The game of baseball has been changing around us for over a decade as front offices have trended younger and more modern. Dave Dombrowski embodied the previous generation of executives that weren’t afraid to trade prospects and believed that spending money to acquire the best players maximized the chance of winning a title, and even the notion that titles were important. Contrary to public perception, Dombrowski has kept up to date with the advances in research and analysis and has let them proliferate his organization. One needs to look no further than how highly they valued Brian Banister and Zack Scott. The only thing old fashioned about Dave is that he’s the only man of power left in baseball that will do anything it takes to win. Modern baseball analysis has embraced a combination of an outdated Moneyball-era belief that the playoffs are a crapshoot and process culture that values efficiency over winning games. Mix these two together and you get people that prioritize long-term stability over winning pennants.
What made Dombrowski such a great fit for the Red Sox was that he zigged when everyone else zagged. After an unforgettable freshman campaign, Ben Cherrington implemented his ideal vision of a Red Sox team. He spent money on mid-tier free agents with heavy downside risk instead of buying top-shelf players like Jon Lester, which came to define Cherrington’s time as general manager. Cherrington did an admirable job by Theo Epstein’s side presiding over a fantastic farm system but had a philosophy that was not compatible with a large market team capable of signing better, albeit more expensive players.
Dombrowski walked into Cherrington’s mess did what he was brought into do. He handed David Price the largest contract ever gifted to a pitcher. He bucked modern conventional wisdom by trading top prospects for a relief pitcher. When that wasn’t enough, he signed J.D. Martinez to succeed David Ortiz and traded Cherrington’s legacy for a frontline ace in Chris Sale. Everything was going to ownership’s plan as the pieces moved in place for a title contender. Come October, no one was fretting about the cost of these moves when the team uncorked a little bit of the bubbly in Los Angeles.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the trades hold up remarkably well. One of Dombrowski’s signature skills, after all, is that he rarely loses a trade, projecting his internal talent so accurately that you suspect he might be a precog from Minority Report. Manny Margot, the #14 prospect per Baseball Prospectus in 2016, has become the right-handed Jackie Bradley but with a touch less defense. Carlos Ajuaje is in Japan. Aaron Wilkerson is an up and down reliever. He gave up the lesser Basabe brother because Dave Stewart was bad at his job. Anderson Espinoza hasn’t thrown a professional pitch since 2016. Michael Kopech blew his elbow out. The pieces that are missed the most are Travis Shaw, who would’ve filled Mitch Moreland’s role at first base the past three seasons and has crashed hard down to Earth after two very good seasons, and Yoán Moncada, who was always expected to be an excellent player at some point. Dombrowski has come out far, far ahead in these deals, squashing the absurd notion that he’s punted the chance at a self-sustainable, cheap dynasty.
The reasons to dislike, let alone fire, Dombrowski amount to a hill of beans that resides in the shadow of his accomplishments which include a World Series and three consecutive division titles, which had never been done in the history of the franchise. I’ve discussed how I felt about letting Kimbrel walk, but it’s become evident that ownership was determined to not go over the highest tier of the CBT again despite raking in obscene profits from winning a championship (ironically accomplished in part due to their willingness to blow past the highest threshold of the CBT). What little budget he did have was taken up by a Nathan Eovaldi contract that was quid pro quo for putting his arm on the line for the team in the World Series, which should be commended, not shamed.
Having Colten Brewer be the big bullpen acquisition of the year was certainly a mistake, but doesn’t come close to being a fireable offense. Help is on the horizon anyway with Darwinzon Hernandez cementing himself with the club and Durbin Feltman over his yips. The pitchers he signed may have gotten hurt, which pitchers are wont to do. Ownership seemed to have begrudgingly accepted the Chris Sale extension and have soured on it already despite a year where he currently ranks fourth in strikeout percentage and second in K-BB. The alleged albatross David Price posted the highest strikeout rate of his career while battling injuries meanwhile maintaining his precise command. He remains year off from a very good regular season and an excellent World Series run that almost saw him win MVP. No one forced John Henry to sign these checks and he has somewhere in the neighborhood of $44MM coming off the payroll after this year plus the end of the Sandoval contract. Boston already has plenty of this financial flexibility that front office types seem to crave so much.
One can look at the big picture and deduce that Dombrowski was fired because he refused to lower payroll, so this move combined with the change in tone from Henry doesn’t forbode well for the club. My guess is that he wants to get below the CBT threshold entirely even if it means trading Mookie Betts. It’s a shame because as Herm Edwards once said “you play to win the game”, and that’s what Dombrowski did best. He was hired to do one job, excelled at that job by bringing a championship to Henry, and his reward for excelling was a swift kick in the ass and a pink slip. He leaves the organization with a contender with an outstanding, young offensive core, two front line starters (albeit ones who need to stay healthy), and two excellent draft classes. His final gift is a sweetheart extension deal to an MVP candidate under team control until 2025 at the earliest for a measly salary of $20 million a year.
I knew this time would come at some point, but it didn’t make the news any easier to stomach. I can only hope that the sounds coming from the top aren’t as alarming as they seem, but given the way organizational philosophies have shifted over the past half-decade, I’m not filled with much confidence. Here’s to hoping they choose to weather the storm.