The last time Dave Dombrowski won a World Series was 1997 with the Marlins. It wasn’t long into November of that year that he received his marching orders for 1998 from H. Wayne Huizenga. The team owner informed Dombrowski that the championship team he had constructed needed to be dismantled. There was no money to fund the following year’s team.
It was heartbreaking news to Dombrowski, who felt that Marlins team, managed by Jim Leyland, could not only have repeated but likely won a few more. Instead of the star-studded team of Pudge Rodriguez, Moises Alou, Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Jeff Conine, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Alex Fernandez, and Robb Nen, the 1998 Marlins turned in a 54-win season.
But the good news is Dombrowski won’t have to decimate this World Series team.
“It’s significantly different than the last time around,” Dombrowski said. “We really got away from calling ourselves the defending champions that year and it was because we didn’t have a mirror image of our club. So this will be the first time in my career that we’ll go to spring training with the club that is the defending champs. And we know how hard it is to repeat.
“Efforts will be made to keep as many players together as we can. But I also know baseball rules and finances make it difficult because when guys do become free agents they receive offers they can’t refuse. But if you told me today that we could bring back the same club, I’d totally feel we’d be thrilled with that.”
Although Dombrowski still hasn’t had a meeting with Red Sox ownership on what his budget parameters will be, it’s expected Dombrowski will be allowed to build a team he can repeat with. The Red Sox were the highest-payroll team in 2018 north of $230 million. The Sox now shed Hanley Ramirez’s $22 million contract and likely Drew Pomeranz’s $9 million and Craig Kimbrel’s $13 million pacts. However, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr are due large raises as arbitration-eligible players, and the Sox would like to sign free agents Nathan Eovaldi, Steve Pearce, and possibly Kimbrel.
Repeating is difficult. Not since the Yankees won three consecutive years from 1998-2000 has a team repeated. In recent years we thought the Cubs might do it after they won in 2016. And then we thought the Astros would, but the Red Sox eliminated them in the ALCS this year.
So that leaves the Red Sox to take their best shot. The Sox weren’t able to repeat after 2004, ’07, and ’13, but who knows?
Dombrowski will attend the general managers’ meetings next week in Carlsbad, Calif., where trade talks could begin. There likely isn’t much for the Red Sox to do yet unless there are free agent losses. Dombrowski also said he planned on making qualifying offers to some of his free agents. The qualifying offer is a hefty $17.9 million, so Kimbrel may be the only one who gets one.
Dombrowski is signed through the 2019 season, so his future is likely to be addressed at some point this offseason. Winning championships in both leagues and a stellar record of success should qualify Dombrowski for possible Hall of Fame recognition down the road.
Dombrowski indicated how happy he is to be with the Red Sox. “How can you not like the situation? I like it a great deal,” he said.
But the focus now is building for 2019. Dombrowski would like nothing more than to beat the next-season hangover that so many teams experience.
Dombrowski knows that bringing everyone back is probably unrealistic.
“But I think we’ll have a real strong core of our players together and we’ll see how many we can bring back,” he said. “I don’t have any idea at this time. All things being equal, they would like to stay here. Sometimes teams make offers you can’t refuse. You can’t define [what will be needed] until you know who you’re keeping.
“I would think we’d have to address our bullpen. A couple of key guys are free agents in Craig [Kimbrel] and Joe Kelly. Our starting pitching is pretty good there, but you always have to be cognizant of that. From a positional-player point of view I think we’re all set, but again we have to find out about what exactly [Dustin Pedroia’s] situation is at second base and how does he continue to progress. We have [Eduardo] Nunez and [Brock] Holt and we have Tzu-Wei Lin. We also have Michael Chavis.”
Dombrowski said he likes all three catchers but suggested he’s not sure the team would go with three next season. It simply wouldn’t be fair to Blake Swihart to be in limbo again and not get playing time, so the team either needs to make Swihart one of the prominent two on the roster or use him as trade bait. The Red Sox don’t want to waste both Swihart’s career or his athleticism.
Dombrowski said the team could solve the closer situation internally with Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier, or re-sign Kimbrel — or seek an outside candidate.
Dombrowski also said he’d love to see Steven Wright have a huge role — either as a starter or reliever — next season. But Dombrowski said the team must get a better idea of how Wright’s knee is holding up and whether they can depend on him to stay healthy.
Dombrowski was able to avoid contractual issues with David Price, who did not exercise an opt-out in his contract. Nor did Price receive any bump in his $31 million salary after talks between Dombrowski and Price’s agent.
Dombrowski cited the growing statistical data that continues to make the Red Sox a changing organization, and the challenge of combining analytics with scouting efforts. He said that in his 31 years running a baseball operations department it’s been imperative that he change with the times, keep evolving.
“You’re always learning and that’s always the fun part of the job,” Dombrowski said. “If you’re close-minded you’re probably not in your job very long.”
And so work toward repeating begins now. The conversation he’ll soon have with John Henry and Tom Werner will likely be a lot different than the one he had with Huizenga 21 years ago.