Can’t say he didn’t warn us, even if it felt like the kind of assurance a dentist might offer right before he takes aim with the drill. Dave Dombrowski, who has been the Red Sox president of baseball operations since August and is now going full-throttle to make his mark on the organization, was considerate enough to give fans a head’s-up about the possibility that he might make some personnel decisions that would leave us sore.
“At some point, we’re going to most likely do something that is painful,’’ he said a few days ago in advance of this week’s general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., where he was expected to formally begin the process of repairing last year’s aggravating Mark Portugal Tribute Band of a pitching staff. “But if you’re trying to get quality talent, you’re going to have to do that.’’
The mystery, then, was when the pain would happen and how much it would hurt. Friday night we got our first answer. The Red Sox announced that Dombrowski had traded four prospects — including highly-regarded Double-A center fielder Manuel Margot — to the Padres for four-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.
On the pain scale, this one is more of an ache than anything resembling the specific kind of baseball agony that you feel when you just know your team got hosed. Agony would have meant trading Mookie Betts — one of the most valuable players in the American League at age 22 — to the Mets for one of their sparkling young starters, or parting with Xander Bogaerts for just about anyone other than Mike Trout, Bryce Harper or maybe Carlos Correa.
That would have been agony.
For others, a particularly sharp pain might have been trading Dustin Pedroia, though it seemed Dombrowski’s comments were in reference to trading from franchise’s prospect horde rather than moving on from beloved veterans.
This? This is an Excederin headache, one that will go away with a couple of frosty beverages and the ingestion of some deal-justifying rhetoric. Kimbrel is a dazzling relief pitcher, one who averages 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings over his six-year career, including a down but still exceptional 13.2 K/9 last year. He’s only 28, is under team control for the next three years, and gives the Red Sox something they desperately need — a power arm at the back end of the bullpen. It should — should — be fun to watch Kimbrel and Koji Uehara seize the eighth and ninth innings next year, even if some of us would have preferred to acquire the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, the closest thing we’ve ever seen to a non-fictional Sidd Finch.
Kimbrel? He is an excellent, accomplished pitcher. He’ll help immensely, even if he’ll throw only 60 innings or so next season, or about 150 less than a true ace — their most desperate need, still — would do. But this is also where we begin to feel the ache, the forewarned pain. Dombrowski gave up four talented, compelling prospects to acquire someone who, theoretically, will pitch roughly four percent of the team’s innings next season.
The initial, visceral reaction to a transaction does not always prove to be the correct one; hell, some of us in present company liked the Carl Crawford signing upon learning of it. But my initial reaction to this jibed with what seemed to be a consensus among Sox fans I interact with on Twitter: Kimbrel is outstanding. But why did he have to cost so much? Man, wherever he is, Ben Cherington must be agonizing at this trade.
Margot is an excellent defensive center fielder with good speed whose bat is still something of a question mark. He is one of the 25 or so best prospects in baseball by some considerations — ESPN’s Keith Law had him at No. 15 on his midseason prospect list — but the projections for how he well he will hit are varied.
Javy Guerra, a 19-year-old shortstop who started hitting for power in Single-A Greenville, was 48th on Law’s same list, but his profile has ascended rapidly, and some consider him a better prospect than Margot at this point. He’s the one to watch now. The Padres think so highly of Guerra that general manager A.J. Preller said he will have a shot to leap to the majors in spring training.
Left-handed pitcher Logan Allen — who draws comparisons to a very young Jon Lester in style and mechanics — and INF/OF Carlos Asuaje are lottery tickets, but the package as a whole, as Alex Speier noted in The Boston Globe, is the biggest collection of talent the Red Sox have parted with in a trade since sending Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly and Rey Fuentes to the Padres in December 2010 for Adrian Gonzalez.
It is a risk. It matters that both Margot and Guerra were blocked with the Red Sox, the former by Betts and the latter by Bogaerts. But they are superb prospects, capable of succeeding enough as big leaguers to eventually prompt every unoriginal talk show host around here to recycle Bob Lobel’s famous line: Why can’t we get players like that?
There is some comfort to be found in the fact that the Red Sox just got better for 2016 because Kimbrel is damned good, for one thing. But for prospect aficionados and those who find joy in watching home-grown talent thrive in the big leagues like Betts and Bogaerts did this year, there is also comfort to be found in this:
Dombrowski made the deal without parting with the best of the best in the farm system. Rafael Devers, Yoan Moncada, and Anderson Espinoza remain Red Sox property. So too does Andrew Benintendi, this year’s No. 1 pick who is rocketing toward the bigs. In his chat Thursday, Law was asked this:
Which current minor leaguers resemble the Mike Trout / George Springer /Mookie Betts multi-tool profile?
His answer: Benintendi has a lot of that — CF, run/power combo, people love the feel to hit, although he doesn’t have the explosive speed of the guys you mentioned.
Well, then, I’d say he’s a keeper. You get the sense Benintendi was on his way to leapfrogging Margot. Maybe in Dombrowski’s mind he already had. Still, the lingering worry is that Dombrowski, who habitually swapped prospects for established major leaguers of various levels of capability in Detroit, will use the remaining primo prospects as currency to help repair the starting rotation.
He assuaged those concerns to some degree in a conference call Friday night, revealing that he believes Kimbrel will be the biggest acquisition via trade and that starting pitching help is likely to come from the talented group of free agents. Huh. I guess that means the Red Sox will pay the nine-figure going rate for elite starting pitchers now. It’s great news, even if you can’t shake the feeling that they should have just signed Jon Lester in spring 2014 for half of what they’re going to try to pay an ace now.
If it turns out that the Red Sox do land a David Price or Zack Grienke after acquiring Kimbrel while managing to retain their most promising prospects, hell, there will be nothing painful about this offseason whatsoever, save for perhaps the hangover from the celebration.
But the real season is still months away. The hot stove season has just begun, and the new guy has already traded four prospects from the deep farm system his predecessor left behind. Until all matters are settled and all trade offers for Betts, Bogaerts, and the cream of the prospect crop are rejected, we can only hope that Friday’s surprising swap really is all Dombrowski meant by “painful.’’
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