearing another jersey.
From the day he arrived, Dave Dombrowski credited Cherington and the incumbent organization for the talent he inherited. He’s traded Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra and now Espinoza, and must credit Eddie Romero for the job he’s done internationally. They now have a starting rotation in place through 2018, a rotation that could be very good if Rodriguez gets himself righted, and Pomeranz is indeed on the verge of the prime of his career.
The American League East will be won by the team whose 1-to-14 pitching staff outlasts everyone else. No one can guarantee that in the dizzying world of Fenway; Pomeranz helps Ziegler, Price and Kimbrel get the Red Sox there, but rather than wait, the Red Sox have Pomeranz for three more starts than they would have if it went down to the deadline.
Remember, this coming off-season offers no Price, no credible starting pitcher. So now the Red Sox have taken the Jimmy Valvano credo, win now, then advance.