Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Dombrowski Era Begins

*Here's another old one I never posted. Some of it holds up pretty well (predicting the need to trade 2 of 4 top prospects to get a stud pitcher in Sale because the roster as a whole wasn't good enough) and some doesn't (Kimbrel has been great still). But I do think it's a good evaluation of Dombrowski and while the team has won 2 division titles, the future looks super murky and I doubt Ditching Dave would stay through a rebuild. It is also probably an unfinished post, but oh well. Tupac and Biggie both put out plenty of unfinished shit.

Let's get this out of the way: Craig Kimbrel is really fucking good. Historically good. In Major League history, he has the second highest strikeout per nine inning rate (14.55) of any pitcher with at least 300 career innings (behind only Aroldis Chapman). 2015, his only season with the Padres, was his worst (more on this later) in his career. His numbers? 2.58 ERA, 39 saves, 87 strikeouts in just 59 and a third innings. That is just 4 fewer strikeouts than Mark Buehrle had in 139 and a third more innings. He is a 4 time All-Star in just 6 seasons and he has deserved each nomination.

He also fills a hole on this Red Sox team. The Red Sox in 2015 had the 13th best bullpen ERA in the American League. Beyond Koji Uehara (who will now pitch the 8th inning), the bullpen was an unreliable disaster for most of the year. Even the usually strong Junichi Tazawa struggled at the end of the year, with a 9.22 ERA from August until the end of his season. There is overwhelming evidence that all but the best starting pitchers shouldn't really pitch to a lineup for more than 2 times through the order, which means that bullpens these days really need to be ready to throw 4 innings a game quite often. The teams with the 3 best bullpen ERA last year were the Pirates, Royals and Cardinals and they all did prettay prettay good last year.

So in a vacuum, adding one of the best relief pitchers of all time to a crappy bullpen is a strong move that will make the team better in 2015. But anyone who has ever seen Total Recall knows, living in a vacuum can make your head explode when you poke hole in it. Unfortunately, in this case there are plenty of holes.

Dave Dombrowski was hired by the Red Sox to be bold and turn around a franchise that finished last in the AL East 3 out of the last 4 years (I can't remember what happened in that other year though, nobody really seems to ever talk about it). With a reputation for making big deals and using his farm system for trade bait rather than for growth, we all knew a handful of prospects would be shipped out this offseason. And back in the safe confines of our vacuum, this is a totally fine and actually smart strategy.

Over the last 5 years, Ben Cherington and the front office built up the best farm system in baseball. It had stars and depth. It had talent in the high and low minors. It had up the middle talent. It had pitching and hitting. There was power and speed and defense. Including players under 25 years old on the Major League roster who no longer qualify as prospects, there were 20 players with a strong chance to become Major League regulars or better or way better. There was never going to be enough room for all of them and some should definitely be used for a trade. One of the biggest knocks on Cherington was that he tended to hoard prospects to the point where they lost their value, and in players like Garin Cecchini, Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Ryan Lavarnway and Anthony Ranaudo, you can see where people got this idea.

If you asked me what players from the farm would be great to use as trade trips this offseason I would have started with Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra. They play the same positions, center field and short stop, respectively, as the team's two best players. They are 2-3 years away from big league ready. They have short track records of success. Their prospect status is built mostly on their defense and athleticism, which I feel like can lead to more failure and variability in prospect evaluation. They are great prospects, but we also have 4 other prospects I like a lot more (Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Anderson Espinoza). So the fact that they will be in another organization next year is not a problem to me. I have no emotional attachment to these teenage boys. I have even less attachment to Carlos Asuaje and Logan Allen (though I think he is a great lottery ticket and would have liked to have seen him in the system for just one more year).

What I am having a really hard time wrapping my head around is why Dombrowski felt the need to trade all 4 of these prospects for a 60 inning reliever. There seem to be 4 common arguments in support of the move, which I will address below.

The Sox bullpen sucked and they needed to add a great closer to it to make it better
I already agreed with the first part of this and I don't disagree with all of the second part. I think the team could have added any great reliever, closer or not, and it would make an impact on this bullpen. With teams like Kansas City and New York having dominant 8 and 9 inning guys, it seems like a great strategy. A recent article by Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs (number heavy) determined that having a truly elite reliever at the back of the bullpen may be worth more than what we capture with Wins Above Replacement, and it makes sense. But his second to last paragraph is where I really have concern with this trade:
All of this is looking back. This is reflecting on relievers who were elite. When it comes to team-building, the tricky thing is trying to identify elite relief ahead of time. Of course, Aroldis Chapman looks amazing. Andrew MillerWade Davis. And so on. But we’ve long understood that relievers can be particularly volatile, and as an example, a qualifying elite 2014 reliever was Greg Holland. Also Jake McGee.Craig Kimbrel had his ups and downs. Koji Uehara was more vulnerable in 2014 than he was in 2013. Joe Nathan was a hell of a lot worse in 2014 than he was in 2013. Like with any player, when you acquire a good reliever, you’re acquiring present talent, but talent can fade, and injuries can happen at almost any moment. No one has ever been or will ever be a guarantee.
Kimbrel is even called out as an example. He has been un-fucking-believable in the past, but how do we know if that will continue? Relievers have short terms of dominance, typically, so even with recent histories of success it can be fleeting.

