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Trade review: Drew Pomeranz for Yonder Alonso turned out to be a blockbuster

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Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On December 2, 2015, the Oakland A’s and San Diego Padres made what appeared to be a relatively inconsequential trade. The two sides swapped role players, including a few lefty relievers and a mediocre veteran first baseman. There didn’t seem to be winners or losers so much as a shuffling of deck chairs by two teams needing a shakeup, with various low-stakes bets being made on changes of scenery for players who had once been top prospects.

Now, not even two years later, we look back on it as a deal that sent All-Stars in both directions. Not only that, each club sprouted a most interesting prospect tree as a result, ones that could pay off for years to come. Let’s take a closer look at what each side ended up with, and if there’s any chance of naming a winner (for now).

Background

The day was Dec. 2, and it was the deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players. The Padres had tough decisions to make on a couple of guys, and the A’s were in the midst of erasing all memory of their historically awful 2015 bullpen. A swap was made.

A's receive Padres receive
1B Yonder Alonso
LHP Marc Rzepczynski
LHP Drew Pomeranz
LHP Jose Torres (minors)
PTBNL (OF Jabari Blash, minors)

Alonso had spent four years as San Diego’s starting 1B, in between injuries that is — he played one full season and then averaged only 95 games after that. When healthy he’d never lived up to his pedigree as the 7th overall pick in his draft, with a batting line only a hair above average and around 1 WAR per year (with no campaign that reached 2 WAR on either scale). He profiled as a stopgap platoon 1B with underrated defense, but hopefully still an upgrade over predecessor Ike Davis.

Rzepczynski was a distinct non-tender candidate, coming off a 5.66 ERA. But he was still a lefty, and the A’s bet on his 3.36 FIP and reliable health as they rebuilt their bullpen. Combined, the two wound up making $5.6 million in arbitration — a lot to waste on players if you don’t need them (as the Padres didn’t), but a bargain price if they fill holes in your roster (which they did in Oakland).

In return, the A’s had to give up on Pomeranz, who himself had been a 5th overall draft pick. He struggled to stay healthy as a starter, between his infamous chair punch and then later the AC joint in his shoulder, and when healthy he hadn’t shown the ability to go through a lineup multiple times. He looked like a potential plus reliever, but that was all at that point. Meanwhile, Torres was a lower-minors relief prospect already taking a spot on the 40-man roster for Rule 5 purposes.

The Padres squeezed some remaining value out of some of their deadweight. The A’s took cheap flyers on a couple of veterans when the opportunity arose. Each side quietly achieved minor goals on their agendas.

2016: Scales tip toward Padres

However, a trade that once looked both even and unimportant quickly became neither. The Padres immediately made whatever adjustments had been necessary to unlock Pomeranz’s upside — armed with the third pitch he’d always lacked (a cutter, it turned out), he joined San Diego’s rotation and shot out the gate. In 17 starts, he put up essentially ace numbers in a performance that earned him an All-Star bid, just months after being valued as a reliever.

Having struck breakout gold, the Padres didn’t wait around for midnight to chime on their fairy tale. They flipped the resurgent Pomeranz to Boston, in exchange for teenage pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza. Then age 18, the right-hander had opened the year ranked as highly as the sport’s No. 19 prospect (by Baseball America) and was already posting a 3.17 FIP in Single-A (the equivalent of Beloit in Oakland’s system).

But that wasn’t all. Torres flew through the upper minors and even made his MLB debut, and the PTBNL (Rule 5 pick Jabari Blash) did the same. The Friars had made out like bandits.

Over in Oakland, things were not as happy. Alonso was struggling to what ended up being a marginally sub-replacement-level season, including an 88 wRC+ at the plate. Rzepczynski turned in his usual decent performance, issuing too many walks but more or less getting the job done by measures of FIP, save/hold rate, and inherited runners. In other words, the A’s were getting the modest return they’d expected, while the other side hit the jackpot.

At this point, I will remind you of the story of the Zen Master. Here is Art Howe explaining it to an A’s concession vendor:

The Padres had an elite prospect and two more MLB-ready youngsters. The A’s had two short-term veterans, one mediocre and one bad, and the better one was an impending free agent with the July trade deadline in the rear-view mirror. San Diego dominated this one, right? We’ll see.

Fortunately, one thing did go right for Oakland before the end of the year. Rzepczynski had been just good enough to attract August trade interest, and the desperate Nationals took the bait and sent over an interesting sleeper — 2B Max Schrock. Sure, he wasn’t as big a get as Espinoza, but he was something to get excited about (check out our comments section after the trade). At least there would be a chance that we’d end up with more to show for Pomeranz than two short-term warm bodies on a last-place squad.

