Ben Cherington and Dave Dombrowski come from the same type of large market, Boston and Detroit, but while Cherington’s body of work is a much smaller sample size, the styles of both have emerged and the contrast is stark.
Winning is expected in Boston. Winning is expected in Detroit.
Resources are bountiful in both markets.
For the longest time, particularly in the Theo Epstein regime, it was important for the Red Sox to have name players on the roster to drive NESN ratings, ticket sales, and corporate sponsorships. Same in Detroit, where Dombrowski had an owner — Mike Ilitch — who wanted to see a World Series championship and was willing to trade the future to make it happen.
So Dombrowski was driven to build a great postseason team that could win it for the owner. He fell short, making it to the World Series in 2006 and 2012, but losing to the Cardinals in five games in ’06 and falling to the Giants in a sweep in ’12.
So how are Dombrowski and Cherington different if they come from similar big-market existences?
Certainly, Cherington was more protective of his minor league prospects. He never felt the urgency to deal his top guys for a top pitcher such as Cole Hamels, even though not having an ace proved to be one of Cherington’s downfalls with the Red Sox.
The one prospect Cherington traded was shortstop Jose Iglesias, dealing the shortstop to Dombrowski’s Tigers in a three-team swap in which the Red Sox received righthander Jake Peavy from the White Sox.
Cherington wasn’t around long enough to make the big Miguel Cabrera-like deal, which was one of the best deals ever.
Dombrowski and his successor, Al Avila, made the deal before the 2007 season. Ilitch wanted Cabrera. By the final day of the 2007 winter meetings, Avila got a call from Marlins GM Mike Hill, who read him a list of names it would take to get Cabrera.
The list contained six players, two of them — lefthander Andrew Miller and outfielder Cameron Maybin — were top-10 prospects. The others were mid-level prospects (including reliever Burke Badenhop, who later played for the Red Sox). The names were presented to Ilitch, who signed off on the deal and the Tigers had their franchise player, which led to years of success.
Avila, however, doesn’t believe it’s fair to characterize he or Dombrowski as executives who go after big names.
“Dave will adapt to the situation, whatever that is,” Avila said. “He will assess everything first and then do what he feels is right for the team based on all the factors at his disposal.”
Dombrowski and Avila made other deals involving prospects — pulling off the Max Scherzer deal in a three-team swap by sending Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks.
At one point, in the 2013 season, ESPN’s Grantland estimated that Dombrowski had come out on top on 11 of his 15 deals. ESPN calculated that “the Tigers won their trades by a factor of more than 2-to-1 since Dombrowski was hired, for a surplus total of 104 wins over 11 years.”
That’s more than nine wins a year. Think about that: The Tigers have won approximately nine additional games every season under Dombrowski since his hiring in 2002 by using the trade market. Take away nine wins each season (not including 2015), and the Tigers would have posted a losing record over the last eight years.
Cherington never made the big deal in which he had to deal away prospects. He can be credited with the Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto deal to the Dodgers on Aug. 25, 2012, but that was made more from an ownership level.
Cherington eventually flipped all of the players he got back in that deal, including using Rubby De La Rosa and Alan Webster to get Wade Miley.
Cherington also traded third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who was at the end of the line in Boson, for Ryan Hanigan, and sent young righthander Anthony Ranaudo, who was caught up in a numbers game with the Red Sox, to the Rangers for Robbie Ross. Jr.
But Cherington kept Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Jackie Bradley Jr., Deven Marrero, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Travis Shaw, Eduardo Rodriguez (after acquiring him for Miller). He kept his best prospects, a noble undertaking, but paid the price in the standings in the short term.
Cherington traded Jon Lester for Yoenis Cespedes, then later dealt Cespedes to the Tigers for Rick Porcello. Cherington traded John Lackey for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.
Cherington was more of a builder with free agents. After a last-place finish in 2012, he picked out seven perfect ones in 2013 in Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Koji Uehara, Dempster, Stephen Drew, and Jonny Gomes.
But Cherington spent about $188 million on Hanley Ramirez, a player who was not in high demand, and Pablo Sandoval, then signed Porcello, a player Dombrowski was unlikely to re-sign, to an $82.5 million deal.
Dombrowski traded for lefthanded ace David Price, then traded him to Toronto before Dombrowski left Detroit.
Were they all good deals? Of course not. Dombrowski would probably like to have the Doug Fister deal to Washington back. Dombrowski probably would not have signed Prince Fielder to that exorbitant nine-year deal, but wound up dealing him to Texas for Ian Kinsler.
Dombrowski hit on Magglio Ordonez in 2005, who had just come off major knee surgery the year before. And the signing that transformed the 119-loss Tigers into a future contender was when he brought Pudge Rodriguez in as a free agent in 2004.
In other notable trades, Dombrowski acquired Anibal Sanchez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco and Edgar Renteria.
Then there’s the analytics vs. scouting debate. Cherington incorporated both, but with an emphasis toward analytics. Dombrowski built the Marlins with a great scouting staff that produced Mike Lowell, Beckett, Gonzalez and Cabrera.
Cherington proved with his 2013 signings that he didn’t need big names to win it all. In the end, both GMs had World Series championships — Dombrowski’s coming in 1997 with Florida.
In the end, Cherington left the Red Sox with a very good farm system and young talent. Because Dombrowski had to trade prospects, the Tigers system is lagging at the bottom of baseball. Though in dealing Price, Cespedes and Joakim Soria at the trade deadline this season, Dombrowski was able to replenish the system before he departed.
Avila said he learned so much in his 24 years with Dombrowski, who likely will hold true to his team-building beliefs — an ace, power in the middle of the order and a strong bullpen, which he never had in Detroit.
It’s a good bet Cherington will move on to one of the openings in baseball — Philadelphia, Milwaukee, LA Angels, possibly Seattle. And, he too, likely will stick to his guns on holding onto prospects in building a franchise.
Although Dombrowski has broken in younger players, such as third baseman Nick Castellanos, catcher James McCann and made a great pick up when he signed J.D. Martinez off Houston’s scrap heap, he’ll have more young talent in Boston than he ever had in Detroit.
Will Dombrowski build around it or trade for All-Star talent? As Avila said, his former mentor will adapt to his surroundings and make moves accordingly.