It’s been an unfamiliar winter for Dave Dombrowski.
Since the White Sox hired him in 1978, Dombrowski’s life had been governed by the rhythms of the baseball schedule: The GM Meetings, the Winter Meetings, the daily 6 a.m. wakeup/work out/head-to-work pattern followed by days spent in a front office and nights spent anticipating phone calls from agents and other executives about potential deals.
Now, Dombrowski’s winter days aren’t regulated by those forces. While he’s remained busy since his firing as Red Sox president of baseball operations in early September — traveling on the majority of weekends, remaining attuned to the transactions of the baseball offseason, connecting with members of the baseball community by phone — the dynamic is different.
For the first time in more than four decades, Dombrowski isn’t spending the winter working on roster-building. Even as he takes advantage of his freedom — looking forward, for instance, to a two-week trip to South Africa with his family during which he won’t have to worry about peeling off for contract negotiations — he still acknowledges the uncharted terrain he’s exploring.
“There’s a significant difference, of course. It’s a whole different type of feeling,” Dombrowski said. “It’s been nice to spend the time with the family and enjoy the time, but I also miss the baseball part because I’ve done it my whole life.”
During the GM Meetings, a number of Dombrowski’s colleagues reached out to note how odd it was not to see him at the annual gathering of executives. None of the 30 heads of baseball operations had ever attended the gathering without Dombrowski being a part of them. “I heard from quite a few general managers at that time from other clubs saying, ‘Gee, it’s strange you’re not here,’ ” he noted.
Dombrowski did spend time in San Diego during the Winter Meetings this month, where he was one of 16 members on the Modern Baseball Committee that elected longtime union head Marvin Miller and catcher Ted Simmons to the Hall of Fame. Yet that was the extent of his involvement, in part because Dombrowski decided not to pursue a front-office advisory or assistant role this year.
“[Being an assistant or adviser] is sort of an awkward scenario in some ways, because I’m still looking to go back into being in a general manager’s job,” he said. “To sit there and be a consultant, some people may view it as you’re sitting over their heads — which would not be the case, but I understand [why it might seem that way]. I think I would look more into that if something doesn’t work out as far as being a general manager, I think I would look more into that in the future, but not this year. For me, it’s not the right feeling of that situation.”
Still, being in San Diego gave Dombrowski a close-enough vantage to feel the shifting energy in the industry, as a free agent market that had felt dormant in recent winters roared to life.
Though he declined to discuss how the record signings for Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole reflected on his specific decisions related to his tenure with the Red Sox, particularly his investments last winter in Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi, Dombrowski seemed unsurprised to see explosive spending in the starting pitching market. After all, recent World Series have been won by rotations built around a willingness to accept the risks inherent in huge deals for starting pitchers such as Max Scherzer and Strasburg (Nationals, 2019), David Price and Sale (Red Sox, 2018), Justin Verlander (Astros, 2017), and Jon Lester (Cubs, 2016). Great starters have been a staple of champions, a necessary if uneasy area of investment.
“I have nothing against openers and all that. I understand that’s how the game is going and it makes financial sense for some organizations. But normally, if you win a championship, you have good starting pitching. Most clubs realize that,” said Dombrowski. “Unfortunately, there’s just not much of it. It’s supply and demand. That’s what raises prices. You’ve seen it this year.
“Everybody knows the risk attached to signing pitchers to long-term contracts — even young pitchers. Everyone has to make their own determination on what type of tradeoff they want to make on risk vs. dollars spent,” he added. “I’ve always been in a position where I think strong starting pitching wins . . . [In Boston] we did the same thing. It’s been my philosophy. And usually, I’d like to say it’s worked out pretty well. You do have blips where, unfortunately, things happen. Even the best of the best sometimes have a down year . . . It’s a risk you take, but I don’t know that you win without taking those risks.”
