The Boston Red Sox made a huge move last week amidst a couple smaller moves. The team dealt away a top prospect in order to acquire what they hope will be a stabilizing force behind their under-performing ace. Brandon Magee looks closely at the player swapped in the Anderson Espinoza for Drew Pomeranz deal and finds they’re more similar than many realize.
One week ago, the shocking news came down from the MLB offices: The Boston Red Sox and wheeler-dealer Dave Dombrowski had traded the future away. Again. Anderson Espinoza, the 18-year-old right-handed pitcher who announced himself with a sonic boom in his debut season of 2015 was traded away. For career-mediocrity Drew Pomeranz! The howls and protests of prospect humpers everywhere could be heard from all corners of Red Sox Nation.
Now, a week later, a certain calm has returned to the fanatics of Red Sox Nation and Pomeranz has entered the Red Sox rotation. But what of the prodigal pitcher who is now the property of the Padres. What exactly did the Red Sox give away?
Anderson Espinoza was signed by the Red Sox as an international free agent in the 2014 class, earning a $1.8 million bonus from the organization. He would debut with the Dominican Summer League Red Sox on June 1, 2015, and in four games in the DSL, Espinoza gave up six runs – two earned – while striking out 21 batters in 15 innings. Espinoza, however, was always destined for the Gulf Coast League as the advanced 17-year-old hurler was sent to Florida for the start of the GCL season. Anderson dominated his GCL opposition in ten four-inning starts, allowing runs in only four of his outings, earned runs in only two. A 0.68 ERA, a miniscule 0.825 WHIP, and 40 whiffs in 40 innings quickly made the Espinoza watch one of the high points of following the Red Sox minor league system. Espinoza was given one more start after the GCL playoffs, a 3 2/3 inning debut in full-season ball for the Greenville Drive. Even though he allowed three runs on four hits, the debut of the 17-year-old in Greenville was a bright beacon for the future.
Baseball America gave him a write up in July, highlighting his easy fastball (sitting between 95 and 97 mph), his 12-6 curve, and a low-80s changeup. Alex Speier of the Boston Globe wrote an expose of the youngster on the eve of his start in Greenville, the first start by a 17-year-old Red Sox pitcher in a full-season league since Mark Baum in 1977. We got into the hype via an interview with Trenton Kemp, who said about Espinoza:
He’s probably the best pitcher I’ve seen from a pro standpoint. I’m playing left field, I could probably close my eyes half the time. He’s incredible, he’s going to be fun to watch as he continues to grow. He’s really young, so he’s only going to get better.
The Boston Herald got into the act in spring training this year, as Michael Silverman, highlighting quotes from Pedro Martinez, who said “He’s got more than I did at that age, at 18. He’s a lot more mature than I was.” Baseball America ranked him the 19th best prospect coming into the 2016 season. MLB.com ranked him 39th. Baseball Prospectus put him as the 73rd on their top 100 list. Espinoza was a phenom. He was the next Pedro Martinez. It was just a matter of time.
However, something strange happened on his way to Fenway. The 18-year-old – who was so dominant in his first year – struggled in his first season in full-season ball. Over his 17 starts for the Drive, Espinoza put up a 5-8 record with a 4.38 ERA and a 1.368 WHIP. There were times where he was completely dominant and in control. In his first start of the year, he gave up two hits and struck out four in five scoreless innings. On May 5, he struck out a career-high eleven Augusta GreenJackets.
But, in other games, he fell back. In his second game of the year, he allowed four runs on six hits in five innings. He followed up his 11 K game with the shortest outing of his career, a 1 2/3 inning start in which he threw 57 pitches – only 27 for strikes. In fact, high pitch counts have been a constant struggle for Anderson this year. In a 4 2/3 inning loss on June 25, the right-hander threw 92 pitches despite giving up only three hits, a single walk, and just two strikeouts.
Twice this year, he gave up six earned runs. He has only gone beyond five innings twice. Once was a two-hit, three-whiff performance against the Asheville Tourists on May 25, where Anderson threw 67 pitches in six scoreless innings. The second was in his second to last start for the Red Sox organization on July 6, where he gave up a single and a triple to start the sixth inning before being pulled, eventually being charged with four runs on eight hits in five innings. In his final seven starts for the Drive, Espinoza posted a 5.74 ERA and batters hit .323/.367/.449 including the first two home runs of Espinoza’s career. His strikeouts have plummeted with only 23 in 31 1/3 innings while his walks (10) and hits (41) have increased. His pitches per inning ballooned to over 18 per inning from just under 16 per inning in his first ten starts of the year.
