Dave Dombrowski Has Been Good at Trading Prospects

Know this — Dave Dombrowski likes to make trades. He was first named a general manager back on July 5, 1988, assuming the title of “youngest GM in the game” back before it was cool with the Montreal Expos. He made his first trade on July 13. His aggressive nature was sometimes just off center stage, as the teams he had previously helmed — the Expos, Marlins and Tigers — have rarely been media darlings. But now he is running the Red Sox, and they get plenty of coverage. While that level of coverage might not be fair or warranted, his deals are being scrutinized hard these days. Is he gutting the farm system? Or does Dombrowski know how to pick ’em? I thought I’d take an objective stab at his trade record.

Let’s start with just how many top prospects Dombrowski has been in charge of. The exact number will depend on how you define his transitions from one team to the next, but it is in the neighborhood of 100 top prospect years. I have it at 107. I have the actual number of players at 79, since many of these players were top prospects in more than one season. He’s traded 26 of them.

It’s this part where I thought we would dive in and look at those player’s expected WAR versus actual WAR. How would we derive expected WAR? Well, if you read The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2016, you probably are familiar with the trade value calculator that Jeff Zimmerman constructed for the book. He took all of the prospects ranked by Baseball America from 1995-2002 and put a WAR and Surplus WAR figure to everyone ranked in the BA Top 100 in those years. We can use that here. Except there’s one tiny issue.

The issue is that Dombrowski didn’t make all 26 of these trades when these players were still prospects. In many cases, they were full blown major leaguers. Curtis Granderson is a good example. He ranked 57th on BA’s 2005 Top 100 list, and was a full-time player by 2006. But Dombrowski and the Tigers didn’t trade him until following the 2009 season, which makes his trade a different kind of trade than dealing away a prospect like Anderson Espinoza before he graduates from the minors.

Let’s take a look at those that are more in the vein of the Craig Kimbrel and Drew Pomeranz trades.

Dave Dombrowski Top 100 Prospects Traded As Prospects
Player Pos Team Year Rank Year 2 Rank 2 Year 3 Rank 3 Expected WAR Actual WAR
 Carl Everett of Marlins 1993 69 1994 52 3.8 16.5
 Jose Martinez rhp Marlins 1993 68 3.4 -0.1
 Julio Ramirez of Marlins 1998 57 1999 48 2000 60 3.6 -0.4
 Cameron Maybin of Tigers 2006 31 2007 6 10.7 8.2
 Andrew Miller lhp Tigers 2007 10 8.4 2.6
 Jacob Turner rhp Tigers 2010 26 2011 21 2012 22 5.8 1.0*
 Avisail Garcia of Tigers 2013 74 3.2 -1.1*
 Devon Travis 2b Tigers 2014 84 3.0 3.1*
 Manuel Margot of Red Sox 2015 72 2016 56 3.7 N/A*
 Anderson Espinoza rhp Red Sox 2016 19 6.2 N/A*
Expected WAR = From Jeff Zimmerman’s “Creating Values for Trading Prospects” in THT Baseball Annual 2016, pg. 259
Actual WAR = First six years after trade
* = Haven’t reached the end of their six years yet

As you can see, we’re left with eight trades out of 26 that more closely align with the Kimbrel and Pomeranz moves. For the most part, you’d have to say Dombrowski did very well for himself. The first instance where he didn’t — at least on paper — was the Carl Everett trade. How you feel about Everett’s off-field demeanor will likely color your evaluation of that trade. I don’t know of any incidents from his time in the Florida organization, but if it was similar to his tenure in Boston, one might forgive Dombrowski for underperforming there. Devon Travis also looks to get past his billing, though he hasn’t been as good this year as he was in his debut last year.

The other instance where Dombrowski didn’t do so hot doesn’t actually show up in the table. I’m talking the Jose Martinez trade. From Baseball-Reference, here is the entire line item of that deal:

You see the name as surely as I do — Trevor Hoffman. Famously, Hoffman — who was an 11th-round pick out of the University of Arizona — was never a top prospect. It probably had something to do with his ERA ballooning to 4.27 when he was promoted to Triple-A in 1992. Still, the Marlins saw enough from him to promote him in 1993, and he was a league average pitcher for them in his time there before the trade. You wouldn’t have looked at his stat line at that time and said “oh he’ll become one of the greatest relievers of all time,” but that’s not exactly my point.

