At 9:39 p.m., the ground beneath Fenway Park cracked open.
The Red Sox issued a press release announcing the hiring of Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations, reporting directly to principal owner John Henry and team chairman Tom Werner. Ben Cherington, the statement said, “declined the opportunity to continue as general manager,” but will assist the transition of the man now in charge of the team’s baseball decisions.
With those changes in place, the Red Sox now enter into a world that is both known and completely foreign.
Cherington had been the bedrock of organizational stability, someone who had risen from a low-level scouting job under Dan Duquette 16 years ago to his current post. Few players or members of the team’s baseball operations department have spent a day with the Red Sox in which Cherington hasn’t been a part of the team.
“I’ve known Ben my whole time with the Red Sox. He’s a big part of a lot of things in my career. I’ve got a lot of memories. Obviously this is new,” said Dustin Pedroia, minutes after learning of the news. “We’re going to miss him. I’m going to miss him. He has a lot of special relationships with guys. It’s tough.”
His absence creates a sense of unfamiliarity, even as Dombrowski represents a known quantity. He’s one of the most respected executives in the game with a lengthy list of credentials.
Dombrowski was the GM of a championship Marlins team in 1997 (subsequently working with Henry when he bought the franchise in 1999) and transformed the Tigers from a downtrodden franchise into a perennial contender that reached the World Series twice and won the AL Central for four straight years from 2011-14. He’s now been entrusted with the challenge of restoring the Sox to success.
“I am anxious to get to Boston and to focus on playing an important role in helping this great franchise continue its recent history of world championships,” Dombrowski said in the statement.
When he was fired by the Tigers earlier this month as a disappointing season in Detroit led to a trade deadline sell-off of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, several suitors for Dombrowski’s services were expected to form. Yet the Sox, despite being in transition with the departure of CEO/president Larry Lucchino, were not expected to be among them — in part because team owners continued to express belief in their guiding operating philosophies and the people who were in charge of implementing them.
On June 2, Henry said that Cherington would remain in his job “for a long time,” noting the philosophical alignment that existed between the GM and the team’s owners, and saying unequivocally that Cherington was the right person to lead the process of improving the team’s evaluations.
Yet the Sox seemingly changed course, deciding that after a series of player evaluation misses, they would entrust a new voice with leadership of their baseball decisions in hopes of restoring the standing of the franchise. With Dombrowski on board, the Sox’ decision-making environment may change considerably from the longer-term view that has guided most decisions under first GM Theo Epstein and then Cherington.
Epstein articulated the desire to create a scouting and player development machine whose construction was entrusted largely to Cherington as the farm director. After Cherington played a number of roles under Epstein, he ultimately emerged as a GM with like-minded principles.
During his nearly four-season tenure, Cherington encountered startlingly disparate results at the major league level. He oversaw last-place finishes in 2012 and 2014, along with what looks almost certain to be a third in 2015. Those massive — and high-priced — disappointments surrounded an improbable title achieved when the Sox rolled sevens on nearly every player signed in the offseason of 2012-13.
“Ben won a World Series,” said David Ortiz. “You can’t forget about that that quick.”
Though the major league team spiraled out of contention over the subsequent two years, Cherington’s commitment to sustaining and deepening a robust prospect infrastructure appeared to be realizing successes. Multiple publications described the Sox’ farm system as the best in the game — suggesting several players who could either succeed in Boston or become the centerpieces of trades.
Yet he will not be the one in charge of determining how to parlay potential into results at the big league level. And the man who is replacing him may have very different designs on how to use the team’s minor league assets.
Cherington had preserved his inventory of top prospects through the years. Dombrowski has done the opposite, frequently making aggressive moves to deal players without big league track records for stars in their primes, as when Detroit landed Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins.
Several of Dombrowski’s moves with the Tigers proved enormously successful, including the acquisition of Cabrera and landing Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson in a three-team deal with the Diamondbacks and Yankees. Other moves put Detroit in a bind this year, particularly high-risk, long-term deals to retain players such as Justin Verlander well into their 30s.
Regardless of the success of their strategies, industry sources have often cited the Red Sox and Tigers as organizations on opposite ends of the baseball operations spectrum.
Detroit built through free agency and trades while supplementing with homegrown players. The Sox had sought to accomplish the opposite. The lack of philosophical alignment, some industry sources speculated on Tuesday night, might explain the rationale for Cherington’s decision to decline the opportunity to serve as GM under Dombrowski.
Just last week in New York, after all, Cherington had expressed comfort with the possibility of the Sox hiring a president of baseball operations or someone else to whom he would report. But when the Sox entrusted Dombrowski with that responsibility, Cherington made the decision not to remain in his post.
Dombrowski will have the authority to decide how to reshape the team’s baseball operations, starting with a search for a GM. With his hiring, the fate of numerous Red Sox front office and staff members is highly uncertain.
Yet those behind-the-scenes responsibilities are merely the tip of the iceberg for a club whose major league club owns a 53-66 record. Limited roster flexibility due to long-term contracts to players such as Hanley Ramirez (signed through 2018), Pablo Sandoval (signed through 2019), Rick Porcello (signed through 2019), and Pedroia (signed through 2021) creates a mandate for creativity on a team that lacks a clear front-of-the-rotation starter, needs several bullpen pieces, and faces a defensive conundrum that centers around the future positions of Ramirez and Sandoval.
Ultimately, the Sox owners believed Dombrowski to be the right person to confront those challenges. Given the choice between remaining true to the course they’ve largely followed for 14 seasons or altering directions, the team elected the latter, even if it meant a rupture with the past.