2017: Tables turn

Just as they had the previous year, things changed quickly in 2017. The A’s held on to Alonso despite his struggles, and over the offseason he changed his swing and his entire approach at the plate. The work paid off, and he emerged a different hitter — his OBP remained strong but his dormant power was awakened, and he’d doubled his career-high in homers by around the halfway point of the season. He was a Top 20 hitter in all of baseball, and his breakout earned him an All-Star bid just as Pomeranz’s had in 2016.

The parallel with Pomeranz continued when the A’s cashed in on Alonso’s resurgence via trade. It took until August, but he was sent to Seattle for MLB-ready OF Boog Powell. Again, this wasn’t the same as getting Espinoza — Powell was more of a sleeper, like Schrock. But just days later, the 24-year-old was in Oakland’s starting lineup, looking to plug the CF hole that had plagued them for years.

Speaking of Schrock, he put up a great season in Double-A at age 22. Between his well-above-average batting line and his signature microscopic strikeout rate, he cemented his status as a massive favorite at Athletics Nation. At this point, the A’s had turned their two short-term veterans into a pair of promising youngsters.

The change in fortune went both ways. San Diego’s big prize, Espinoza, never pitched in 2017 and wound up ticketed for Tommy John surgery in July. By no means does that end his career, as it doesn’t for several A’s prospects we’re still excited about, and also by no means do I point out this unfortunate turn with any semblance of glee. But in our hindsight accounting of this trade, it certainly hurts the Padres side.

As for Torres, the 23-year-old spent all year in San Diego’s bullpen. He gave up a ton of homers, but there’s still promise to be found in his numbers and he’s got five more years of team control. Blash continued to destroy Triple-A pitching, but was merely replacement-level as a corner outfielder in brief MLB chances.

The swap now looks like this:

A's receive Padres receive
CF Boog Powell
2B Max Schrock (minors)
LHP Jose Torres
RHP Anderson Espinoza (minors, TJS)
OF Jabari Blash (minors)

What a difference a year and a half makes.

Looking forward

Let’s consider who is proverbially leading this trade in this particular snapshot in time. First, we’ll get one thing out of the way.

Both teams received excellent performances from All-Star players for about a half-season, but all of that production came in losing years and made no meaningful difference to their clubs long-term. Instead, those breakouts yielded value in terms of trade, so I’m not interested in comparing who got more WAR out of whom. Pomeranz and Alonso were both good (and Rzepczynski was OK), and their teams benefited by turning them into prospects. All that matters in this discussion is 2018 and beyond.

The Padres still have the biggest get overall in Espinoza, but with his injury the gap is narrowed a bit. The A’s now have the second- and third-best players overall, with one already contributing in the bigs. San Diego rounds out the list with a reliever and a 27-year-old who is looking more and more Quad-A as time goes on.

Here’s one way to look at it: Would you trade back right now if you could? Powell and Schrock for Espinoza, et al? The A’s are currently throwing risk to the wind and targeting the highest ceilings possible, which would presumably put Espinoza on their radar. Torres would give them a second lefty in the pen next to Daniel Coulombe, which they’ll otherwise have to buy on free agency next winter. Blash would be blocked by the likes of Khris, Joyce, and Pinder, but he’d be better than some of the current options in Nashville.

Still, I think most of Athletics Nation would probably stand pat. Powell and Schrock have never gotten much attention as prospects, but that’s never had anything to do with their performances. Schrock is 5’8 and limited to second base defensively, but we’re probably about to see a 5’6 second baseman win the AL MVP not a decade after another 5’9 keystoner did the same. That profile isn’t preferable, but it’s not a dealbreaker either and Schrock’s numbers are too good to be ignored. On top of that, Powell is already reminding us what CF defense is supposed to look like, with a track record that suggests he’ll be able to get on base as well. And both players fit well into the timeline of Oakland’s current youth movement.

After a long, winding journey, with one team taking a massive lead and then the other catching up, this trade once again looks more or less even. Both sides swapped disappointing top draft picks, groomed their new prizes into All-Stars, and then flipped them for good youngsters. The side with the highest ceiling also carries the highest risk, and I’d be willing to bet that neither fan base would jump at the chance to switch back.

Personally, I prefer the A’s side of the ledger at this point, which seemed unthinkable 12 months ago. But either way, this trade has been far more impactful, and even poetic, than anyone could have guessed. How will its next phase pan out, and who will eventually come out on top? We’ll see.