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Contextualizing the Pomeranz/Espinoza trade reveals this one's a bit different

Anderson Espinoza might be a top pitching prospect, but he's meaningfully different than his peers, and we shouldn't forget that when considering this trade.

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The trade deadline is well-placed, I think. This is a time of the year that wouldn't exactly be boring without a flurry of moves, but those moves do allow us to focus on what's coming up and mark the beginning of the home stretch of the season. Plus, they give us lots of things to talk about, which we should be grateful for. Dave Dombrowski and A.J. Preller were kind enough to make a move two weeks before the actual deadline, making a one-for-one swap of young pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza for breakout starter Drew Pomeranz.

The trade has been covered a lot, here and elsewhere, and I don't want to rehash anything that's already been said. But I think there's an aspect of this trade that's been easy to overlook. Baseball Prospectus just released its midseason prospect rankings, and Espinoza ranked 24th, the fifth-highest pitching prospect. After the trade, Bret Sayre documented the history of the fifth-ranked pitching prospects that proceeded Espinoza from 2007–2016 and noted that, on the whole, it was a pretty middling group.

That's a lot of names. Names you know. Names you've seen succeed, but no one who's turned into a star-level pitcher. On the flip side, there's really been no complete bust either—unless you're writing off [Martin] Perez already. In total, it all adds up to 58.1 WARP in approximately 38.5 seasons—or just over 1.5 WARP/year of service time. Maybe Anderson Espinoza will be the exception here and turn into a star, but maybe this is, as Barney Stinson might have put it, the Cheerleader Effect in baseball terms. Either way, whoever wins or loses yesterday's trade is likely to have much more to do with how real and good Drew Pomeranz is right now than which tail of the bell curve Espinoza ends up at.

It's a good article, and Bret is right—the list is pretty much devoid of superstars. Something about the names stood out to me, however, and so I wanted to see if my assumption was right. Here's the full list of players ranked as the fifth-best pitcher on the preseason BP 101, plus Espinoza. Also listed is each player's "baseball age" that season, the highest level they had reached prior to that season, and the highest level they had reached after that season.

Year Player Age Preseason Level Postseason Level
2016 (mid) Anderson Espinoza 18 A A (probably)
2016 Tyler Glasnow 22 AAA Majors
2015 Jonathan Gray 23 AAA Majors
2014 Yordano Ventura 23 Majors Majors
2013 Taijuan Walker 20 AAA Majors
2012 Shelby Miller 21 AAA Majors
2011 Matt Moore 22 AA Majors
2010 Martin Perez 20 AA AA
2009 Tommy Hanson 22 AAA Majors
2008 Homer Bailey 22 Majors Majors
2007 Yovani Gallardo 21 AAA Majors

I probably don't need to point out what's different about Espinoza, but I will anyway. The average baseball age of the other players was 21.6 at the time of their ranking, and all but Martin Perez ended the year with at least some Major League experience. Espinoza, on the other hand, is only in his age-18 season and is almost certainly going to end the year without even any AA experience. It's important to recognize that Espinoza isn't a traditional top prospect, because it materially changes how this trade looks for both sides. He might technically belong to this group, but he's substantially different and shouldn't be viewed in the same way.

Most guys ranked this high are relatively known quantities, and even they don't always pan out (as several of the names above show). Espinoza doesn't have even that relative level of reliability; as an 18-year-old in single-A, he's likely not hitting the majors until 2019 or 2020 even if everything goes right. I think Espinoza's timeline has been mentioned in many analyses of this trade, but it's been rare for there to be any mentions of actual risk. It's hard to imagine a blue-chip prospect like this failing until it actually happens, but if we know anything about pitching prospects, it's that they can always disappear at a moment's notice.

Given his risk, in order to rank alongside his contemporaries in the list above, it's implied that Espinoza also has correspondingly increased upside. Risk and upside are basically two sides of the same uncertainty coin, and while Espinoza has more of the former than his peers, he has more of the latter too. He's only 18 and already this good; just as he might flame out, he might grow, add even more velocity, develop more skills. For most of these players, when they were ranked, they were pretty close to a finished product, and that's certainly not the case with Espinoza. As a result, it's not enough to lump him in with these players when thinking about this deal.

His youth and distance from the majors changes how this trade looks, for both the Padres and Red Sox. It makes it more understandable for Boston; unlike most fifth-best pitching prospects, there's basically no way Espinoza could help in the majors this year, or the next, or even the year after that. Again, that risk comes with upside, but for a team trying to win immediately, waiting and hoping that Espinoza works out is much less valuable then keeping, for example, age-23 Yordano Ventura, who made five appearances (four starts) in the postseason that year for the Royals.

For the Padres, this might tell us something about their future plans. After going for it hard in 2015, they've been selling off pieces throughout 2016 and don't look like they're stopping anytime soon. That's not special; what is somewhat interesting is that they're trading for "true" prospects, guys who are still very young and have a lot of time left before they reach the majors. Lots of teams in the midst of losing seasons have chosen to go the "reloading" route rather than doing a full rebuild, and prioritized trading for young guys with lots of years of team control and relatively little risk.

The Padres are doing no such thing, as Espinoza (along with players like Manny Margot) shows. On the one hand, even teams focused on the present probably would've been happy to acquire Espinoza, but the Padres are clearly valuing upside over certainty, which makes sense if and only if they're planning to be competitive again in three or four years, not one or two years. That might be disheartening to Padres fans in the short term, especially those who are less engaged and generally don't keep track of prospects, but if they end up with the second coming of Pedro Martinez, I think they'll be fine.

There's a certain cosmic circularity to this trade. The Padres acquired Pomeranz from the Athletics this past offseason and sent Yonder Alonso in the other direction. Alonso went to the Padres before the 2011 season, slipping in front of Anthony Rizzo on the depth chart and prompting the Padres to trade him to the Cubs. Rizzo in turn had been one of the pieces in the Adrian Gonzalez deal between the Red Sox and Padres, and at the time was a 21-year-old who had just finished a season at AA.

He's not a perfect match for Espinoza, though; he wasn't ranked on that year's BP Prospect List at all and wasn't regarded particularly highly. Certainly no one thought he'd do what he has done. The better comparison on prospect status alone is the headliner of the package the Padres got back, Casey Kelly, a right-handed pitcher and, at the time, also a 21-year-old who had just finished the season at AA. He was ranked 30th, not too far from where Espinoza sat before this trade, and this trade neatly shows what the Padres are hoping to do in acquiring Espinoza and what they hope doesn't happen. The young righty might turn into the Anthony Rizzo of pitching; he might be another Casey Kelly. We were wrong about both those players at the time they were traded, and they were two years older than Espinoza, with more professional experience and less uncertainty. The Padres just put all their eggs from this trade into a single basket, but it's a whole lot of eggs.

As humans, we don't analyze everything from a fresh slate; we categorize what we see, and go off what we know about other things in that category. Pomeranz-for-Espinoza goes into the category of excellent-prospect-for-major-leaguer, but it's not particularly similar to the others in that category, and we shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming that it is.

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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.