On June 2, in the same media session in which Red Sox (and Globe) owner John Henry articulated his expectation that Ben Cherington would remain his general manager for years to come, he also gave a hint as to why regime change ultimately might take place, why the Red Sox might turn to Dave Dombrowski as their new president of baseball operations.
“You can stay true to your philosophy, or you can make adjustments,” Henry said at the time. “I think there are adjustments off the field that we need to make, that we’re talking about making.”
The glimmer from the glorious succession of successful roster additions in the winter of 2012-13 had dulled with time. Cherington had compiled an impressive roster of prospects considered elite by the industry and overseen the transition of potential cornerstone players such as Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Eduardo Rodriguez to the big leagues. But when it came to big league veterans, one player evaluation after another backfired over a roughly 12-month period.
The trade of Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes to the A’s for Yoenis Cespedes brought in an outfielder who didn’t adapt well to Boston. The deal that moved John Lackey to the Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly blew up spectacularly. The signing of Rusney Castillo to a seven-year deal did not deliver a player who was ready to be an everyday option to start 2015.
Hanley Ramirez has been a fish out of water in left field since signing a four-year, $88 million deal, and at least as damaging, he’s offered nothing close to his anticipated offensive impact. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, too, has proven a disappointment both as a hitter and particularly on the defensive side of the ball in the first season of his five-year, $95 million pact.
While the addition of Rodriguez for Andrew Miller represented a coup, the rest of the rotation-assembling effort — in the wake of the decision to pivot from Lester — has yielded poor returns. The only saving grace of Justin Masterson’s one-year, $9.5 million deal was its short term. Porcello — acquired, ironically, from the Tigers and Dombrowski in exchange for Cespedes — has pitched poorly even before his four-year, $82.5 million deal starts to take effect next season. Wade Miley has performed mostly to the level of a back-of-the-rotation starter.
And the rotation’s shortcomings have been magnified by a paper thin bullpen and by defense rendered deficient by the poor performances of Ramirez (in a new position) and Sandoval. The entire pitching infrastructure collapsed.
On that day in early June, Henry had said that Cherington was the right person to lead the process of the on- and off-field adjustments. But amidst a succession of poor returns, the Sox had a chance to acquire one of the most highly regarded leaders and evaluators in the game.
Dombrowski has proven adept at trading prospects for stars (a blockbuster that revolved chiefly around Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin for Miguel Cabrera). He’s traded established regulars and stars for future superstars (Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson for Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson). He’s traded stars for prospects who became stars (Kevin Brown for Derrek Lee). He’s traded prospects who became nothing for prospects who became stars (Ed Yarnall and others to the Yankees for Mike Lowell).
Dombrowski has failures on his resume (most notably, a rental Mark Langston for a raw future Hall of Famer in Randy Johnson), but his larger track record is striking for its diverse successes. He’s produced winners in different market circumstances — laying a small-market foundation for the Marlins that eventually yielded a 2003 World Series title after he left, using financial muscle liberally in Detroit.
The Sox’ success of 2013 represented a philosophical success, the flawless execution by the team’s front office under Cherington of a model of high-dollar, short-term contracts to players with established track records that looked beyond recent underperformance. But the same philosophical preferences buckled in the following years.
The philosophy was forged in collaborative fashion by Cherington with the team’s owners, the relationship between those levels representing something of a contrast to the ideological clashes that more often typified the relationship between ex-GM Theo Epstein and CEO/president Larry Lucchino. For that reason, when Henry took stock of the team in June, he noted that the team’s struggles were as much a reflection of the direction provided by team owners as they were a referendum on Cherington.
Regardless, the misses on the player evaluation side — the fact that one player after another did not perform to his 2015 projections — ultimately rendered philosophies meaningless.
And so, in Dombrowski, the Sox have swung the pendulum. His hiring as president of baseball operations — which prompted Cherington’s decision to step down as general manager, despite an invitation to remain in that role — represents the prioritization of adaptable evaluation over philosophy.
At this point in time, in the face of an on-field mess, the team decided that such a shift represented its best path forward, even if it meant a significant change of course in the team’s operational principles — a drastic turn that is in one sense shocking yet in another not completely surprising given the nature of the big league team’s failures in recent years.
The Red Sox made their adjustment off the field, one that assumed a far larger dimension than anyone might have predicted.
Dombrowski discussed his decision to move quickly on the Red Sox’ offer with Bob Nightengale of USA Today Sports, noting that he wanted to start his evaluation of the organization as early as possible in an attempt to hit the ground running on any needed offseason work.