HOUSTON — In 40 years in baseball front offices, Dave Dombrowski had never had a team like these Red Sox, one that seemed so well-rounded, so athletic, and could beat opponents in so many ways. This is the first time that the president of baseball operations has been part of a team that won 100 games, its 108 victories representing a staggering total.
As the trade deadline neared, the Red Sox unquestionably featured a championship-caliber roster. They also faced a potentially limited window with the current core, given the free agency of Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts after 2019 and Mookie Betts after 2020, along with the possible end of the Yankees’ fiscal prudence after this year.
For an executive characterized as the ultimate “win now” architect in the sport, the urgency of the moment seemed immense. Particularly given that past Dombrowski teams had been sabotaged by bullpen failures, and that October had been reshaped as the month of the reliever, it seemed almost inevitable that the Red Sox, like every other contender, would trade for relief help.
“I think you always add a reliever,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, reflecting on his team’s addition of setup man Ryan Pressly and controversial closer Roberto Osuna at a time when his bullpen ranked second in the AL in ERA and strikeout rate and first in strikeout-to-walk ratio. “That’s what you feel like you need to do and answer any questions that you have.”
The Red Sox didn’t. Dombrowski executed three trades to address shortcomings, adding Steve Pearce for righthanded thump, Nathan Eovaldi to reinforce the rotation with a righthanded presence, and Ian Kinsler with the hope of tightening the team’s leaky infield defense and perhaps lengthening the lineup.
The Red Sox were the only AL contender not to add a relief arm via trade. At the deadline, Dombrowski suggested that they could upgrade internally. The performance of Ryan Brasier has indeed been the equivalent of adding a late-innings setup man, though the hoped-for re-emergence of Tyler Thornburg did not materialize, while the addition of Eovaldi has permitted the team to slide Rick Porcello into a hybrid starter/reliever role in the postseason.
Nonetheless, while watching manager Alex Cora walk a late-innings tightrope, it’s been natural to wonder whether there is regret about the moves not made, the absence of a finishing touch on a team that has already achieved a historic number of wins. Dombrowski insists there is not.
“Take the best team there’s been in recent years: the ’98 Yankees,” Dombrowski said last month. “They had shortcomings. They were great, right? But they could have been better at a position or two, I’m sure.
“The Big Red Machine, their starting pitching wasn’t great, but they won. That’s just the way the game is meant to be. I understand it.
“You never have to do anything. You also need to be cognizant of who’s available, what’s the asking price. You never really have to [do anything]. You’re always cognizant of opportunities to get better.
“Again, I’ve been with clubs that were very good and won world championships and clubs that lost world championships — every club could be better. Once you improve something, the public pressure is there to improve something else. You just have to be aware that you’ll have to be content with what your club is at certain stages.”
That willingness to be content seems at odds with Dombrowski’s reputation. He is Dealer Dave, the man who seems constitutionally driven to make deals and to view prospects less for their long-term potential than their ability to help achieve immediate improvements to a contending team.
Yet those who work with him, while acknowledging (and typically appreciating) his aggressiveness to make moves and the intense competitiveness that he exudes, suggest that it is not the trades that define Dombrowski as an executive. It is his process — attention to detail, a constant determination to know the latest developments for every club, the desire to solicit opinions from other members of the front office and coaching staff on deals — that frames his work.
“I feel free to say this, because I’m not trying to score points or have an agenda: I was talking about when you hire managers, you have a bunch of boxes that you should put a check mark in,” said Red Sox special assistant Tony La Russa, who has known Dombrowski since the two were with the White Sox in the 1970s. “I feel like he’s complete. He really checks every box front-office-wise.”
According to front-office confidants, Dombrowski doesn’t hide from past instances where his trades — or nontrades — were mistakes. He owns past missteps in hopes of avoiding them moving forward.
“I think his overall track record speaks for itself. It’s been very good,” said Red Sox assistant GM Eddie Romero. “But with us — I don’t want to say which ones — but he’s expressed a couple times some of the ones that didn’t work. He’s been very blunt where their process at the time might have messed up. He acknowledges that.”
Is there regret about this year’s inaction on the bullpen?
“In terms of, ‘We wish we had that guy,’ it’s tough to do,” Romero said. “We were hopeful with some of the guys we had. We knew we were going to have some additions and changes in roles that would help us.
“We did our due diligence. There were prices that we didn’t want to pay.”
The presence of Eovaldi on the mound in Game 3 of the ALCS — following a dominant Game 3 performance in the ALDS against the Yankees — offers some measure of reassurance about how the Red Sox approached their decisions.
“The whole process was, if we had one move to make, was Eovaldi better than a reliever?” La Russa said. “In the honest opinion of this staff and the [coaching staff], it was Eovaldi.”
Still, it is hard not to wonder. If this remarkable season doesn’t end in a title — and more pointedly, if it comes up short because the Red Sox bullpen could not match up to that of the Astros (or, potentially, a World Series opponent) — how difficult a blow would that be to Dombrowski and the Red Sox?
After all, it has been 21 years since Dombrowski was a part of his only World Series winners, the Marlins in 1997. He has gotten close with two World Series losses and two more exits in the ALCS with loaded Tigers teams, but he has now gone more than half his career without a title.
That’s a long time to think about the moves he could have made to propel his teams over the top. Yet Dombrowski insists that he doesn’t think in terms of the distance from his last title. He looks ahead in terms of how to close the distance to the next one.
“I’ve been close a lot of times,” he said. “It hasn’t happened for whatever reason. When I say that, it’s not my thirst of winning [after that gap] that drives me. It doesn’t matter how many years away from it you are — if you’re one year or two years. Winning is what I strive to do on a yearly basis.”