There are three weeks still to go in September, but the Red Sox’ season is, for all intents and purposes, over—and so is Dave Dombrowski’s tenure at the top. Late Sunday night, following a loss to the Yankees, Boston is reportedly firing the man who oversaw last year's World Series championship team, marking an ignominious end to a reign that rapidly soured amid this season's disappointing results. With the Sox effectively eliminated from playoff contention, it was likely that some reckoning was coming, but it’s still a surprise to see one of the game’s most talented franchises part ways with its president so soon after it reached the top of the mountain.
The move ends Dombrowski’s Red Sox career after four-plus seasons in charge, which will be best remembered for the 2018 squad that racked up 108 wins, an AL East crown, a pennant and the franchise’s fourth World Series victory in the last 15 years (plus division titles in 2016 and ‘17). But repeating as champion is hard: No one’s done it since the Yankees pulled the trick 19 years ago. And when you reach such great heights, any fall can seem like a massive plunge. And so it’s been this season: Sunday’s shellacking dropped the Sox to 17 ½ games out of first place in the division (the Yankees can officially eliminate them with a win Monday) and eight games out of the second wild-card spot with just 19 left on the calendar. Despite being on pace to score more runs than last year’s edition, Boston will likely finish with 20 fewer wins, owed mostly to a pitching staff that’s been crushed by injuries and mediocre at best when called upon.
What makes that stumble all the more notable is that Dombrowski returned almost the entirety of the roster that hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy last October. While previous regimes had gifted him core contributors like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers, Dombrowski acquired Chris Sale, David Price, J.D. Martinez, Craig Kimbrel, Nate Eovaldi and several other key pieces of last year’s championship squad, as well as manager Alex Cora. To build that team, though, he had to spend heavily both in terms of money and prospects, and the bill seemingly came due this season. Boston’s $253 million payroll is far and away the biggest in the league, and its farm system is one of the game’s weaker ones. The result was a club short on depth and that, aside from re-signing Eovaldi, tightened its purse strings in free agency last winter.
To be fair to Dombrowski, he cleaned out the farm system in pursuit of elite players, and without the trades for Sale and Kimbrel, Boston almost certainly doesn’t win the World Series. That flag will fly forever, but Dombrowski was unable to buy another, and what may complicate efforts to add future banners will be the long-term deals he handed out in the process. Sale ($145 million for the next five years), Bogaerts ($120 million for the next six), Price ($96 million for the next three) and Eovaldi ($51 million for the next three) will tie up huge chunks of the team’s payroll for some time, and while Bogaerts’ contract was a coup, the investment in the pitching staff hasn’t paid off. Sale, Price and Eovaldi have struggled with injuries and poor performance all season, with Sale a huge concern going forward, as his campaign came to an end in mid-August due to elbow inflammation that raised fears of potential Tommy John surgery.
To (again) be fair to Dombrowski, you would’ve had a hard time finding folks who considered it a bad idea to give Sale and Price big deals (or to reward the fragile yet talented Eovaldi with a relatively modest contract). And you don’t hire Dombrowski if your goal is to compete on a budget: He’s always been a win-now GM, no matter the cost, and winning now was the goal for Boston when it brought him on board in August 2015 as it headed for a second straight last-place finish. But this year’s results clearly outweighed the process for Red Sox ownership, especially since those previously mentioned financial commitments may (but shouldn’t, given how rich Boston is) impact the team’s ability to keep Betts. Last year’s AL MVP will hit free agency after the 2020 season and has rejected any and all extension offers from the front office, expressing a desire to test out the open market.
Not that the rotation or the possible departure of Betts is the only issue facing the Sox. Boston’s bullpen, which lost Kimbrel over the winter, was an inconsistent mess—that’s a running theme for Dombrowski-built rosters—that attempted to overcome a lack of quality with overwhelming quantity; the team is rostering 17 (!) pitchers this month and has resorted to throwing relievers at opponents en masse game after game. The right side of the infield was MIA all year. There’s been no pitching depth to speak of: Cora has been forced to turn to below-average fillers like Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez and Andrew Cashner in place of Sale and Price, and the team has given 29 starts to Rick Porcello despite the fact that he has the worst ERA among all qualified starters in the majors. If you want to know how a team goes from a dynasty in the making to a Mets-resemblant pretender, those are all big reasons why.
Still, whoever takes over for Dombrowski—currently a triumvirate consisting of assistant GMs Eddie Romero, Brian O’Halloran and Zack Scott, but likely one central figure eventually—will inherit, like he did, a strong core. Betts, Bogaerts and Devers form an imposing heart of the lineup; add Martinez to that group, if he doesn’t opt out this winter. If healthy, Sale and Price will join Eduardo Rodriguez as a top-flight top three in the rotation. But there’s likely little to no help coming from the farm system in the immediate future, and with $159 million already on the books for 2020 (and several arbitration raises coming), it’s hard to see an ownership group that was unwilling to add salary last winter despite a title in hand suddenly opening up the checkbook once more.
But if 2019 is any indication, they may not have a choice. Whoever is given the keys to the castle has a lengthy list of fixes that can’t be done on the cheap. The Red Sox need to improve their pitching, add depth to an injury-stricken rotation, convince Martinez to stay, find a way to give Betts enough money to avoid free agency and hope that both the Yankees and Rays regress next season (as well as the rest of the AL’s small yet highly competitive wild-card field). If the new boss can do all of that, Boston will likely be back in the playoff picture by this time next year. If not, that person may, like Dombrowski, find themselves out of a job sooner than anyone could have imagined.