Some would argue that the performance is less important than the “stuff” he possesses. I commented in an earlier article that if Espinoza was working on the weak points of his game, a decrease in stats would be expected as a temporary measure while he consolidated his gains. His young age – he has not faced a batter younger than him this year – could also be having an affect on his performance. However, the performance this season cannot simply be ignored or wished away. While all the caveats should be applied, his overall numbers are still not those of such a highly regarded prospect. It is likely that his rankings next season will fall back.
Does this mean he cannot become Pedro? Of course not. But, Pedro plowed through the minors in his first full-season as a 19-year-old, reaching AAA Albuquerque for six starts in 1991. He saw action in the majors the following season, and was up for good in 1993.
What about Felix Hernandez, Espinoza’s idol? Hernandez started in the High-A California League as an 18-year-old and ended that season in Double-A. He debuted for Seattle as a 19-year-old and never returned to the minors for regular work.
It is hard to see Espinoza rising that quickly after his poor start this year. While 2018 was whispered quietly in the offseason, without quick consolidation of his arsenal, it seems like 2019 or even 2020 is more likely when an MLB debut will come.
Of course, becoming a Hall of Famer like Pedro Martinez or a multi-time All-Star like Felix Hernandez aren’t the only possibilities for a top pitching prospect. While no one likes to speak of injuries, they happen far too often to pitchers of all stripes. Take Brien Taylor for example. Taylor was ranked as the top prospect in baseball by Baseball America before ever throwing a pitch for the New York Yankees organization in 1992. After a 2.57 ERA in High-A ball as a 20-year-old, he slipped to the #2 prospect in baseball in 1993, where he put up a 3.48 ERA in the Double-A Eastern League. And that was, essentially, his career, as injuries derailed him in 1994 and his comeback attempts were unsuccessful.
The Red Sox organization has had a number of former top prospects come through the system in recent years. Rick Porcello was ranked by both BA and BP amongst the top 21 prospects in baseball before ever throwing a professional pitch for the Detroit Tigers. His only full-season in the minors was his first one, debuting as a 20-year old in MLB in 2009. Although he has a 12-2 record for the Red Sox this season, many fans see him as a mediocre starter, a pitcher who has an ERA of 4.31 in his eight-season major league career. Andrew Miller debuted for the Detroit Tigers out of the bullpen in 2006, the same season he signed with the club after being drafted as the sixth pick of the draft. He was ranked as the #10 prospect by Baseball America entering the 2007 season, but was not able to solidify his hold on a major league roster until he was permanently switched to the bullpen in 2012 with the Red Sox. Jon Lester, on the other hand, spent four minor league seasons toiling on the farm before a brilliant 2005 season in AA Portland – where he put up a 2.61 ERA and a 1.153 WHIP – earned him the #22 spot in BA’s top prospect list of 2006. Lester debuted with Boston later that year and has gone on to four All-Star appearances and has a pair of World Championship rings.
Espinoza could also follow the same footpaths of a couple of current Red Sox prospects. Henry Owens was ranked for three consecutive seasons on BA and MLB’s list, reaching a high of 19 prior to the 2015 season on the MLB top 100. The lanky southpaw has struggled with command, especially over the past two seasons, and appears far from becoming a major league regular. Eduardo Rodriguez never reached the same heights of Owens, Lester, or Espinoza – topping out at 59 on Baseball America’s list in 2015 – has shown similar struggles to Owens in staying with Boston.
[I will note here, for the record, that I am not comparing the individual repertoires of these players and comparing them to Anderson Espinoza. It would be silly to compare a lefty like Owens, Lester, or Miller to a righty like Espinoza. It would be just as silly to compare a right-handed fireballer like Espinoza to a lefty curve-ball specialist like Drew Pomeranz. The comparison begins and ends with their prospect status.]
However, there is another path Anderson Espinoza’s career could follow. He could become Drew Pomeranz.
Because Pomeranz has a major league track record that goes back to 2011, many are quick to call him a mediocrity. A back end starter. Someone who is just not worth giving up the great potential of an Anderson Espinoza. However, he was once just like Espinoza. A highly rated star to be. His journey could be a blueprint of Espinoza’s future.
Pomeranz was drafted as the fifth overall pick and the second pitcher – behind Jameson Taillon who made his MLB debut this year – of the 2010 Rule 4 Draft by the Cleveland Indians. Drew was signed at the trade deadline in August, earning a $2.65 million signing bonus. Although Pomeranz would not begin his professional debut until 2011, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him among the top 65 prospects in the game before throwing a pitch in anger for the Indians organization.
