When the Red Sox hired Chaim Bloom as their chief baseball officer last month, they were following a road similar to the one traveled by the Dodgers in 2014 when they hired Andrew Friedman as president of baseball operations.
The Dodgers were a successful team but one with unrestrained spending habits. Their payroll as calculated for luxury-tax purposes was $257.2 million in 2014 and swelled to a record $297.9 million in 2015.
Friedman, the executive vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, was hired to change how the Dodgers approached building their roster.
The Dodgers haven’t won the World Series under Friedman, but they have averaged 97 victories and won two pennants over the last five seasons while rebuilding the farm system into one of the best in the industry.
They also got under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018 with a payroll of $195 million. That snapped a streak of five seasons over the limit and a total of $149.7 million paid to Major League Baseball in tax penalties.
The Dodgers dropped their payroll $81 million over five years and improved on the field.
“It’s finding that right balance between the disciplines of a smaller-market team coupled with having the financial might to make different type of deals,” Friedman said.
“When I was with the Rays, and the Red Sox and Yankees were employing some small-market discipline while also having the financial might, I felt like I we had no chance of competing.
“When they were going out and trying to build through free agency, I felt like we would have an opportunity to be able to compete with them and be able to tighten it up and figure it out. When large-revenue teams find that right balance, it makes them dangerous.”
That’s what the Red Sox are seeking with Bloom, the kind of balance that will shield them from the position they’re in now. It shouldn’t necessarily take the highest payroll to win.
Better drafting, player development, and roster management should be part of the equation.
“For [the Red Sox] it’s kind of similar to what it was for us: Trying to reach a point of sustainability [and] trying to add organizational depth,” Friedman said. “I think there’s a lot of parallels where we were then and where they are.”
“Sustainability” is one of those buzzwords executives are throwing around now. It applies to the Red Sox in this sense: They have finished in first place four times in the last eight seasons and in last place three times.
Given their resources, the Red Sox shouldn’t be lurching from one extreme to the other as often as they do.
Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Erik Neander expected the Red Sox would come after Bloom to change that.
“Selfishly speaking, if I had my choice, that wouldn’t have been my No. 1 destination for him,” Neander said. “It’s important to recognize the success the Red Sox have had. He’s going into a job where the previous three who held it all won a World Series.
“The standard of success and excellence that has been demonstrated there is incredibly high.”
Neander believes new leadership is more about creating the proper environment and far less than the transfer of institutional knowledge. The Rays don’t have a secret sauce, but they do have a willingness to explore creative ways to build a roster and develop players.
Their payroll limitations fostered innovation, and the players and coaches bought in.
“We just try to be real and try to be genuine with our intentions,” Neander said. “If you show up and put in the work and you’re thoughtful, the players respond well to that. They recognize that your intentions are aligned with theirs. There are no shortcuts.”
ROAD TO GLORY
Rizzo recalls his time with Sox
Long before he was the general manager of the World Series champion Washington Nationals, Mike Rizzo was an amateur scout for the Red Sox.
He was with the Sox from 1992-98, initially hired by Lou Gorman, then working for Dan Duquette.
“I remember we had a very small but very experienced scouting staff,” Rizzo said. “It was an honor to be part of that group. We were very close and I learned a lot.”
Rizzo replaced Chuck Coney, a longtime scout who had a wooden leg and tirelessly worked the Midwest. Rizzo also became an advance scout for manager Kevin Kennedy and did some work internationally.
Rizzo said his big discovery was Shayne Bennett, a righthander from Australia who was pitching for a junior college in Illinois. The Sox drafted Bennett in 1993 and traded him to Montreal in ’96.
“Mike did a good job for us,” Duquette said. “We had a lot of older, established scouts at the time and were transitioning to some younger scouts.
“Mike worked hard and progressed a lot. We had a good system of player evaluation.”
Rizzo became scouting director of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998. He moved to the Nationals in 2006 as their assistant GM, then became GM three years later.
Another former Duquette scout with the Red Sox, Johnny DiPuglia, is Washington’s vice president of international operations.
“I’ve got to hand it to them,” Duquette said. “They had that slow start and came back because of that pitching staff. Good for Mike. He knew the value of top starting pitchers.”
Bloom likes what he’s seen
Chaim Bloom has been on the job as Red Sox chief baseball officer for three weeks now. Has anything surprised him?
“Just being able to peer under the hood a little bit, I’m not surprised. What I’ve seen is a lot of the same type of internal conversations, the things that get kicked around,” he said. “A lot of that is very similar to what I’m used to when I was in Tampa Bay.
“Not a surprise given that I’m pretty proud of a lot of the things we did over there and I’m really impressed by [the Red Sox] group. Just seeing it and living it on a day-to-day basis, there are some new things and things I’ve thought of I’d like to add. But by in large, it’s very similar in a good way.”
Some staff changes will be inevitable, but that will likely happen over time. Angels GM Billy Eppler said he waited a full season when he got to Anaheim before making changes within baseball operations.
“That allows you to see how people work and you get a good feel for what is needed,” he said. “I wanted to evaluate everybody and see them in their roles.”
Bloom is expected to follow a similar route. In talking to baseball operations staffers, Bloom has made a good first impression at Fenway Park by dropping into meetings and encouraging a free flow of ideas.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
■ Infielder Marco Hernandez has started playing for Licey in the Dominican League. They’re using him as a second baseman.
Counting the minor leagues, Hernandez had 392 plate appearances this past season after returning from shoulder surgery. Playing for Licey will help him catch up.
Hernandez is a candidate for second base next season or could be developed as a utility player.
He hasn’t started playing yet, but Hanley Ramirez plans to join Licey in the coming weeks. Ramirez, who turns 36 in December, is hoping to return to the majors in 2020. He has played only 60 games the last two seasons and hit .230 with a .690 OPS.
