BOSTON — When the Red Sox hired Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations on Aug. 18, 2015, they hired him to build a championship club as quickly as possible, prospects and money be damned. He built three consecutive first-place teams, a run of which the franchise had never seen, including the World Series champions of just 11 months ago. He traded prospects for stars and carried the most expensive payroll in baseball two years running.
Now he’s gone–fired in the middle of the night Sunday after another loss pushed the Red Sox closer to inevitable elimination.
Most people were shocked. But here’s the deal: the reasons the Red Sox hired Dombrowski no longer existed. What they need now, at least in the vision of owner John Henry, is a process-oriented architect who can steer the franchise efficiently through a difficult transition toward its next championship team. That person was not the 63-year-old Dombrowski.
“Dave was the kind of guy who didn’t have much a process,” said one source familiar with the team’s thinking. “He is very good at making decisions right now based on instincts and advice. John likes a more process-oriented approach. And based on where the team is right now–the next couple of years could be rough–they don’t trust him to make those decisions.”
The firing of Dombrowski was the front office equivalent of the Yankees letting Joe Girardi go as manager after the 2017 season. Based on resume, Girardi had every right to expect to be retained. But if Girardi was the right man for the previous 10 years, Yankees GM Brian Cashman believed he wasn’t the right man for the next five years. Cashman saw a young team in place, and didn’t believe Girardi connected well enough with the younger players. So Cashman hired Aaron Boone, who had never managed a game in his life but would be a better fit with the millennials in the clubhouse.
The next Boston president/general manager is going to have to sell Henry on a detail-oriented plan of how to retool the team.
Rick Porcello, Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce and Brock Holt are free agents.
Mookie Betts is a year away from free agency. He seems certain to explore his maximum value on the open market–so Boston is going to shop him on the trade market immediately after the season. (The down side: the trade value of players heading into their walk years is low; the Red Sox will not get a king’s ransom for one year of Betts.)
J.D. Martinez is likely to opt out of the three years and $62.5 million left on his contract.
Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi are owed $292 million, including $79 million next year. All are in various states of physical decline.
The farm system, thinned by the trades Dombrowski made, is one of the leanest in baseball. First baseman Triston Casas, 19, may be part of the next winning Boston team as it builds around Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. Maybe Bobby Dalbec, another corner infielder, is a piece, but he’s already 24. Darwinzon Hernandez, 22, has an electric fastball, but his mechanics are so poor that durability as a starting pitcher will be a question. He’s never thrown more than 107 innings in a pro season.
With the Yankees and Rays loaded with much more young talent in the majors and minors, the Boston GM job is a difficult one over the next three years.
“It’s a good job in one sense, because of the marquee value, but it’s not a good job because of the next couple of years,” said one baseball executive. “I think it’s going to have to take a six-year contract to get somebody established to go in there.”
Massachusetts native Mike Hazen, 43, a likely target who worked for the Red Sox from 2006-16, has been so loyal to Arizona ownership and what he has built there that he is a longshot. He is under contract through next season as the Diamondbacks’ GM.
Josh Byrnes, 49, another former Boston executive (2003-05), fits Henry’s desire for a strong process-based GM. He has spent the past six years as the Dodgers’ senior vice president of baseball operations.
Eddie Romero, 40, who has spent 14 years with the Red Sox, would be an easy in-house choice if Henry can’t lure an established young GM.
In any case the next architect will be younger than Dombrowski and fluent in the business-speak and multi-layered decision-making processes of the modern game. Dombrowski was mentored by Roland Hemond and advised in Boston by Frank Wren and Tony LaRussa–all cut from old-school cloth. He is gone not because he made poor decisions, but because the needs of the franchise changed.
This season Dombrowski believed he could squeeze another championship out of his group, which is why he brought back virtually the same team that won last year and the payroll that remained above all others. He signed two free agents: Pearce and Eovaldi, both of whom were part of the 2018 championship. (Both broke down.) He introduced no new elements to the club, a thinking that may have worked years ago, but is a failed proposition now.
The Red Sox grew stale. Manager Alex Cora and his staff decided to slow-play their starting pitchers through spring training, based on the idea that they needed a longer recovery from pitching the seventh month in 2018. He figured he would compromise the start of the season to have a strong staff in October. Instead, the Red Sox started poorly as the starters pitched April as if it were still spring training–the rotation posted a 5.39 ERA in April, the sixth worst in baseball–and now there are no October starts to worry about.
The Red Sox played with a lack of urgency, satisfied with their 2018 championship and emboldened by the knowledge that their talent could carry them again. They talked all year about going on one sustained “hot streak” to get things right. It never happened.
They complained about the rigors of their schedule–just as the Cubs did down the stretch last year–a sure sign of a team without the right priorities. Every schedule has pitfalls. Complaining about yours introduces negativity.
It is no longer just a quirk that world champions can’t defend their titles. It is now 19 straight world champions that failed to repeat, the longest stretch in history. Boston will make it 10 of 19 who didn’t even make the playoffs, including five of the past seven in an era when one-third of all teams make the playoffs.
Championships can spoil teams. Winning one championship brings a cachet, an enhanced brand identity, not just to a team but also to individual players. If players and teams are not driven primarily by the pure pursuit of winning, then winning again loses its luster, especially when they know it’s so hard to win once. The Cubs have been going through this with essentially the same group. The Astros cut against this modern trend, blessed as they are with guys like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Justin Verlander, who resemble the Yankees of the late ‘90s with their unfettered priority of winning championships.
Many took exception to not just why the Red Sox fired Dombrowski, but also when they did it: with just three weeks left in the season. I have no problem with that. Once you’ve decided he’s done, move on. There is no sense allowing the “courtesy” of finishing out the season. The Red Sox weeks ago knew they were headed for a change. Firing him once they lost any real shot at the postseason made sense.
I did have a problem with announcing his firing at 12:07 a.m., if only because of the lack of accountability. Henry should have waited until the morning when he needed to face the cameras himself. Leaving a shocked Cora and his players to explain a move they knew nothing about was wrong. And today Henry chose to hide behind a press release.
The firing does not change Dombrowski’s legacy. He has a resume that deserves Hall of Fame consideration. He did exactly what he was enlisted to do in Boston. Time and the complacency of winning conspired against him keeping his job through the coming transition. Now Henry faces an even more daunting challenge than when he hired Dombrowski: replacing him with fewer pieces in place.