Tommy Pham Dealt to Boston in Head-Scratching Acquisition

Tommy Pham
The Enquirer

When Tommy Pham signed with the Reds during the offseason on a one-year, $7.5 million contact, the writing was already on the wall. By the deadline, he’d be sent to a contending team, presumably one that had an outfield weakness. And so here we are, with Pham departing Cincinnati for Boston in exchange for either a player to be named later or cash considerations. But it’s a deal that leaves me furrowing my brow, mainly because it’s made unclear what the broader plan is for the Red Sox.

Before that, though, let’s talk about the player himself. We’ve been so swept away by the unbelievable saga of slap-tastic fantasy football, I think, that we haven’t really paid attention to how Pham has fared in real-life games. He’s been… fine. In a year that’s lighter on offense, his .238/.320/.374 triple slash equates to a 92 wRC+. That’s serviceable, though certainly not up to his usual standards; even in 2021, which many considered a “down” year, Pham still mustered a 102 wRC+.

Back when he signed, I wrote about how Pham had been one of the unluckiest hitters around for the past two seasons, and that a one-year deal guaranteeing him playing time and a hitter-friendly home park could reverse his fortunes. But his underperformance is no longer the product of rotten luck. His .312 xwOBA this season is only a smidge higher than his .308 wOBA, and in case you missed it, Baseball Savant re-centered its expected metrics to the current offensive environment. There’s reason to believe he isn’t the same player he once was, in other words.

What’s plaguing Pham? He actually fixed his biggest issue from last season, which is that he pulled too few of his fly balls, limiting what he could accomplish with them. Unfortunately, he has also lost a couple ticks of exit velocity on all his fly balls. That far outweighs the benefits of re-adopting a pull-centric approach, and so we arrive at a thoroughly underwhelming batted ball profile. In addition, his strikeout rate has been climbing, and he certainly isn’t going to get speedier on the base paths with age.

It doesn’t look great for the 34-year-old outfielder, but there remains some upside. The Red Sox, if they can get Pham to maintain his current pull rates and bring up his bat speed, will get plenty of value out of this deal. Besides, even if he continues to hover around a 90 wRC+, he’d still represent a meaningful addition to the current outfield. The most likely scenario is that Pham and Alex Verdugo occupy left and right field respectively, with Jarren Duran holding down the fort in center until Enrique Hernández returns from the injured list. This means Jackie Bradley Jr. is now in a backup role, but all things considered, it’s for the better.

Now, about the confusing part. The Red Sox needed to bolster their outfield; that much is certain. In a vacuum, making a move for Pham is completely reasonable. But their decision to trade away Christian Vázquez suggests that they intended to sell. But as clarified by Chaim Bloom, the team is planning to both add and subtract at the deadline. The playoff aspirations have not gone away.

There’s an imbalance here. Trading away a catcher with an above-average bat in Vázquez, acquiring Reese McGuire as his replacement, then adding Pham would stand to make the Red Sox worse, not better. This isn’t an issue of salary, either. Vázquez is owed $7 million this season, which is similar to what Pham is owed. The latter’s contract includes a mutual option for 2023, but that sort of option usually ends with the player testing the open market instead. At best, the Red Sox are getting a decent-to-good bat for the remainder of this season, and no longer; there’s little to suggest they had the future in mind.

My guess is that the Red Sox have a few tricks waiting to emerge from their sleeves. Will they jump out to acquire Willson Contreras, who’s having a career-best season at the plate? What about Sean Murphy, who’s not only great but also under years of team control? Or do they have an entirely different position in mind? As the deadline clock ticks down, we’ll eventually find out. The Reds did what was expected of them, getting at least someone (or something) out of a one-year deal and shedding a wee bit of payroll in the process. Meanwhile, the Red Sox needed outfield help, and Pham is no doubt a decent option. But if there’s no final chapter to Boston’s series of deadline moves, I’m going to have a hard time un-furrowing my brow.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

I tried really hard to figure out the logic of the Pham acquisition, and it just plain makes zero sense, especially in the context of the other moves.

I hated to see Vasquez go, I believe he has been very important to the occasional things that went right for the Red Sox over the past few years, but I understand the logic of Bloom’s attempt at adding prospect depth by trading an expiring contract. But then that is negated by moving one of the few (albeit not good) lefty arms in the bullpen for one of the worst catchers in the game, to replace Vasquez. Then the bizarre Pham trade, which also negates the savings of offloading Vasquez’s contract.

I tried to make sense out this and couldn’t. I am starting to think that Chaim Bloom truly does not have a well-developed plan or strategy for building sustainable success for this organization. Especially when you take into account in the past offseason he moved Renfroe for JBJ, only to now trade for Pham for some right-handed slapping in the outfield, which of course makes it hard to see any sense in what he’s doing.

Dumping potential free agents for prospects, I get. Adding washed-up veterans while dumping free agents for prospects is akin to spinning maddeningly in a circle, and to what end?

1 year ago

My best guess is that Bloom doesn’t think his team is good enough to spend prospects on improving, but also doesn’t need to cut payroll, so he invested the payroll space created from trading Vasquez into improving the team without losing prospects in case they manage to go on an unexpected hot streak and do make the playoffs

Jeff in Jerseymember
1 year ago
Reply to  Pascal

But trading Vazquez creates a much bigger hole than adding Pham, and the two prospects they got from the Astros don’t look like they’ll be world-beaters. Bloom’s a smart guy, don’t get me wrong–but unless some other shoes drop this is a weird one.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff in Jersey

It is often said that Bloom is a smart guy, but I haven’t seen him make too many smart moves yet. He is articulate in his few public appearances, but the moves he makes don’t seem to improve the team much. Also, the moves he hasn’t made are more glaring to me. I do think he has improved the overall depth of the farm system, but Bloom himself has stated he’s always looking to improve the current team with every move (yet somehow seldom does).

The moves he made yesterday don’t improve the team. If he sent Vasquez for prospects alone, called up Wong to platoon with Plawecki, that would at least kinda make sense from a “trade-pending-free agent-for prospects” approach. But if the goal is to compete for wild card, it doesn’t compute to trade a key clubhouse leader and backstop who has the trust of the pitching staff, is bilingual, never gets injured, and has been hitting well for past couple months. And then add slap-hitter Tommy Pham, who appears to be in the twilight of his career? There are better (and way cheaper) AAA options than Pham, to address the both the outfield and firstbase holes.

Last edited 1 year ago by JimmieFoxxalorian
1 year ago

All the reports and punditry is that the org isn’t really Bloom’s until he gets out from all the deals the last regime offered. So he gets a ton of leeway because he’s considered to be very smart and resourceful.

The Red Sox are boom or bust every year: they’ll be fine with a few bad years if they’re mixed in with good ones (like last year).

1 year ago

The only defense for what Bloom is doing is that the team was damaged badly by the seriousness of Enrique Hernandez’s injury. He was the team leader in 2021 and his loss, which was originally thought to be brief, destroyed the outfield. I haven’t researched it but I can’t imagine another team with fewer HR’s from its outfield than the Sox.

1 year ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife
Last edited 1 year ago by Mule