More than a month removed from Dave Dombrowski’s firing, why does the Red Sox’ search for his replacement remain in a due diligence phase, without any known interviews having taken place? Could it be that the team is waiting to see whether the ideal candidate — one who will soon be a free agent, rather than requiring the permission of his team to interview — is interested in them?
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman is nearing the end of the five-year contract he signed in October 2014 to relocate from Tampa Bay to Los Angeles. Though the Dodgers were bounced from the playoffs by the Nationals in a Game 5 NLDS stunner, the organization he’s built remains a model for what other teams want.
And so, with the Red Sox looking for a new steward of their baseball operations department, it’s hard not to see Friedman as the best candidate. His résumé is so compelling that it would almost qualify as negligence if the Red Sox didn’t investigate any interest he might have in coming to Boston.
Red Sox principal owner John Henry made clear a desire for an experienced head of baseball operations, particularly given the challenges awaiting the Sox as they work to get below the luxury-tax threshold and to maintain competitiveness. Friedman’s experience includes building the small-market Rays into a perennial contender, as well as scraping nearly $100 million off the Dodgers’ payroll (from a record $291 million in 2015 to roughly $195 million in 2018) while maintaining LA’s stranglehold on the NL West.
Meanwhile, chairman Tom Werner noted that the Red Sox needed a renewed focus on development and depth. Friedman is considered extraordinary in both fields.
“Andrew and his front office, the guys he surrounds himself with, are very dedicated to development,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers — an assistant hitting coach with the Dodgers in 2016-17 — noted this season. “They’re not afraid to take a chance, they’re not afraid to think outside of the box when it comes to developing a player.”
Friedman got deep into the weeds inside the Dodgers and Rays organizations not just on the players in his system but also on the organization’s development processes — including the increasing technologies that have become part of player development. The result of that perspective is a decision-maker who constantly sees possibility not just in the players in his own organization, but who constantly sees unrealized potential in players from other organizations — players with tremendous skills that have yet to be realized on the field.
Meanwhile, Friedman remains vigilant about players all over professional baseball. He’s searching for players who are undervalued — perhaps someone in Double A or the lower minors who has very high exit velocities but posts high ground-ball rates that suppress his numbers. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers built a development infrastructure (coaching, philosophy, and technology) that allowed them to help several such players refine raw skill sets into eventual big league contribution.
“He’s not afraid to venture out with any of the technology, thinking about how this would help a player, how this would help an organization,” said Hyers. “He was always looking for that value that might be picked up in a trade, in a released player, see a skill set that they like, that fits a model, that fits maybe something they need, and see if they can develop that one skill set and break it free.”
The interest in unlocking depth is underscored by the difference in the Red Sox and Dodgers in roster construction in recent years. According to the transaction tracker at MLBTradeRumors.com, the Red Sox have made 22 trades since Dombrowski’s hire in August 2015, the vast majority to address specific, immediate big league needs. In the same period, the Dodgers made 60 trades, many involving players in the minors.
“He was looking at any trade that could upgrade the team,” Hyers said of Friedman. “He wanted to build a great development system, plug in some players in that development system, and give them an opportunity to help the club.”
The Red Sox will need such an approach with their roster in the coming years to cover the holes in the upper levels of their farm system while ensuring that they maximize the talents now matriculating through their system. Friedman’s track record suggests he is an ideal person to do just that.
Of course, the fact that the Sox might view Friedman as an ideal fit doesn’t mean that he will see the Sox — or, for that matter, any organization outside of the Dodgers — as a desirable landing spot. Friedman has spent five years overseeing an organization with an elite big league roster (106 wins this year), an elite group of young talent (their farm system was ranked No. 5 by Baseball America in August, and the presence of star-caliber talent in Walker Buehler, Gavin Lux, and Will Smith who are not yet arbitration-eligible), financial flexibility, massive resources, and what many describe as a great front-office culture and working environment.
In other words, there’s a lot to suggest that Friedman will remain in Los Angeles. The Dodgers have made it clear they’d like for Friedman to remain. One industry estimate of the likelihood of his departure was roughly 10 percent; another was “nearly zero.”
Yet as the Red Sox contemplate their own candidate list, “nearly zero” is not the same as “absolute zero.” And the fact that Friedman could be on the open market — at a time when the Red Sox have noted the difficulty of getting permission to talk to general managers and presidents of baseball operations who are under contract elsewhere — represents the type of scenario to prolong a search and make for a very long due diligence period in which the effort to interview candidates isn’t rushed.
History is somewhat instructive. After the 2002 season, the Red Sox — who had spent the year with Mike Port as interim GM after the Henry/Werner ownership group fired Dan Duquette after assuming control of the team in March — conducted a series of interviews in October. But during that time, the team was waiting to see if the A’s would grant them permission to talk to Billy Beane.
That finally happened in mid-November, and the sides rapidly reached an agreement, before Beane changed his mind because of a desire to keep his family on the West Coast. Once he did so, the Red Sox reassessed their search and decided to promote assistant GM Theo Epstein.
Now, Friedman is held in the same industry-wide regard as was Beane after 2002 — only with the added intrigue that he is weeks away from free agency. In other words, there is a key piece of due diligence for the Red Sox to conduct that could frame their search for Dombrowski’s replacement.