“Drew Pomeranz, star reliever” would have been an absurd claim five months ago, when the left-hander was laboring as a starter with the Giants. Since then, however, it’s become an eminently reasonable view. Beginning with a stint out of the bullpen in San Francisco and continuing with the Brewers, Pomeranz delivered a half-season of pure electricity.
Today that view goes mainstream. As first reported by Ken Rosenthal, the Padres have signed Pomeranz to a four-year, $34 million deal, further thinning out the free agent reliever market and besting the estimates of both Kiley McDaniel and the crowd on our Top 50 Free Agents list; Pomeranz ranked 24th on the list. Pomeranz will join Kirby Yates to further anchor what was already an above-average unit.
The terms of the deal were reported by Joel Sherman: Pomeranz will receive a $8 million signing bonus, and his annual salaries will be $4 million, $6 million, $8 million, and $8 million respectively. That works out to an average annual value of $8.5 million, with the money slightly front-loaded for the Padres.
I recently wrote about the changes Pomeranz made to his game as a reliever, but they’re worth reiterating, as they certainly figure heavily into San Diego’s move. Essentially, Pomeranz is the type of pitcher best suited to switch to relief. He has a great fastball that could use a bit of extra giddyup, a terrific secondary offering in his knee-buckling curve, and no business throwing any of his other pitches.
The returns on this new look were immediate. Pomeranz struck out nearly half the batters he faced over 30 innings of work, and he looked the part while doing it. The riding fastball went from a good pitch to one of the best fastballs in baseball. The curve wasn’t far behind; its 12-6 break looks best as an offset to the four-seamer, and batters loading up for the heat were blindsided by the curve.
Just as important as the newly-dynamic fastball, however, was the change in pitch mix. Pomeranz succumbed to shiny-thing syndrome as a starter: he threw five pitches, three of which were below average. It sounds good to be mini-Darvish, to throw anything in any count, but it simply didn’t work for Pomeranz: he used his sinker and cutter a combined 16% of the time in his career as a starter, and neither fooled batters.
The changes don’t seem particularly complicated. Anyone could look at Pomeranz as a prospect and tell you that his four-seam fastball and curveball were his best offerings, and that both were plus pitches. But the siren song of starting is strong, and it took seeing Pomeranz as a reliever for everyone to remember what made him such a prized prospect in the first place.
If you’re an optimistic sort, Pomeranz is to 2020-2023 what Andrew Miller was to 2014-2017: a two-pitch converted starter who hits the turbo boosters as a reliever. The range of outcomes is wider than that, of course. Batters will have time to adjust, and his 1.88 ERA as a reliever isn’t a reasonable projection for 2020, though his 1.92 FIP is encouraging. He’s likely to come in higher, though just how much higher is up for debate. Steamer, which can have difficulty projecting pitchers who switch from starting to relieving, pegs him for a 3.68 ERA in 2020, but it likely over-weights his time as a starter.
With the terms of this deal, the Padres are wagering on something closer to his recent form. Will Smith, who has put up near-Pomeranz-level numbers for two years now, signed for three years and $39 million. Pomeranz has a higher ceiling than Smith, but he also has a lower floor. That’s a gamble I feel the Padres are wise to take — truly elite relievers are hard to find, while San Diego seems excellent at developing above-average relievers from scratch — but it’s a gamble, to be sure.
The Padres wouldn’t have been my first guess for a Pomeranz destination. They aren’t a finished team merely one reliever from contending. An uncharitable look at their roster could find holes aplenty; first baseman Eric Hosmer projects to be worth less than 1 WAR in 2020, and all three outfield spots projected for less than 1 WAR themselves before the team acquired Trent Grisham today. Of course, acquiring Grisham opened its own hole at second base, where Luis Urías looked like a good bet to hold down the fort. While their farm system is formidable, their top middle infield prospect is Xavier Edwards, and he hasn’t yet reached Double-A.
But the Padres might not see it that way. They have two dynamic hitters to build around in Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.. Their outfield might not project well, but it would hardly be surprising to see Grisham and Hunter Renfroe each take steps forward, and Manuel Margot always looks one adjustment from stardom. Ty France might surprise in an extended look at second base. And that deep farm system could support further consolidation, meaning that today’s deal for Grisham and Zach Davies might not be their last if they have other holes that need filling.
The starting rotation is a point of strength as well. Chris Paddack was excellent last year. Dinelson Lamet and Garrett Richards will be at full strength in 2020 after injury-shortened 2019 seasons. Joey Lucchesi is a league average pitcher, a luxury for a fourth starter, and Cal Quantrill slots in nicely as a No. 5.
The Padres might not be ready to compete next year. Chasing down the Dodgers is a tough ask, and the Diamondbacks are also ascendant. But the Pomeranz deal hardly breaks the bank, and there weren’t really impact acquisitions available elsewhere in the lineup. Marcell Ozuna would be an outfield upgrade, but potentially not by much, and the rest of the position-player free agent market is heavy on third basemen and marginal outfielders.
Bullpen upgrades have one major selling point: they never have diminishing returns. Pomeranz essentially replaces the team’s worst reliever, while an outfield acquisition would have to replace a productive (and cost-controlled) major leaguer.
The length of the deal helps too: if the Padres aren’t ready until 2021 or 2022, he’ll still be around. There are limits to this, of course; relievers break or get bad more often than other players. But having four years of Pomeranz increases the odds of having an impact reliever on a playoff team, and the annual cost isn’t prohibitive if the team scuffles for a year.
From Pomeranz’s perspective, taking length over AAV makes sense. He’s made $21 million dollars in his career to date, and while that’s enough to be financially secure, it’s not enough that money switches from improving your life to being merely a counting tool. Maybe he could have gone year-to-year and managed $45 or $50 million over the next four years. But by taking $34 million now, he’s improving his worst-case scenario at little cost to the top end.
When I analyzed Pomeranz’s 2019 season, I had this to say about his free agency:
If I were signing players, I’d take the gamble that this new Pomeranz is here to stay. Could he turn back into a pumpkin next year? Absolutely. But he could also turn into peak Andrew Miller, or left-handed Nick Anderson, and it would hardly be surprising. Kiley projected Pomeranz for a two-year, $16 million contract, and the crowd had him at 2/12. I’d be willing to go well past either of these numbers, and I suspect that some team with a bullpen hole and an eye for upside will as well.
All of that still rings true for me. I think the Padres made a savvy move in locking up Pomeranz, and if they have a championship contender in the next few years, a reasonably priced bullpen ace will likely be part of the equation.
This story has been updated with the exact structure of Pomeranz’s contract, as reported by Joel Sherman.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.