How much blame to assign Dave Dombrowski is tricky
In a serendipitous twist of timing, at least for those of us who dabble in sarcasm and irony, the Red Sox schedule was released for the 2020 season Monday afternoon.
Perfect. The day after Andrew Cashner (who has been so abysmal since coming over from the Orioles in June that the 2003 Jeff Suppan trade suddenly looks like a savvy pickup) and these underachieving Red Sox convince the majority of us that this post-World Series season will end before October, we’re already being pointed toward next year.
For the record, they open March 26 against the Blue Jays. Hopefully, Chris Sale, David Price, and whoever else make up this pitching staff will have faced live batters by that point.
I imagine even the scattered optimists among us are having a hard time rationalizing that this edition of the Red Sox will find itself. Six American League teams have a better record, and the Sox went into Monday six games back of Oakland in the wild-card race . . . and Oakland was 1½ games back of Tampa Bay for the second wild-card spot.
The Red Sox began a three-game series Monday against Terry Francona’s Indians, who surged over the weekend to tie the Twins in the AL Central. This doesn’t feel like a series that will change the Red Sox’ fortunes. It feels like one that will further confirm them, probably in an ugly fashion.
They’re running out of chances and they’re running out of games, so it’s impossible not to look at that brand-new 2020 schedule and wonder what will be different then. Beyond inevitable changes to the roster, some off-field personnel will be changed, too. Some will deserve it. Others will be scapegoats for the underachievement.
I suspect president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski will be the highest-profile personnel change.
It seems to me that Red Sox fans would be fine with this. I don’t think it is that simple.
I’m not arguing that he deserves to stay, because this season has been a mess a dozen different ways, and most of them lead back to decisions he made. I still cannot believe Sale got $145 million after basically being a sore-shouldered question mark for the last four months of the 2018 season. And that’s just one of the bewildering decisions.
I’ve often thought Dombrowski’s struggles to build a bullpen wherever he’s been have been mostly bad luck. This year, it was bad decision-making, a bad philosophy, and neglect.
The Red Sox actually have had pretty good luck; just imagine if Brandon Workman hadn’t turned into 1999 Derek Lowe all of a sudden.
It’s easy to forget now, in the midst of whatever you want to call this massive hangover of a season, but it’s not that Dombrowski has done a lot right here since coming aboard in August 2015 after the Tigers let him go. He has done most things right, at least before this season. Not all. But most.
He arrived with a reputation for gutting farm systems, but he traded the right guys here, for the most part. He kept Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi. He resisted dealing the likes of Xander Bogaerts for Cole Hamels, a very hot trade rumor at one point.
There are deals that could look more regrettable in the future, and the Tyler Thornburg trade was a flop, but, in general, Dombrowski has made wise enough personnel decisions that the ’18 Red Sox had a very real argument as the best team in franchise history, and one with a young core.
Dombrowski has been a general manager or a de facto one with a fancier title since 1988, when he took over the Montreal Expos as a 31-year-old. Because he’s been doing this so long — he left the Expos to build the expansion Marlins at the end of the 1991 season, won a title there and rebuilt the foundation of a future champion before going to the Tigers in ’02, where he stayed through most of the ’15 season — you can find just about anything you’re looking for on his résumé to fit the argument you’re trying to make.
High-profile free agent signings? He made a ton of those, from Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, and Bobby Bonilla with the Marlins to Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, and Ivan Rodriguez with the Tigers.
Memorable trades? He got Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera in Detroit, but traded young Randy Johnson with the Expos.
Smart draft picks? He took Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Charles Johnson with the Marlins, then Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller, and Curtis Granderson with the Tigers. The Expos developed Cliff Floyd, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, and others on his watch.
And when Dombrowski had to gut the ’97 champion Marlins, he got A.J. Burnett and Derrek Lee back in trades, and also swapped three prospects for Yankees prospect Mike Lowell.
The notion that he might not be the right person to lead a rebuild for the Red Sox really isn’t a fair one based on at least part of his history. He has drafted well, and been able to identify worthwhile young keepers to acquire in deals for veterans. He wasn’t around for that second Marlins championship, but he laid the groundwork for it with smart trades under lousy circumstances.
Yes, he does have a knack for overpaying for talent. He’s that guy in your fantasy baseball league who isn’t going to be outbid for the superstar he wants, even if prices get crazy.
Forget the Sale deal, or the $68 million given to Nathan Eovaldi, or the $217 million for Price, or anything else that makes you wish for a rebate right about now. There’s a deal that’s even scarier out there that is Dombrowski’s doing.
Cabrera is 36 years old. He has eight home runs this season in 421 plate appearances. And he has at least four years and $124 million left on his deal with the Tigers. Yikes.
Dombrowski’s approach also tends to leave his rosters short on the back end. This Red Sox roster feels like it has six All-Stars and another six guys that don’t belong in the majors.
We should also reiterate that bullpen failings on his watch are real, even if he’s unlucky. The Red Sox really didn’t have much of a bullpen last year when they won, which is why the starters had to bail them out in the postseason.
But it’s also worth remembering — and the reminder seems necessary — that Dombrowski has fulfilled every aspect of being a general manager well at some point in his long and successful career. He has built good teams with money, sure, but that’s not the only way he’s done it, and if the Red Sox do decide that rebuilding the farm system is the highest priority, I believe Dombrowski would be better at it than conventional wisdom suggests.
Maybe Dombrowski isn’t the right guy to be running the Red Sox when that new schedule begins. I’m just not convinced he’s the wrong one.