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December 22, 2016

Transaction Analysis

Overstocked Red Sox Deal Buchholz

by Bryan Grosnick and Jarrett Seidler


IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
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Acquired 2B-R Joshua Tobias from Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for RHP Clay Buchholz. [12/20]

“Addition by subtraction” is the appropriate term here, as Tobias is almost irrelevant from the big-league perspective of this deal. In Boston’s game of starter musical chairs, the longest-tenured pitcher is left without a seat and—whoosh—on to Philadelphia to help anchor perhaps the second-best rotation in Pennsylvania. Famous for his performance peaks and valleys, the 32-year-old Buchholz picked a bad time to have the worst season of his career with a 6.08 DRA.

It’s hard to imagine that Buchholz would be gifted a rotation spot in Boston even if the team never traded for Chris Sale. Saving the $13 million Buchholz was going to cost makes sense, given how much money is already wrapped up in the rotation. Though it worked out well in practice—they didn’t have to buy out his option this way—I’m a little surprised the team didn’t cut ties with Buchholz at the start of the offseason and allow themselves a little more flexibility heading into free agency. Obviously, the acquisition of Sale wasn’t a given, but they were overloaded from the start and it was time to move on.

It’s tough to manage a rotation of seven established big-league starting pitchers, no matter how worrisome the specter of injury looms. With Sale newly in the fold, the Red Sox simply overloaded. There are lefties Sale, David Price, Drew Pomeranz, and Eduardo Rodriguez. There are righties Rick Porcello and Steven Wright. They still have too many starters on paper, which means they probably don’t have enough in practice. The one good thing here is that their three top arms—Sale, Price, and Porcello—have phenomenal track records of health. They, more than other teams, can afford to bet on the continued health of a rotation that includes Pomeranz, especially due to the presence of stopgap hurlers Brian Johnson and Henry Owens.

It’s a shame to see a divorce between Buchholz and the Sox, given the events that occurred during his tenure in Boston. The ups and downs—two World Series rings and a no-hitter, but also a perceived failure to live up to his lofty prospect potential—were a fascinating sideshow. Now, with his exit and David Ortiz's retirement, Dustin Pedroia is the lone holdover from the 2007 World Series team. But as anyone who’s watched a Buchholz start can attest, time is relative. Sometimes the simplest things, like an inning pitched or a decade in the Red Sox rotation, can seem to last forever and end so suddenly. —Bryan Grosnick

A 10th-round pick out of Florida in 2015 who signed for just $10,000, Josh Tobias has already risen from the default org fodder status of cheapo senior signs to a legitimate, if fringe, prospect. He falls into a fairly common class of prospects who perform well in the low minors: small second basemen with good hitting ability and not much else supporting the profile.

The switch-hitter ripped through Low-A pitching, showing off strong bat-to-ball skills and a bit of gap power, but he was bordering on too old for a level of competition that probably wasn’t all that much tougher than what he faced in the SEC. Defensively, his range is limited at second, but he makes most of the plays he gets to and I’d expect him to start picking up the corner spots more regularly in expectation of a utility future.

In the Phillies' system, Tobias had the misfortune of being a level behind a similar but more touted prospect in Scott Kingery, who was blocking his advancement by midseason. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have traded a lot of minor-league infielders recently, and Tobias will provide needed organizational depth at the very least, and maybe more if his hit tool still plays against more advanced pitching. —Jarrett Seidler

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Acquired RHP Clay Buchholz from Boston Red Sox in exchange for 2B-R Joshua Tobias. [12/20]

The Phillies have a plan, that much is obvious. With Ryan Howard coming off the payroll and little to no hope of 2017 contention, the plan appears to be this: acquire veteran pitching talent to shore up a young rotation. If the opportunity to move that talent before the trade deadline emerges, then deal the pitcher for new young talent. If not, then enjoy how the limited investment makes the team decidedly more competitive.

In 2016, the acquisitions of Charlie Morton and Jeremy Hellickson sorta-kinda paid off: Hellickson was quite good, and so was Morton before his injury. Unfortunately, the team has yet to convert Hellickson into future wins (though don’t count out a deadline trade this upcoming year to recoup some value). Buchholz fits in nicely with this plan—a sort of rehab year for a starting pitcher who still has the potential to be a valuable contributor.

The problem here is that Buchholz’s 2016 season was so far down from his norm, as his -1.3 WARP was ninth-worst among all pitchers. The big red flag from his 2016 debacle was a decreased ground-ball rate—something that could sting at Citizen’s Bank Park—but he improved his walk and homer rates considerably in his last couple of months with the Red Sox. He’s a high-risk pitcher in that he hardly ever pitches bulk innings and his performance could be anywhere between the dungeon and the tower when he actually is able to take the mound.

The cost to the Phillies here is nominal: a not-very-touted prospect, approximately $13 million (less if they flip him at the deadline), and the opportunity cost of Buchholz eating 150 innings out of the rotation, potentially blocking the promotion of someone like Jake Thompson. Those last two items can of course be mitigated if Buchholz is healthy and effective enough to be dealt. I’ve liked the past few moves the Phillies have made and this one is a very low-risk deal.

The worst-case scenario is that Buchholz is terrible, in which case the team should have no qualms about tossing him aside and eating those millions. But in the best of cases, which would be a return to 2015 or 2013 quality, the Phillies will come out of this with a mid-rotation starter and the potential to add to their future talent pool. It’s hard to beat this kind of deal. —Bryan Grosnick

Bryan Grosnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here
Jarrett Seidler is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jarrett's other articles. You can contact Jarrett by clicking here

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