Dave Dombrowski, hired as president of baseball operations by the Red Sox on Aug. 18, 2015, in a manner just as abrupt and obtuse as his firing Sunday night, could not survive four full seasons in the role.
Yet in his three full seasons, the Red Sox finished in first place three times in the fierce American League East. And last season, they won a franchise-record 108 games, then blasted through three superb teams — the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers — to win the World Series with just three total postseason losses.
Ten months after doing exactly what he was brought here to do, Dombrowski is out of work, dismissed on a Sunday night with the faded Red Sox playing an irrelevant game against the Yankees opposite the Patriots’ season opener on “Sunday Night Football.”
And we thought the February 2017 firing of Claude Julien by the Bruins just as the champion Patriots were making their way down Boylston Street on duck boats was a clumsy attempt at a news dump.
The rationale for firing Dombrowski has been spelled out with much clarity elsewhere in this newspaper and on the website. He was brought in to do a specific job: Take the young talent that predecessor Ben Cherington had developed and (wisely) protected, add the right high-end, high-priced talent either via free agency or trade, and win a World Series.
Mission accomplished. He traded for Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel, signed David Price and J.D. Martinez, and built a Red Sox team that for a single year was probably the best ball club the franchise has ever had.
In a career that has spanned more than 30 years and is accomplished enough that it should land him in Cooperstown, Dombrowski developed a reputation for having a particular set of skills — specifically, the ability to procure high-end talent.
I don’t think that tells his full story; he developed and acquired several terrific young players with the Marlins and Expos, and he stole Max Scherzer and Martinez among others during his time with the Tigers. But that’s his rep — the hired gun, the closer, the exec who can build a single-season monster but fails at the calculus of building a thriving organization — and it’s one he’s not going to shake now.
When it comes to firing him, I get the why. This season has been a disaster by modern Red Sox standards. (It would have looked great on Butch Hobson’s résumé, though.) They have the highest payroll in baseball (roughly $236 million) and they’re playing meaningless games (for them, anyway) against a Yankees team that leads them by 17½ games in the division. They also trail Tampa Bay in the AL East, and the Rays pay their players in old Zayre’s gift cards.
There are some huge bills coming due, and a couple — starting with Sale at $145 million — that they never should have agreed to pay in the first place. It’s a relative mess, and the worst sequel to something great since “Caddyshack II.”
What I don’t get is the “why now?” aspect? Why did they do it just past midnight Sunday, when no one was paying attention? There were pieces missing on the team Dombrowski put together this year. Are there pieces missing in the story of why this had to happen now?
And then no news conference to explain it, leaving Alex Cora and the players to answer all the questions about why a de facto GM whose team is the defending champion doesn’t make it to the next October. Lousy look for management, as if they’re trying to avoid something.
It wouldn’t be too hard for them to justify, after all. And you don’t have to look past Foxborough to know that Boston sports fans can get on board with ruthlessness when there’s rationale for it. Red Sox management dumped Cherington, who oversaw the 2013 champs, in part because he was too conservative in roster construction. Dombrowski was bolder, and that approach brought a championship, too.
The conventional wisdom now is that Dombrowski wasn’t the right choice for the next phase of Red Sox roster construction. It’s clear there will be some payroll reductions, and that some of his decision-making could lead, as colleague Alex Speier put it, to the Red Sox “likely end up parting with J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, or possibly even both this winter.”
The possibility of losing one of those players, let alone both, stinks. Martinez has filled the David Ortiz void in the lineup, and no one needs a reminder of how large that void was. Betts is trending toward being one of the best players in franchise history. The Red Sox should be able to retain those elite talents — especially Betts — to partner with Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers for the foreseeable future.
But paying too much for lesser talent — the $68 million committed to Nate Eovaldi is a hard lesson in the perils of sentimentality — might prevent it. Probably will prevent it. That’s not the cost of doing business so much as it is the fallout of having Dombrowski know the combination to the vault at times when money doesn’t need to be spent.
Maybe he wouldn’t have been the right choice going forward. Maybe management did the right thing. Maybe Eddie Romero, who has been with the organization since the Theo Epstein era, or one of the other lieutenants (Brian O’Halloran, Zack Scott, Raquel Ferreira) helping to steer the ship in the interim would be a fine permanent choice.
But less than a full year after the easiest championship the Red Sox will ever win, they’ve hit a tenuous and tumultuous time. They’re looking at hiring their fourth GM in 10 years, and whoever it is will have to make immediate, crucial, future-shaping decisions on Martinez and Betts while rebuilding the farm system. And if you screw it up, well, you might just find yourself out of work after a random Sunday night game, with no further explanation forthcoming.
No, maybe it wasn’t a job for Dombrowski. But I’m not sure it’s a gig for a GM novice, either, given the stakes.
It seems like a task for an experienced GM with a proven eye for young talent.
Say, anyone know how to reach Ben Cherington? He fits the latest parameters and requirements. And at least he’d know what he’d be getting into.