Dave Dombrowski arrived in Boston with a reputation as a decision-maker who concentrated an organization’s resources at the big league level and wasn’t shy about leveling the farm system to do so. With his five-year tenure in Boston now concluded, it’s worth asking: How closely did the reality match the expectation?
■ Homegrown major leaguers
The supply of homegrown big leaguers has been a steady stream rather than a wave under Dombrowksi — not shocking, perhaps, given that he aggressively filled holes with veterans.
Rafael Devers is a star and franchise cornerstone. Andrew Benintendi looked like one through the first half of 2018, but his future is less clear given his average performance over the last year and a half. Darwinzon Hernandez is a potential monster in the late innings, Michael Chavis showed everyday potential in 2019, and Sam Travis represents a missed trade opportunity, a player who had real value that has since declined.
Beyond these players, the Red Sox — like most of the industry — started to overhaul their development considerably and increase their investments in personnel and technology under the direction of farm director Ben Crockett.
The team installed TrackMan systems at every minor league affiliate, appointed Brian Bannister and Dave Bush to lead a more data-driven approach to pitcher development while overhauling a longstanding emphasis on a traditional three-pitch mix (fastball, curve, change), brought minor league pitchers to Fenway Park for high-speed video and biomechanical analyses of their deliveries, started using bat sensors to better understand swings, and more.
Over the last couple of years, the emergence of Hernandez, Jalen Beeks, Marcus Walden, Ryan Brasier, and Josh Taylor — pitchers who overhauled their arsenals in the minors to focus on the pitches that would allow them to contribute in the big leagues — offered a glimpse of the strides being made in pitcher development.
There’s more to do. Some in the industry view the Red Sox as lagging behind the state-of-the-art development teams (particularly the Dodgers, Rays, and Astros) in the resources — human and technological — dedicated to player development.
There’s also a cultural difference. In contrast to LA (Andrew Friedman), Houston (Jeff Luhnow), and Tampa Bay (Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom), where the leaders of baseball operations are deeply involved in player development, Dombrowski permitted change rather than leading it. If the Red Sox want to be considered a development powerhouse, their model likely will have to change.
■ Traded away
Dombrowski dealt 31 players in prospects-for-big-leaguer deals (30 if you exclude Travis Shaw, one of four players dealt for Tyler Thornburg), helping to explain some of the depth challenges now faced by the Sox, particularly on the pitching side.
Logan Allen (Craig Kimbrel trade in 2015), Shaun Anderson (Eduardo Nunez deal in ’17), Jalen Beeks (Nate Eovaldi deal last year), and Ty Buttrey (Ian Kinsler deal last year) all have graduated to the big leagues. Still, to this point, just one player dealt by Dombrowski has shown star-level talent in the big leagues: Yoan Moncada, the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade, who is having nearly as remarkable a year with the White Sox as Devers is here.
Among the other highly regarded prospects at the time they were dealt, Anderson Espinoza (traded for Drew Pomeranz in 2016) has undergone multiple Tommy John surgeries and hasn’t pitched in a game in three years, and Michael Kopech (Sale deal) will remain a wild card as he returns from Tommy John surgery next year.
Shaw and Manuel Margot (Kimbrel deal) have been average big league regulars. Mauricio Dubon (Thornburg deal) projects to the same level. The shortstop career of Javier Guerra (Kimbrel deal) stalled out; he’s now pitching. And Luis Alexander Basabe (the third piece in the Sale trade) had a down year in Double A in 2019.
The players most undervalued by the Sox when dealt likely were Shaw and Buttrey, solid contributors rather than stars. Otherwise, the Sox traded nearly every player at or near his peak value.
■ Acquired in trade
The Red Sox made four trades for prospects under Dombrowski, the best of which was the acquisition last year of Taylor for Deven Marrero. Taylor at this point looks like a potential steal given that the Diamondbacks let Marrero go.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Dombrowski’s trades for minor leaguers is how few he made compared with those he traded away, an imbalance that suggests why the next Red Sox head of baseball operations will be charged with rebuilding depth.
As with player development, Dombrowski inherited an amateur scouting department that was more successful than the one he left behind in Detroit and didn’t meddle with it, instead trusting the group he inherited (led by amateur scouting director Mike Rikard) to continue finding players while modernizing its processes.
Over the last four years, the Sox reduced their draft focus on size and clean deliveries that were thought (often wrongly) to prevent physical breakdowns while placing greater emphasis on deception and pitch data. The promotion of Chris Mears from an area scout to a national pitching crosschecker also gave the team a powerful scouting voice to sway conversations.
At a time when many teams have scaled back on boots-on-the-ground scouts, the Sox have expanded both their amateur scouting staff and their commitment to analytics in the department, a two-pronged approach that the team believes has contributed to later-round scouting finds in recent years such as Allen (2015 8th round), Anderson (2016 3rd round), Bobby Dalbec (2016 4th round), Thad Ward (2018 5th round), Jarren Duran (2018 7th round), Noah Song (2019 4th round), and Chris Murphy (2019 6th round).
The team has yet to see a player taken during Dombrowski’s tenure emerge as either a big league regular or a top-50 prospect – at least in part a reflection of the fact that, while picking late in the first round (or this year, not until the second), the team has mostly had draft bonus pools that are among the smallest in the game.
Injuries have impeded the development of the team’s one early-first round pick (2016 No. 12 overall pick Jay Groome), and 2018 first-rounder Triston Casas is still too young to vault to the top half of top-100 lists.
But the team landed plenty of players who built trade value; 2016 draftees Dalbec and C.J. Chatham as well as 2017 first-rounder Tanner Houck will be part of the big league depth equation for 2020; and 2018 selection Duran may not be too far behind.
The 2016, 2018, and 2019 drafts each show the potential to yield at least a few quality big leaguers – helping to backfill some of the depth gaps created by trades.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.