Brewers Bolster Bullpen with Pomeranz and Black

The Brewers came within one win of a trip to the World Series last year thanks in part to their stellar bullpen. The unit hasn’t been nearly so dominant this year, but with the team again battling for a playoff spot — at 56-52, they entered Wednesday in third place in the NL Central (two games out of first), and fourth in the Wild Card race (one game behind the Cubs and Phillies, who are tied for the second spot) — they’ve bulked up their relief corps by taking a flyer on a pair of Giants, Drew Pomeranz and Ray Black, albeit at the cost of middle infield prospect Mauricio Dubon.

Brewers get:

LHP Drew Pomeranz
RHP Ray Black

Giants get:

SS Mauricio Dubon

Back in 2010, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Pomeranz was the fifth overall pick by the Indians. A variety of injuries, most notably recurrent biceps tendinitis, has dogged a nine-year major league career as he’s worn the threads (and sometimes frayed the nerves) of the Rockies, A’s, Padres, and Red Sox as well as the Giants. He enjoyed an impressive two-year run of success as a starter in 2016-17, making the NL All-Star team as a Padre in the former year before being dealt to the Red Sox (for righty Anderson Espinoza) just two days later, then serving as the second-best starter on Boston’s 2017 AL East champion squad. During that stretch, Pomeranz pitched to a 3.32 ERA and 3.82 FIP in 334.1 innings, with a 25.0% strikeout rate and 5.9 WAR.

Pomeranz has been unable to replicate that success as a starter, however, in part because he lost a couple ticks of velocity last year while missing time due to both a flexor mass strain and biceps tendinitis; in 26 appearances (11 starts) totaling 74 innings, he was torched for a 6.08 ERA and 5.43 FIP. After signing with the Giants as a free agent in January, the 30-year-old southpaw pitched acceptably in April but subsequently delivered diminishing returns; after carrying a 6.10 ERA and 5.58 FIP through the All-Star break, he was moved to the bullpen earlier this month. He’s made just four appearances there, totaling 5.1 innings, but in that time, he’s opened some eyes by allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out eight of the 16 batters he’s faced.

His stuff has played up out of the ‘pen. Where Pomeranz’s four-seam fastball averaged 92.3 mph as a starter this year according to Pitch Info, that average has climbed to 94.7 mph as a reliever. Likewise, his curve velocity has increased from 81.1 mph to 82.3, and he’s shortened his repertoire:

Pomeranz’s Repertoire by Role, 2019
Role Fourseam Sinker Cutter Curve Change
Starter 47.7% 8.3% 7.2% 34.7% 2.1%
Reliever 73.1% 26.9%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

With that admittedly limited sample size, Pomeranz’s swinging strike rate has jumped, from 9.2% as a starter to 15.4% as a reliever. If his stuff continues to play up like that, he could definitely be an asset down the stretch, though his track record for health and consistency makes that something less than a sure thing. It is worth noting that he did fare well in a relief role with the A’s in 2015 (2.61 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 27.5% K rate in 41.1 innings). He has been particularly stifling against lefty bats out of the bullpen in his career (.226 wOBA in 153 PA, compared to .299 in 222 PA against righties).

As for Black, he’s a 6-foot-5, 225-pound 29-year-old righty who was the team’s 17th-ranked prospect as of May, and the oldest prospect on THE BOARD. He is among the hardest throwers in professional baseball, and has legitimate triple-digit heat, sitting 96-99 mph and topping out at 102. He also has an above-average slider, and his curve has drawn notice as well:

Command and health have been issues for Black; on the former front, he received just a 35 grade in command from our prospect team, and in 25.1 career major league innings (23.1 last year, two this year), he’s walked 10.4% of batters while striking out 35.9%. He’s given up five homers in that small span, and owns a 6.04 ERA and 4.15 FIP at the major league level. As for his health, he underwent Tommy John surgery back in 2008, while at the University of Pittsburgh, and while he was drafted in the seventh round in 2011, he didn’t throw his first professional pitch until 2014. He’s had bone spur and shoulder issues as well, and has never thrown more than 35.2 innings in six professional seasons. He’s under club control through 2024, unlike Pomeranz, who will hit free agency again this winter; the Brewers can hope he’ll provide late-inning help, if not this year, then down the road. Black slots in as the Brewers’ 25th best prospect.

As for that Brewers bullpen, last year it ranked second in the NL in both ERA (3.47) and FIP (3.57), but with Jeremy Jeffress struggling, Corey Knebel lost to Tommy John surgery, Corbin Burnes just lost, and so on, the unit has taken a step back. Its 4.49 ERA is eighth in the NL, though its 4.18 FIP is fourth, and its 3.4 WAR tied for first.

Pomeranz’s upside and Black’s years of club control explain why the Brewers were willing to part with the 25-year-old Dubon, who ranked as their number four prospect and was obtained from the Red Sox alongside Travis Shaw in the December 2016 Tyler Thornburg heist. After missing most of last season due to a left ACL tear, he has hit .297/.333/.475 (91 wRC+) with 16 homers but just a 4.2% walk rate at Triple-A San Antonio. On July 7, he became the second Honduras-born player in MLB history, but made just two plate appearances before returning to San Antonio.

Dubon has the potential for a plus hit tool, and is above average with regards to both his arm and his running. He’s generally lacking in power (40 raw, 30 game), this year’s inflated home run stats to the contrary. Our prospect team called him “passable at shortstop” back in May, while noting that scouts like him as a superutility type. With Giants second baseman Joe Panik and shortstop Brandon Crawford both struggling this year (wRC+ of 67 and 79, respectively), he should get a big league look, though the Giants’ deadline acquisitiom of Scooter Gennett makes his path back to the majors considerably less clear and likely much less immediate. While Dubon might merely fulfill his destiny as a low-end regular (to use our prospect team’s words again), a multiposition role could suit him too, and the fact that the Giants don’t currently have anything better than a 40-grade middle infield prospect above rookie level buys him some time.

In short, the Brewers brought in a pair of tantalizing arms, albeit at a not-insignificant cost, and the Giants have turned two of their more modest bullpen assets into a player who could eventually carve out significant time in San Francisco.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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3 years ago

Wouldn’t Pomeranz be in the rotation over someone like Adrian Houser?

3 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Not if they really believe that Pomeranz can be that much more effective out of the pen.

3 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Houser isn’t really a rotation member just plugging a gap while Chacin and Woodruff are both on the IL. Chacin might want to watch out though.