My point is simply that solely using top 100 propsects as a barometer leads to an incomplete picture. If I had more time to play, I would try to pull every trade Dombrowski has ever made, but I don’t have such time and my guess is that there probably aren’t too many Hoffman-type mistakes on Dombrowski’s ledger. But I can’t say that with 100% certainty.

Dombrowski has made a history of making big trades, and is not afraid to trade away a top prospect. But for the most part, him dealing away high value top 100 prospects is a recent thing. From 1990-2005, he had 55 BA Top 100 prospects, and only traded three of them when they were still in their prospect stages. From 2006 to the present, he’s dealt seven of 26. The feeling here is that Dombrowski is changing with the times. The game is demanding younger players in trade deals, and so Dombrowski offers them up, because he’s a person who knows how to get a deal done.

That doesn’t mean that he’s just trading away his best players willy-nilly. He didn’t trade Josh Beckett or Adrian Gonzalez or A.J. Burnett. He didn’t ship off Miguel Cabrera or Rondell White or Larry Walker. He didn’t deal Marquis Grissom or Derrek Lee or Justin Verlander. But most of the top prospects he has traded away didn’t live up to their billing.

He’s not perfect, none of us are, and there’s still a very good chance that Manuel Margot or Anderson Espinoza will make Dave Dombrowski look foolish. But history has shown that Dombrowski is pretty good at picking who to trade and who to keep.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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7 years ago

The Red Sox/Dombrowski match is probably one of luck — they were looking for a veteran front office leader with some cachet and he got fired at the right time in Detroit — but it really is a good match.

The capital that matters in the game is no longer free agency dollars, at least not the way it has been for the past couple decades. Because of the pre-arb extensions for star players and growing ability for small market teams to spend, the Yankees and Red Sox’s of the world can’t sign free agents to fill all their needs. They can still leverage their financial might to build deep and talented front offices, they can spend wildly internationally and afford to take the best strategic tack in the draft. All the resources going to player development leads to a bit of a prospect log-jam, sometimes, and then it’s a question of making deals to fill needs.

Dombrowski hasn’t been shy about dealing prospects. He’s avoided dealing from the top shelf though. One has to assume there is a probability that the players he has parted with are players the organization doesn’t see highly. I believe they valued Espinoza greatly, but a slight 18 year old pitcher is not without his risks.

It certainly seems that more contending teams are opening the season with “incomplete” rosters. Find me a team without some pretty obvious holes. If they do well in the first half and have the prospects, they can address those needs with a much deeper pool of players than they can in December on the costly free agent market.

7 years ago
Reply to  Josh-

Although I hate Espinoza for Pomeranz from a long-term perspective, with the Sox in a win-now mode they can’t be too fussy. Their biggest roster hole is starting pitching, and the dropoff from Hill/Teheran/Pomeranz to the other starters on selling teams is pretty severe. So we have to look at the context of the very moment of the deal to better appreciate the tradeoff that was made.

7 years ago
Reply to  tz

Considering the amount of young talent the Red Sox have, both on the roster. And in the minors, why are they in win-now mode? Aside from Steve Wright, a patient team can tear the rest of their rotation apart. The Green Monster can really prey on the minds and ERAs of young lefties like Drew, too.

A fan should prefer they spend money and leave the prospects alone. If they had taken Matt Kemp off their hands, they probably could have kept the prospect.

7 years ago
Reply to  Josh-

> He’s avoided dealing from the top shelf though.

This is simply not true. Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller were elite, can’t-miss prospects who even many casual fans knew of. Maybin was ranked in BA’s Top 10 in three consecutive seasons and Miller was ranked in BA’s Top 10 once.

7 years ago
Reply to  Josh-

Espinoza isn’t slight… he’s a solid guy. He’s just not tall.