When the Tigers released general manager Dave Dombrowski from his contract earlier this month, they made one of the best executives in the game a free agent. Unsurprisingly, it took just two weeks for another team to hand him the reins to their organization. The Red Sox have become the beneficiary of Detroit's impatience, announcing on Tuesday night that they have hired the 59-year-old Dombrowski as their president of baseball operations and put him in charge of “all baseball operations matters effective immediately.”
According to the team, incumbent general manager Ben Cherington has “declined the opportunity to continue as General Manager but has agreed to assist Mr. Dombrowski during the transition.” Dombrowski is expected to hire a replacement for Cherington (former Braves GM Frank Wren is the popular rumor at the moment, while former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto joined the team as an advisor just last week). In the meantime, however, Dombrowski is effectively the Red Sox’ new GM and will likely play as prominent a role for Boston in this new administration as former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein has under the same president of baseball operations title in the similarly structured Cubs front office.
In Boston, Dombrowski inherits a team headed for its third last-place finish in the last four years but that is well-stocked with young talent and regularly boasts one of the highest payrolls in the game. The ability to spend won’t necessarily be new for Dombrowski. The Red Sox haven’t ranked below fifth in the majors in year-end payroll since 2001, but the Tigers have ranked below fifth just once since 2008 and actually out-spent Boston in 2014. What will be new, however, is all that young talent.
Detroit’s farm system was ranked dead last in the majors coming into this season by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN’s Keith Law. Years of winning yet falling short of the championship desperately sought by 86-year-old owner Mike Ilitch resulted in Dombrowski trading many of the Tigers’ top prospects for major-league upgrades without the ability to replace that talent via high draft picks, many of which they lost as free-agent compensation. Indeed, when Dombrowski signed Victor Martinez after the 2010 season, he sent his top draft pick for the following year to Boston. The Red Sox, in turn, combined that pick with the additional supplemental-round pick triggered by the signing and similar compensation for Adrian Beltre’s defection to Texas and wound up with four of the top 40 picks in the 2011 draft.
That draft was the team’s last under Epstein, who departed for Chicago in October 2011 to be succeeded by Cherington, and Boston turned those picks into a bumper crop of talent currently populating its 25-man roster: Centerfielders Mookie Betts (22 years old) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (25), catcher Blake Swihart (23), starting pitchers Henry Owens (23) and Matt Barnes (25) and corner infielder Travis Shaw (25). Those six, along with 22-year-old Aruban shortstop Xander Bogaerts, signed under Epstein in 2009, are not all elite prospects, and even those who are have yet to fully blossom. But both the quantity and quality of young talent in the Red Sox' system that has already reached the major-league level is impressive.
Cherington added to that by being active in the international market, most notably signing Cuban defectors Rusney Castillo (a 28-year-old outfielder on the major-league roster) and infielder Yoan Moncada (a 20-year-old infielder in A ball) for eight-figure sums in the last calendar year. Moncada has hit .329/.422/.523 in his last 40 games for low A Greenville, where he is primarily playing second base; he joins 18-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers (signed under Cherington in 2013 and also on that Greenville team this year) and 20-year-old centerfielder Manuel Margot (signed under Epstein in '11) in the top half of both BA's and BP’s mid-season lists of the top 50 prospects in baseball last month, with the latter placing all three in its top 15.
That’s a ton of talent, some of it elite, but it skews heavily away from the pitching side of the game. Owens, Barnes and 22-year-old lefty Eduardo Rodriguez (acquired from the Orioles at last year’s non-waiver deadline for Andrew Miller, a former Dombrowski draft pick later included in the trade that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit), are already in the major-league rotation but are seen as mid-rotation arms at best. Rodriguez has posted a 6.40 ERA in 11 starts since impressing in his first three, while Owens and Barnes have combined for a 7.29 ERA in four major-league starts. Meanwhile, the two team-controlled pitchers Cherington acquired late last year, 28-year-old lefty ground-baller Wade Miley and 27-year-old righty flamethrower Joe Kelly have both been disappointments this season, Kelly especially.
Then there’s the pitcher whom Dombrowski traded to Boston in December in anticipation of his impending free agency and whom Cherington signed to a four-year, $82.5 million extension in April: Rick Porcello. The Morristown, N.J. native was in the midst of a brutal first season in Boston before a triceps strain granted him a reprieve at the end of July. Porcello won’t turn 27 until December, but his contract already looks like a massive overpay.
The Dodgers gave Cherington a get-out-of-jail-free card when they took on more than a quarter-billion dollars of player commitments left over from Epstein in the landmark waiver trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and their contracts to Los Angeles in August 2012. Cherington was careful not to spend that savings too quickly, but spend it he did, and he passes several problematic contracts on to Dombrowski, with Porcello’s merely second in terms of the size of the remaining commitment. Here’s a snapshot of those contracts with each players playing age this season, the number of guaranteed years left on their contract beyond this one, the total dollars owed for those seasons (in millions) and their 2015 Wins Above Replacement totals heading into Tuesday night’s action (per Baseball-Reference.com):
*Ramirez has a vesting option for a fourth year worth $22 million.
One of the first things we may get to see from Dombrowski is a change in Ramirez's role, be it via a shift to first base or the bench or possibly even a job share with Sandoval at third base, any of which would allow Dombrowski to evaluate Betts, Bradley and Castillo in the outfield on a daily basis down the stretch. It will also be interesting to see if Dombrowski tries to move any of the above contracts this winter. Prior to this year’s non-waiver deadline, there were several rumors that even Cherington was ready to unload the Sandoval or Ramirez contracts if he could find a taker and a way to sweeten the deal.
Dombrowski may find it no easier to do either, but he nonetheless needs to find a way to clean up the mess left behind on the major-league roster, which finds talented young players pinched for playing time due to presence of expensive, wildly underperforming veterans. Health and age are concerns for both Pedroia, who has had off-season or season-ending surgery after each of the last five seasons and has hit the disabled list twice since the end of June due to a hamstring strain, and Ramirez, who averaged 116 games per year in the four seasons prior to this one. Of even greater concern is Ramirez’s inability to adjust to playing leftfield, which is entirely responsible for his value dipping below replacement level this year.
It may be that Dombrowski has to package one player from each category (talented younger with expensive veteran) in a single deal to create the necessary space on the roster. Fortunately for the Red Sox, there are few executives in baseball with as strong a track record as Dombrowski, who was the only general manager current Red Sox owner John Henry had during his three years as owner of the Marlins. Dombrowski preceded Henry in Florida and built the 1997 World Series winners, then acquired several key pieces of the Marlins’ 2003 championship team when instructed to break up the ’97 champions by then-owner Wayne Huizenga. After jumping to Detroit in advance of Henry selling the team after the '01 season, Dombrowski turned a Tigers team that lost 225 games in his first two seasons as GM into a perennial contender, two-time pennant winner and winner of four consecutive division titles. At this year’s non-wavier deadline, in his final act as Tigers GM, he acquired excellent returns for impending free agents David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria.
Appearing on MLB Now on Monday afternoon, one of the questions I was asked was, “is the future bright for the Boston Red Sox?” I replied with a hesitant “yes.” In light of the addition of Dombrowski, that affirmative answer has become far more enthusiastic.