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April 18, 2020 at 6:00 AM

Cup of Coffee: How the Eduardo Nunez trade predicted everything

4/18 Cup of Coffee: Full disclosure – this piece began as a much more straightforward continuation of the “Where are they Now” set that ran earlier in the week, but soon morphed into a “How Did We Get Here.” Two paragraphs into a Shaun Anderson (pictured) entry it started to turn in a different direction. In normal times, I likely would’ve stuck to the task and not fallen down the rabbit hole. However, these are not normal times—we’re locked in our houses and the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts. So you’ll have to indulge me as I break down the 2017 trade that sent pitchers Anderson and Gregory Santos to San Francisco for infielder Eduardo Nunez and how it illustrates the story of how the Red Sox got to where they are. 

The college-reliever-turned-pro-starter path is one rarely tread successfully, and when Anderson had a brutal debut with Lowell after getting taken with Boston’s third-round pick in the June 2016 draft it wasn’t looking particularly promising. Undeterred, Boston assigned him to High A Salem for his first full-season assignment and they would see that confidence rewarded. It took only 11 starts at the level for Anderson to re-establish his value before he was sent to San Francisco in the Nunez trade. 

It’s a move the Giants are clearly happy with right now. Less than two years later, Anderson broke through to the major leagues after posting a very strong 3.76 ERA for Sacramento at a time when Pacific Coast League scoreboards were being lit up. Anderson got the call in mid-May to join the major league rotation, and while the overall results were mixed, he held his own across 28 appearances, including 16 starts. He went into 2020 in the mix for a spot in the San Francisco rotation but was having an ineffective spring training and was optioned back to Sacramento days before everyone was sent home. 

Santos, the second piece in the deal, is also looking like a great value. Santos was toiling in the Dominican Summer League at the time of the trade, a place he’d finish out the 2017 campaign. Currently ranked 16th in the Giants system by MLB Pipeline, the hard-throwing right-hander was very effective in eight starts in 2019 but also limited to that number by a shoulder injury that twice put him on the injured list. When he did take the mound, he allowed just 11 earned runs in 34 2/3 innings for Low A Augusta, striking out 26 and walking nine. 

In last week’s State of the System piece on the pitching in the upper minors, Ian wrote 
“Verdict: The Red Sox won a World Series in no small part thanks to a willingness to move pitchers acquired during this time period, but that process depleted the most promising prospects from this group, save essentially for a few low-bonus signees from the international market. Because of that mortgaging of the future for the then-present, the Red Sox now have a severe lack of high minors starting pitching prospects, making this one of the weaker groups in the system.”

In some ways, the Nunez trade and what followed is a textbook example of the style that got Dave Dombrowski a championship and then also fired so soon after winning it. In a vacuum, trading a second-tier prospect for a marginal major league upgrade is sensible, the sort of thing basically every contending team does. However, Dombrowski put himself in the position to need to trade from a system where the depth was already diminished when he failed to address a clear need for a backup infielder heading into the 2017 season. Pablo Sandoval was coming off two unproductive and injury-ravaged season at third base and Rafael Devers had not yet advanced past High A Salem, and top infield prospect Yoan Moncada had just been dealt to Chicago in the Chris Sale deal. When Sandoval was predictably unproductive and Dustin Pedroia got hurt, the team was stuck with an overextended Josh Rutledge and Deven Marrero seeing too much playing time. Devers’ meteoric rise helped ameliorate the third base issue, but second base and depth were still issues.

When it came time to make the move, Dombrowski again got the right guy. Nunez played very well in late 2017 and helped the team win the division before a loss to a 2017 Astros team that feels even tougher in hindsight, given what we now know. Getting “the right guy” rather than just a better player every time is an expensive (and ultimately unsustainable) proposition, though. Instead of using the 2016-17 offseason to bring in a low-cost player when it was very likely one would be needed, Dombrowski waited until midseason, when upgrades are scarce and therefore expensive. It cost a pitcher talented enough to get a $700,000 bonus only 12 months before the trade, and who would be starting in the majors only 23 months later. It cost a secondary piece in a DSL lottery ticket who was less than two years removed from getting a $250,000 bonus in the international mark. Anderson would not have made the difference on the flawed, unlucky 2019 Red Sox, but he’d have been the marginal upgrade at a low cost that was not available, and he’d almost certainly be penciled in for the 2020 rotation. Santos would not be a top-10 prospect in the system, but he’d certainly place in the Top 25 amongst a very promising group in the mid-minors who have come into the system in the last two drafts, post the win-now purge. 

Not only did the deal exemplify the “trade for the right guy” approach to team building that obliterated the organizational depth, but it also foreshadowed the equally destructive approach to roster building that put the team in such a perilous position with respect to the competitive balance tax threshold this winter. As mentioned above, Nunez was effective in 2017. However, heading into the 2018 campaign, the team needs were different. After rocketing through the minor leagues and establishing himself, Devers was clearly ready to go into the year as the starting third baseman. While his youth and inexperience made it prudent to employ a backup with the skills and arm to fill in if necessary, the biggest concern for a backup infielder would be someone who was a) healthy; and b) able to play second base well long-term in the event that the knee problems of Pedroia proved persistent. Nunez, though he’d hit well, was not a second baseman and, after suffering a knee injury of his own in Game 1 of the ALDS, not necessarily healthy either. 

Replacing the right player for 2017 with someone who might have been a more appropriate fit for the new season’s roster challenges was a bit of back-roster minutiae that Dombrowski didn’t seem to have the creativity to do well. Instead of getting that cheap, healthy second baseman, he signed Nunez to a contract that guaranteed $6 million. If trading for the right player at the right time and then undercutting that good by making them the expensive player at the wrong time sounds familiar, it was the precursor to the core-crushing moves of the following offseason, when Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi—two players acquired in trades that directly resulted in a World Series—got a combined $42 million in annual value for 2019 and beyond.  

Just to be clear, my claim is not that trading Shaun Anderson and Gregory Santos cost the Red Sox Mookie Betts and David Price. Instead, it was a trade that, while relatively anodyne and inconsequential on its own, was a microcosm of an unsustainable organizational approach that begat the problems we see now: a serious lack of depth in the high minors, particularly in the pitching department, and a total lack of financial flexibility due to a short-sighted, uncreative approach to roster building. 

It would also be unfair not to give the Giants a great deal of credit here. Anderson was not in the SoxProspects.com Top 10 in a relatively shallow system, and Santos had not yet even appeared in the Top 60 as he experienced some wobbly control in a repeat of the DSL. Neither player was a slam dunk, and San Francisco turned a pending free agent utilityman it no longer needed into at least a borderline major league starting pitcher and a secondary piece in the top 20 in their system. Kudos to them.

Photo Credit: Shaun Anderson by Kelly O'Connor