The Padres seem to have hit a homerun by trading Drew Pomeranz to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for 18 year-old pitcher Anderson Espinoza. They pretty much checked all the trade boxes you could possibly want:
- The Padres traded Pomeranz while his value was higher than it has ever been.
- The Padres received a highly-coveted high ceiling prospect in return.
- The Padres didn’t lie about potentially extending the player they traded.
Since the trade (which we discussed at length in the recent podcast), I’ve done some research on Anderson Espinoza comparables. I almost published that work on Wednesday, but decided against it when Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron published his hit piece on prospect rankings masked as an Anderson Espinoza comparables post.
The (largest) folly of Dave Cameron’s post is that he only performs one segmentation: hitters versus pitchers. He then uses that to fit his narrative – that prospect rankers systematically overrate pitchers so they can point towards these successes – and, finally, jumps to a specific conclusion about one player that may not even fall into the ranking bucket he placed him in anyway.
Another segmentation for Anderson Espinoza, perhaps just as predictive as the fact that he’s a pitcher, is his attribute of being super young for how high he is ranked. At the very least, it’s a segmentation worth exploring in conjunction with being a pitcher.
Because think about it. In order to rank so highly at 18 going on 19, it basically requires that comparables:
- Are prospects that didn’t attend college, but entered professional baseball out of high school or the international market.
- Have tremendous raw tools in order to be considered for Top 100 lists without very much experience.
- Dominate or wow in what few opportunities they had.
Not many guys check all those boxes, and there’s reason to believe that a player who has entered the top echelon of prospect lists at an early age could have a different career trajectory than a player that enters top prospect status by being a first round selection out of college or slowly climbing the prospect ladder. Turns out it’s true, at least in this example below.
By the time the 2017 Baseball America Top 100 list debuts, where Anderson Espinoza is expected to crack the top 15, Anderson will have just turned 19. In the Petco Park era, there are actually only nine occurrences by eight players (since Julio Urias appears twice) where a pitcher that was 19 on January 1st of the ranking year ranked in the top 15 of Baseball America’s Top 100.
That list, with opening day age, ranking, and year:
Several of these players are far too young to judge. Taillon, Bundy, Urias certainly. Teheran is still just 25, but has already accumulated 8.9 W.A.R. in 3.5 seasons. That’s more than the expected value in Cameron’s segmentation and he still has 2.5 seasons of team control remaining.
The established names hint at exactly what the Padres signed up for.
On the one hand you have Greg Miller, a former Dodgers prospect who ranked eighth in 2004 at the age of 19. Greg suffered an arm injury in the same year he received this ranking, forcing him to miss the entire season. And, unfortunately, the injury sapped away all his control, as his strikeout/walk ratio regressed from a robust 3.0 in his first two minor league seasons to below 1.1. He accumulated zero wins above replacement.
And on the other hand, you have a list which is … breathtaking. Felix Hernandez? Clayton Kershaw? Madison Bumgarner? All three are future Hall of Famers. They put up 29, 31, and 22.5 wins above replacement in their team-controlled seasons. Even when you factor in the Miller dud, the average is over 20 wins above replacement, greatly exceeding the 8 value Cameron arrives it.
Even (rightfully) assuming that this population has gotten lucky – i.e. small sample result – it’s still noteworthy or at least worth considering that a different, obvious comparable population for Espinoza results in a rosier projection.
But in addition to simply falling into a segmentation that includes either Hall of Famers, a young productive arm, other undetermined young arms, and one injury bust, Espinoza also happens to share some scouting similarities to a young Felix Hernandez.
Here’s King Felix’s scouting report from 2004:
Hernandez has scary upside. He’ll open this season as a 17-year-old and he doesn’t need to develop any more stuff. The only guy in the organization with a comparable arm is big leaguer Rafael Soriano. Hernandez has the best fastball in the system and commands his mid-90s heat well. He regularly touches 97 and could reach triple digits as his skinny frame fills out. Hernandez’ curveball is also unparalleled among Mariners farmhands and gives him the possibility for two 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale. Though he’s young and can easily overpower hitters at the lower levels, he understands the value of a changeup and is developing a good one. He can pitch down in the strike zone or blow the ball by hitters upstairs. He has poise and mound presence beyond his years.
All the underlined points, which I added for emphasis, match what we find for Espinoza in his Baseball America scouting report:
Ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the 2014 international class, the Red Sox inked Espinoza for $1.8 million on the strength of high-octane fastball, three-pitch mix and potential for growth both in frame and pitchability.
On Tuesday, during one of the rare recent dry moments on the East Coast of Florida over the past month or so, Espinoza more than lived up to his billing.
The righty showed a fastball that touched as high as 98 mph, sat comfortably for four inning between 95-97 and never dipped lower than 93. The pitch featured sink and run away from lefthanders, and Espinoza showed an ability to spot in on both sides of the plate. On the occasions he failed to finish the pitch, it stayed up and away to lefties.
To complement the fastball, Espinoza brought a pair of pitches that could easily grade as plus or better in the future. The first was a 12-6 curveball in the low-70s that, when he threw it right, featured sharp, tight break that will allow him to get swings and misses. He also threw a low-80s changeup with plenty of fade. He got multiple swings and misses on the pitch on Tuesday.
I’m not saying Espinoza is the same prospect as Felix; Felix had better numbers at the same point in his career and was ranked higher on prospect lists. But both are a rare occurrence of a super young pitching prospect appearing very high in rankings lists, while sharing a similar scouting profile. As far as comparisons go, this is as good as you’re going to get.
In addition to the Felix comparison, a lot of analysts have made Pedro Martinez comparisons. The main difference here is that Pedro never hit a top prospect list until he was 20, debuting at number 12 in 1992. Granted, a lot has changed since 1992 in how prospects are ranked (and their accessibility), corroborated by John Sickels’ passage on scouting at the time: “scouting bias against small right-handers was [strong] back then”.
For shits, and to really put the Pedro comparisons to rest, in Sickels’ prospect retrospective, he wrote this about Pedro’s age 18 season:
Martinez came to North America in 1990 and pitched for Great Falls in the Pioneer League, posting a 3.62 ERA with an 82/40 K/BB in 77 innings with 74 hits allowed at age 18. He was named the Number Three prospect in the league by Baseball America, with teammates Raul Mondesi and Ron Walden at #1 and #2. Although he was just 5-10 at this point and somewhere around 140-150 pounds, he was getting his fastball well into the 90s and showing promise with his changeup and occasional curve.
I think there’s some sure comparisons between the two in terms of frame and fastball, but Pedro Martinez became a hot prospect on the strength of his changeup. Anderson is also considerably taller with more velocity at the same point in time. While I understand the source of the comparison, I just don’t think it holds quite as well as King Felix.
In the end, Padres fans should be excited about the Espinoza acquisition. Drew Pomeranz could turn out to be a good pitcher for three more seasons, but he likely wasn’t going to impact the major league squad for a meaningful amount of time once the Padres are good again – assuming they get there. Rather than getting burned while waiting for the absolute dream package, they got themselves a very young, highly coveted prospect with very few, but awesome, comps.