■ David Kronheim, who analyzes attendance trends, reports that the Sox drew 2,924,627 this past season, a 1 percent hike from 2018. But that included the two games in London against the Yankees.
For the 79 games at Fenway, the Sox averaged 35,518, down from 35,748 in 2018. The Sox filled 94.5 percent of Fenway’s seats. Only the Cardinals, at 96.6, were better.
■ The Red Sox appear convinced that Chris Sale and David Price will be healthy and ready for spring training.
Price had a cyst removed from his left wrist, a minor procedure. His long-term status was never really in question. But Sale, who was shut down with elbow inflammation in August, is a different story.
General manager Brian O’Halloran said there are no red flags with Sale, but until the lefthander starts throwing again, it’s impossible to say the Sox can count on him.
Nathan Eovaldi is recovered from the issues that limited him to 12 starts in 2019, agent Seth Levinson said.
The issue for Eovaldi is durability. He has not pitched more than 124⅔ innings since 2015.
■ The Orioles announced that all weeknight home games prior to Memorial Day and after Labor Day would begin at 6:35 p.m. next season. The Yankees also do this.
The Red Sox would be wise to follow suit. They averaged 3 hours, 25 minutes for games this past season. An earlier start would give folks a chance to get home before midnight.
It would mean switching 20 games next season.
■ Alex Cora had plenty to celebrate for two years. He was bench coach of the champion Astros in 2017, then as a rookie manager led the Red Sox to another title.
He also put together a team for Puerto Rico that finished second in the World Baseball Classic and was instrumental in directing aid to his homeland following Hurricane Maria.
Now he’s experiencing the flip side. The Sox fell into third place this past season and Dave Dombrowski, who hired him as manager, was fired. Then this past week Cora was interviewed by MLB regarding his role in the Astros using banned methods to steal signs.
It flipped on John Farrell in a hurry. But Cora does have a fan in Bloom.
“In the times we’ve talked, I’m completely impressed,” Bloom said. “He’s got the perfect personality and approach for his job.”
Boras offers his views on game
Scott Boras is the only agent who holds a news conference at the GM meetings and winter meetings. Make what you will of his bombast, but Boras did make some good points this past week.
Among them was the idea that teams are too eager to rebuild, believing that is the best path to competitiveness as opposed to being more aggressive in the free agent market.
“In the big world, when you go to the zoo and half the bears are asleep, you are not able to enjoy the zoo as it should be,” he said.
Boras pins baseball’s attendance drop on tanking. There were four 100-loss teams this past season, three in the American League. For aggressive teams such as the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees, their home schedule is loaded with low-quality opponents unattractive to ticket-buying fans.
“In many ways the industry is in a competitive hibernation and the fans are reacting to it,” Boras said. “We’ve got a decline in attendance. We’ve got owners charging more for [older] generations that want to see the game, yet we’re losing a generation of the young people that only are interested in competition.
“They want to see teams play well and do well. And we have this hibernation period where I will be good for two or three years out of 10 and not be good for the other seven years.”
Boras is in the business of creating a market for his clients. But he does have a sincere interest in the health of the game. He wants to see teams have an incentive for pursuing success, perhaps with draft picks.
“The system needs to be reevaluated,” he said. “Our previous commissioner [Bud Selig] put rails on the system because he was very concerned that owners could not control themselves — luxury taxes and restraints on free agency.”
Boras also feels teams rely too heavily on predictive systems that punish players in their late 20s and early 30s.
Boras traditionally is patient with his best clients, content to wait until February for the market to develop. But he predicts that the demand for starting pitchers — he represents Gerrit Cole, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Stephen Strasburg — could change that approach this winter.
“The competition for all of the pitchers is very aggressive, probably the most aggressive I’ve seen,” Boras said. “The reality of it is that those No. 1 kind of guys, and those special arms that take you through the playoff seas, you’ve got to have them.”
Boras could be right about a run on pitching. A day after he spoke, the Braves signed closer Will Smith for three years and $40 million with an option for a fourth season that would bring the deal to $52 million.
Atlanta was willing to lose a draft pick to get a closer. No team was willing to do that for Craig Kimbrel last season, and he didn’t sign with the Cubs until June 7.
Ben Cherington waited more than four years to get another shot at being a GM, and it will be for the low-budget Pirates. It could be a perfect match. Cherington excelled at the smaller moves when he ran the Red Sox from 2012-15, the 2013 team being his best work. The expensive decisions — signing players such as Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval — were his undoing. Cherington knows scouting and player development and that is what the Pirates need . . . The Cubs hired Mike Napoli as their quality assurance coach under new manager David Ross. Napoli is returning to baseball for the first time since 2017, when he played his final season. He has since delved into owning racehorses and investing in nightclubs. Napoli, now 38, should prove to be a good addition. He was a member of eight playoff teams in his 12 seasons and has an advanced baseball intellect . . . The Portland Sea Dogs will have their annual Hot Stove Dinner and Silent Auction at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 15 at the Portland Sheraton at Sable Oaks in South Portland. Michael Chavis will be the featured guest. Tickets ($80) are on sale now. Call (207) 879-9500 or go to seadogs.com. The event benefits the Maine Children’s Cancer Program . . . Happy birthday to Gary Bell, who is 83. He was 12-8 with a 3.16 ERA for the 1967 Red Sox after being picked up in a June trade with Cleveland, and had eight complete games. He then appeared in three World Series games, getting the save in Game 6. Bell went to the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft and started their first home game in 1969. He fired a shutout to beat the White Sox, and drove in two runs. Bell won 121 games over a 12-year career and is now retired in Texas.