Pomeranz’s time with the Indians lasted exactly 18 starts, where he put up an ERA of 1.98 for the High-A Kinston Indians of the Carolina League and the Double-A Akron Aeros of the Eastern League. On July 30, the Indians sent three prospects – Joe Gardner, Matt McBride, and Alex White – and a player to be named to the Colorado Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez. The PTBNL, however, was the big prize, Drew Pomeranz, who was officially sent to the Rockies on August 16, one year after his official signing with the Indians. Pomeranz pitched two games for the AA Tulsa Drillers once the trade was completed, a seven-inning two-hit no-run appearance on August 17 and three perfect innings on the final day of the Double-A Season. Six days later, on September 11, Drew made his major league debut, throwing five scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds – picking up his first career MLB win. Pomeranz made three more starts over the course of September, with a pair of 5 2/3 inning outings where he gave up a handful of runs and one two-inning appearance where he got obliterated by the Houston Astros. Overall, the southpaw had a fantastic professional debut, with a 2.34 ERA and 132 strikeouts over 24 starts at three different levels.
His efforts did not go unrewarded by the ranking organizations. BA, BP, and MLB.com all placed him in the top 35 prospects entering the 2012 season. It would be his last ranking by the organizations as Pomeranz would lose his rookie status that season. He would also encounter the dangers of pitching a mile high. After one start for the AA Drillers, Pomeranz was called up to the Rockies where he started five games. The results were, overall, poor – putting up a 4.70 ERA in 23 innings.
Drew did have an excellent performance on the road at Chavez Ravine, going 6 2/3 innings and allowing a single run against the Dodgers in his fourth start, but a three run, three-inning start the next time out sent him out of Denver and down to Colorado Springs. Pomeranz had an eclectic nine games with the Sky Sox, recording a 2.51 ERA with 46 strikeouts in his 46 2/3 Triple-A innings. In five starts – four of which were in Colorado Springs, he allowed zero or one run. However, he continued to have trouble with control, walking 20 batters – including a pair of five walk outings. The nine game sojourn was enough to send Pomeranz back to the Rockies, where he continued to struggle, putting up a 5.01 ERA with 31 walks and 12 home runs in his final 17 starts of the season.
Pomeranz had another difficult season shuttling between Colorado Springs and Denver in 2013, as he had a 4.95 ERA in 24 games. A trade in December saw him move to the Oakland Athletics, where he put up a 1.90 ERA in his first 16 appearances of 2014 – the first nine out of the pen, and the last seven as a starter. But, just as Drew was settling in as a starter – going seven innings in his sixth and seventh starts – a fit of anger took him out of the A’s rotation and onto the disabled list. On June 16, Pomeranz was punished by the bats of the Texas Rangers, who scored eight runs on seven singles and a home run in 3 2/3 innings. On his way to the clubhouse, the southpaw punched a chair with his glove hand, breaking the hand (and maybe the chair) and going on the disabled list. Drew was sent to Triple-A Sacramento in July after coming off the DL, and he would allow one or two runs in six of his eight starts before getting recalled to the A’s in late August.
Last season saw Pomeranz begin as a starter – with a 4.63 ERA in nine starts – before a move to the bullpen saw his ERA decrease to 2.61 in 44 relief appearances. Traded again in the offseason, San Diego put Drew back in the starting role and saw him blossom with the addition of a third pitch. An All-Star nod, a 2.47 ERA, 115 strikeouts in 102 innings, and a 1.059 WHIP due to excellent hit suppression put the lefty on the trade market. With a $1.35 million salary and two more years of arbitration eligibility, the price was always going to be steep. But, when we recall the pedigree of Pomeranz, this period of sustained excellence may not be a fluke, it may just be that he finally got all his tools working.
The trading of highly coveted minor league prospects is fraught with danger. Lou Gorman is rightfully pilloried for trading Jeff Bagwell for reliever Larry Andersen in a go-for-it-now trade in August of 1990. Some still take him to task for the deal that sent Curt Schilling to Baltimore for Mike Boddicker in 1988, despite Mike’s excellent two-plus year stint with Boston and Curt’s trade adventures over the ensuing years. In 2045, Red Sox fans might be cursing the name of Dombrowski as Anderson Espinoza gets inducted into Cooperstown. Or, perhaps, hailing him as a genius like Dan Duquette, who traded for the one-season contract of Pedro Martinez with Carl Pavano – ranked the #9 prospect by Baseball America after the 1997 trade – and Tony Armas – who would eventually rate as the #27 prospect in the 2000 preseason. The truth is, prospects don’t always blossom the ways their skills might suggest. And, they are fungible. After all, Michael Kopech and his 105-mph fastball will probably rank higher than Espinoza on next year’s list. So might the newly-signed Jason Groome. Anderson Espinoza is intriguing, but ultimately, was not untradeable. Especially when you can pick up an All-Star pitcher with two more years of control.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.