Who is Damion Easley and why does he matter to the 2016 Red Sox?
In the late 1990s, Easley was an emerging star. After three straight years of 20 or more homers with the Tigers, Detroit made him the highest-paid second baseman in the game with a five-year, $28.9 million deal in 2000.
His performance fell off a cliff starting that year. Easley's offense eroded in each season from 2000 through 2002, to the point where prior to the start of the 2003 season, he lost his starting job. Detroit released him that spring, despite being on the hook for $14.3 million for the 2003 and 2004 seasons. It was the most money a team had ever left on the table to cut a player.
That decision gains relevance to the 2016 Red Sox because it was Dave Dombrowski — then the Tigers CEO and GM, now the Red Sox president of baseball operations — who made it.
"I remember it wasn't easy in the sense that he was a quality person. He had accomplished a lot," Dombrowski recalled on Tuesday. "We just didn't have a very good club. There was not a trade market at that time. So, it was difficult. I didn't have a real close personal relationship because we only knew each other for a short time period, but he had accomplished so much in Detroit. He was a very respected guy. It was a difficult decision."
Granted, that 2003 Tigers team was in a different place than the 2016 Red Sox, in a full rebuild. Still, the Easley move underscores that Dombrowski — who acknowledged that "you're always looking at dollar figures" when making roster decisions — isn't entirely constrained by the contracts he's inherited.
In a spring where Hanley Ramirez and especially Pablo Sandoval are subject to considerable scrutiny, Dombrowski's history with Easley is noteworthy. Dombrowski has stated his complete support for Sandoval, telling Peter Abraham that the team is satisfied with the work Sandoval has done to get in shape for the start of spring training this year. But ultimately, Dombrowski's hiring by the Red Sox represented a willingness to rethink all of the roster decisions of recent years that did not work out. The Red Sox president of baseball operations accepts that responsibility.
"You bring in a fresh set of eyes and you make decisions based on what you think is best," said Dombrowski. "For example, when we moved Hanley quickly out of left field [days after Dombrowski was hired], that was a quick observation of mine but when I talked to other people, there really wasn't anybody who said this was working out real well. . . . That was a quick decision and one that was relatively easy to make.
"And then you're in a spot where what you have to realize is, you come in and there are certain things you inherit — some things that are great and some things that are not as great, but your responsibility is to go ahead and try to make everything work as much as you can."
That is the case now with the Red Sox' group of "year 2" players — including Sandoval, Ramirez, Rick Porcello, and Rusney Castillo. Dombrowski is in a position where he need not expect those players to perform to a specific dollar value, and instead where he can look beyond the deal to assess the players' on-field value to the Red Sox.
"[Sandoval is] not unique in that spot," said Dombrowski. "You could say the same thing about Rick Porcello. The contract is done and it's signed. Pablo's is done and it's signed. Dustin Pedroia's is done and signed. You look past the dollar amounts. You try to get the most you can out of a player, performance-wise.
"When I saw Rick Porcello last year, who I do know very well, the contract is the contract. Now we just need you to settle in and be the type of pitcher you can be," he continued. "You may argue that he got too much money. You may argue that he didn't get paid enough. Really, at this point, it's superfluous. Let's get the most out of his performance that he can provide. And I think you take the same approach and attitude with anybody that's signed like that to a long-term contract."
In other words, in some respects, Dombrowski permits the Red Sox a fresh start to their relationship with the players who proved high-priced roster drags in 2015. He offers a chance at a new beginning.
But, as Easley can attest, he also creates a chance for the organization to reassess the long-term fits of those players based on their on-field impact, instead of their contractual status.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.