It’s all AB all the time. Antonio Brown is the topic of conversation and debate in our hallowed corner of the sports world. The wayward wide receiver has tabled all other Boston sports discussions. So it is that the matter of filling one of the most important posts in New England drifted into the realm of background noise.
It was last Sunday that your Boston Red Sox deposed president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski without explanation, less than a year after he produced a franchise record-setting World Series winner. Having reached terminal velocity for irrelevance in 2019, the Sox are once against hunting for a baseball operations boss. As much as a new name for the masthead, they’re searching for the same thing they’ve been searching for since Theo Epstein departed for Chicago in 2011 — a sustainable model of contention.
At the end of the day, Dombrowski is no longer the baseball ops jockey on Jersey Street because Red Sox ownership must believe there is a better, more efficient way to consistently contend than plugging holes with dollar bills and boasting baseball’s highest payroll. Lighting luxury-tax dollars on fire with lucrative long-term contracts for veterans is simply not a sustainable method of success. That’s why Dombrowski was dumped in Year 4 despite winning three straight American League East titles and a championship in his first three full seasons since succeeding Ben Cherington in August 2015.
This year’s Sox are a monument to overspending and underachieving. Entering play on Saturday, the Sox were 25-42 against teams with records of .500 or better, a .373 winning percentage. The MLB average was 33-45 (.423).
It’s obvious that the Red Sox are no longer at the vanguard of front office ingenuity like they were when Theo and his khaki cabal inhabited Fenway. They’re not the smartest guys in the room anymore, surpassed by franchises such as the Rays, Astros, and Dodgers. Just the ones with the biggest checkbook. LA has similar resources to the Sox, but, under GM and Rays alum Andrew Friedman, has also concurrently cultivated the fertile farm system Boston lacks. Dombrowski was an old-school star chaser. The Sox need a new direction.
That’s why it’s time for them to venture outside their circle of familiarity and get a fresh perspective in the Fens. Mine the sharpest minds from around baseball and figure out how you’re getting outperformed this year by the Rays and Oakland A’s. Investigate how it is that the Cleveland Indians can compete year after year with a payroll in the bottom half of Major League Baseball. Red Sox principal owner John Henry (you know what else he owns), team chairman Tom Werner, and CEO Sam Kennedy should canvass baseball to figure out how to get a better return on investment from their front office and prevent us from measuring the exit velocity of their next GM.
As tempting as it is to usher in another Epstein disciple, that’s probably not the way to go, especially now that former Red Sox assistant general manager and current Arizona Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen is off the market. Friday night, the Diamondbacks announced a contract extension for Hazen. Getting an Epstein disciple is a little bit like getting a Bill Belichick disciple. You’re getting the brand but not necessarily the brains.
Plus, the Sox already went this route with Cherington, an Epstein acolyte who shared Theo’s vision for building from within but lacked his boldness or decisiveness.
The 2013 World Series winner Cherington constructed with holdovers and frugal free agent additions lulled the Sox into falsely believing they could swear off high-end free agents, including their own. When Cherington did delve into the free agent market it proved ill-advised with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez.
Dombrowski was a departure of sorts, but he had also served as a GM for Henry with the Marlins from 1999-2001 when Henry owned that club. He was familiar. Unless you can lure Epstein home, it’s time to get unfamiliar.
Dombrowski did exactly what he was hired to do — reorient the organization and build a winner. He turned Cherington’s passel of prospects into a proven ace in Chris Sale and an All-Star closer in Craig Kimbrel. He also distilled the trade chips from the building blocks, holding on to Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi, although with Yoan Moncada’s success this season with the Chicago White Sox it’s a false narrative to say he never surrendered a prospect of significance. Dombrowski created a three-year championship window beginning in 2017 that the Sox cashed in on last year. But that window was never built to last.
Dombrowski is like baseball Red Bull. He’ll provide any organization with a jolt of talent and excitement, but eventually the effect wears off. You’re left with a bad taste in your mouth, a headache, and cleaning up to do. That’s where the Sox find themselves.
It has to be galling for ownership to watch this team and its $240 million-plus payroll sputter while the Rays and A’s, both bottom-five payroll teams, spend September fighting for playoff spots. Those teams also found a way to build bullpens on a budget and add reinforcements at the trade deadline, while Dombrowski played reliever roulette and stood pat at the trade deadline.
That’s what it comes back to in the front office. The Sox simply need more imaginative thinking, more creative solutions.
No team in baseball reinvents roster management quite like the Rays, owners of baseball scarcest resources and greatest resourcefulness. They’ve given us the concept of the opener and stayed in the wild-card race despite two of their top starters, Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, missing significant chunks of time. It would make sense to try to lure one of the Rays dynamic duo of senior vice president of baseball operations/general manager Erik Neander or senior vice president Chaim Bloom, who, like Epstein, is a Yale graduate.
You would be damaging an AL East rival and getting someone ideally suited to finessing a soft reset of the Red Sox roster without taking a huge step back.
Call Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and see if he’s interested in playing with a bigger safety net. Take another run at Mr. Moneyball himself, Billy Beane, who was Henry’s object of desire before Epstein became GM in 2002. The only thing missing from the 57-year-old Beane’s résumé is a World Series winner. However, it would take compensation going to Oakland and an ownership stake in the Sox for Beane, who has a small ownership stake with the A’s.
If the Sox want to find the next wunderkind, maybe they can get some of the Astros’ analytical magic to rub off on them. Houston assistant GM Brandon Taubman went to Cornell and used to work as a derivative valuation expert for Ernst & Young. That’s right up Henry’s alley.
Ultimately, the goal should be to do what Epstein did when he was here, what Brian Cashman has done in retooling the New York Yankees, and what the Dodgers are doing right now — to combine the best aspects of big-market resources and small-market sustainability.
The next great Red Sox team needs to be built to last by a team builder who will last.