Roster building is hard. As we have seen with the hometown Celtics, sometimes even the best laid plans don’t work out. In the case of Dave Dombrowski and the 2019 Boston Red Sox we are seeing a poorly laid plan work out poorly.
We all know the issues with this team. Inconsistency on offense and injuries to the starting pitching have been problems, but often the most glaring has been the bullpen. The bullpen in question has blown 15 saves this year through the first 81 games. This was, however, a predictable result for a team that lost two of its most important relievers, Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel, in the offseason.
Of course Dombrowski deserves credit for building the roster that won 119 games (including the postseason) and the World Series in 2018. He also deserves the blame for not going out and replacing free agents Kelly and Kimbrel with other serviceable options. We are seeing the results of that failure on the field right now. The question remains, why did Dombrowski choose to take this risk?
Most estimates had the Red Sox payroll at the beginning of this season around $241 MM. The last luxury tax threshold is $246 MM, a number the Red Sox were desperately trying to avoid. That left the team with a little under five million dollars to work with for in season acquisitions during the 2019 season. This is not much. This low figure had the Red Sox relying heavily on the personnel on the roster to work out.
So far that gamble has not paid off. Ryan Brasier, Matt Barnes, and Tyler Thornburg have all underperformed at times. Guys in the minors who Dombrowski thought he might be able to rely on like Durbin Feltman, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Travis Lakins have all underperformed. Injuries to Heath Hembree, Hector Velazquez, Brian Johnson, and starter Nathan Eovaldi have hurt them, and they had to deal with the unexpected suspension of Steven Wright.
All the problems stated above could not be solved by the unexpectedly excellent pitching from Marcus Walden and Brandon Workman. None of this should come as a shock as pitching injuries are to baseball what cuts and burns are to cooks in the kitchen—they happen. Dombrowski’s failure was not putting the necessary personnel in place to deal with these issues.
The risk that Dombrowski took in not replacing those key members of the ‘pen from 2018 was one I never understood because 2019 was not the year to try and save money as an organization. J.D. Martinez, Rick Porcello, Mitch Moreland and others are potential free agents after this year and Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. after 2020. Martinez isn’t getting any younger while Betts is in his prime along with Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts. Clearly the time to spend to try and repeat is right now.
I don’t want to hear about how much the team would have to pay if it re-signed Kimbrel. The Red Sox are a rich franchise, they can handle it. Also let’s not pretend that “window of contention” is a real thing for the Red Sox, but can we call it a window of certainty? Right now we know that Betts, Bogey, Martinez, Sale, and more key pieces are here. This IS the time to push in your chips, farm system and luxury tax be damned.
Maybe the Red Sox will add an arm or two at the trade deadline fixing the most glaring issue on the team. That’s great. It will also have been about three months too late. How many of those 15 blown saves could have been avoided had those arms been on the team in the first place? How many games difference would that gap be between the Red Sox and the Yankees with a respectable championship level bullpen instead of this MASH unit?
I said that this course of inaction was irresponsible of Dombrowski and the ownership in the offseason and I stand by that now. This error could very well be the biggest reason the Red Sox fail to win the division and compete for a second consecutive championship this year. Chances like this with teams like this do not come around often and the Dombrowski did not give this chance the respect it deserved. He deserves our criticism. After all Alex Cora can only cook with the ingredients he is given.