Just look at the Red Sox of recent years. Before 2012, they traded starting caliber short stop Jed Lowrie for Houston's closer, Mark Melancon. Melancon was terrible with the Sox, so they shipped him to Pittsburgh where he has revived his career. Volatile. Before 2013, they traded starting right fielder Josh Reddick to Oakland for All Star closer Andrew Bailey. Bailey was injured and ineffective most of the year and his career is on life support.

On the flip side, the Sox have found great bullpen pieces off the relative scrap heap from 2011-2014. Their best 3 relievers over that time were Uehara, Tazawa and Andrew Miller. Uehara was an older reliever signed for $9 million over two years and expected to be in the mix for the 7th inning. Tazawa was signed out of Japan as a young starting prospect, failed to develop in the minors, and converted to the bullpen before coming to Boston. Miller was a high draft pick of Dombrowski, traded to Miami, released, then after he came to Boston, was converted to relief.

What I am trying to show is that I do believe a dominant 8th and/or 9th inning guy is important. However, there are a lot of ways to acquire one and trading a buttload of prospects for one may not be the best option because of how volatile even the best relievers can be.

Dombrowski and the front office identified Kimbrel as the best available option and went out and got him
This is basically the "But I want it!" argument. I can appreciate that Dombrowski knows way more about baseball than I ever will, so if he thinks Kimbrel will continue to be great then I will give him some benefit of the doubt. I will also concede that it is great to have someone who can be decisive and execute their plan. But if I want an ice cold Budweiser after a long hard day in the internet and a bartender tries to charge me $100 for it, I will take my business elsewhere.

The free market dictates price. The Padres evidently set the price for Kimbrel at 2 top 50 prospects, a lottery ticket, and a depth piece. At this point, it is up to Dombrowski to say, no thank you, I will go sign Darren O'Day and see what happens when I convert Joe Kelly and maybe I will get similar results. Kimbrel was not the only solution to this problem, but Dombrowski acted as if he had to have him at pretty much all costs. This type of behavior almost always leads to buyers remorse.

The Sox have such a great, deep farm system, they can afford to overpay
I just don't understand this argument. Just because you have a lot of something doesn't mean you should just be comfortable giving it away because you can. Like, Donald Trump doesn't go to 7-11 to buy a Big Gulp for $6,000 just because he has all that hard earned (inherited) money. No, when Donald Trump goes to 7-11, he pays $1.99 for a Big Gulp like the rest of us.

Now, Craig Kimbrel is a more scarce resource than a Big Gulp, sure, but just because the Sox have a shit load of prospects that doesn't mean they should be comfortable giving away a lot of them to get him. Each prospect brings with him his own value. If you spend that value on Kimbrel, that is value you can't spend on another player.

Some people have made the argument that they should have traded these 4 prospects for an Ace like Sonny Gray or Chris Sale. I think it's very clear that Dombrowski explored this option and was told that at this time those pitchers are not available, at least for this package. But who knows if they would be 3 months from now once rosters have shaken out. Or maybe they would be at the 2016 trade deadline if either team decides to start a rebuild. Well, now that the Sox have traded these prospects, it would likely take more than one of their top 4 prospects to get the job done.

One of the great things Danny Ainge and the Celtics have done is to maintain their flexibility for when a superstar becomes available. Dombrowski just diminished his prospect bank account because he could and if a higher impact player becomes available, he may not have the assets to get in the running.

The bullpen is all set after this deal, now they can just go sign one of the 3 Ace pitchers
This is a really risky strategy. There is no guarantee any of the 3 Aces want to come to Boston. Zack Greinke has a really good situation in LA. David Price has gone on record as saying he doesn't like Boston because the way the fans treated him when he was with Tampa (nice work gang!). Johnny Cueto seems like he might be open to coming here, but he also carries the most risk of the 3. Unfortunately, by giving up so many good prospects this early in the offseason, they have really locked into this strategy. As we saw with Jon Lester last season, there are no sure things in Free Agency.

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