Dombrowski will watch from afar to see how the bet plays for the Red Sox in 2020. But while Dombrowski is feeling his way through his post-Sox life, he remains grateful for his time in Boston. “Overall, when you look at it, obviously it’s been a privilege to work for the Boston Red Sox as a baseball operations president, be in a position where you get a chance to get to go to Fenway Park, get a chance to be in a stadium that’s filled, with fans who are great, a lot of great players, the people in the organization,” said Dombrowski. “You think about that. It didn’t end the way I wanted it to by any means, but it was a privilege to have it happen.”
Bloom: upside with Peraza, Perez
The Red Sox have now made official their first two signings of the winter in second baseman/utility option Jose Peraza and lefthanded starter Martin Perez. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said that the Sox were drawn to “really interesting upside” in the two players.
In his 2016 rookie season with the Reds, Peraza looked like a dynamic, versatile player who hit .324/.352/.411 with 21 steals in 72 games. He’s since sandwiched one solid year (2018) with two seasons of struggle (2017 and 2019), resulting in Cincinnati’s decision to non-tender him and make Peraza a free agent this winter. But at $3 million, the Sox view Peraza as a solid bet for a rebound entering his age-26 season.
“We added a guy who has shown at times in the major leagues a lot of prowess with the bat,” said Bloom. “He’s a very good athlete and defender who’s versatile. We have a lot of optimism that, especially given his youth, he has a good chance to bounce back offensively.”
While Perez had an unimpressive 5.12 ERA for the Twins in 32 starts last season, there was promise beneath that surface. After leaning for most of his career on a two-seam fastball, he unveiled a cutter that helped him forge a career-high 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings while eliciting a lot of bad contact. He gave up the fourth-lowest average exit velocity (85.4 m.p.h.) of any starter last season. While he lacks a dominant swing-and-miss weapon, Perez showed pitches that can be mixed to limit damage — particularly if he enjoys better luck than he experienced in 2019.
“His stuff took a step forward last year. We think there’s still more to come in terms of translating that into results. His approach, especially against righthanded hitters, we think we can help him there,” said Bloom. “Any time a pitcher adds a new weapon, it may click immediately, but sometimes it might not. We look at [the cutter] and see a lot of promise, especially when executed well.”
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli spoke highly of the contributions Perez made on and off the field, and of the progress he made toward becoming, perhaps, an even more effective pitcher moving forward.
“He was a great member of our team on the field and in the clubhouse. He’s very open-minded and came in wanting to contribute — wanting to work with the staff, work toward making adjustments to better himself,” said Baldelli. “I think he redefined himself in some ways. I think he proved to himself that he can do other things out on the mound. He can manipulate the ball and do things that he previously didn’t. I think he grew a lot.”
ON THE BACK BURNER?
Dodgers could shift back to Betts
While USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that the Red Sox and Dodgers were talking about Mookie Betts, major league sources suggested early in the week that there had been little contact between the sides — at least through the Winter Meetings — about the Red Sox superstar. The Dodgers appear more focused on trying to make a deal for Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor.
That said, if the Dodgers prove unable to land Lindor, their track record suggests an organization that is unafraid to use trade capital to acquire players such as Betts who are nearing free agency. LA landed Yu Darvish at the trade deadline in 2017 and Manny Machado for five prospects at the 2018 deadline, including a top-100 prospect (outfielder Yusniel Diaz).
Betts would be more valuable, both because he is a better player than Darvish or Machado and because he would be under team control for a full year — giving him a greater chance to make an impact and giving an acquiring team a chance to give him a qualifying offer after the season, entitling the team to draft-pick compensation should he leave.
“You obviously see the reports out there,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “He’s one of the best players in baseball, someone we’d love to have in our uniform for a long time, but we’re also not doing our job if we’re not open to possibilities that can help the organization. That remains our stance, recognizing that when you have a player of this quality, there’s going to be a lot of chatter surrounding him. Nothing has changed as far as how highly we value him and how hopeful we are that he’s going to be here.”
■ The Sox remain in an exploratory phase in the trade market, taking their time while letting free agents come off the board and trying to find the best mix of moves to balance the team’s short- and long-term interests. “I still think it’s difficult to handicap an if or when on moves on the trade front,” said Bloom. “We continue to have a lot of conversations and to sort through what’s real and what’s not to find the best possibilities for our organization.”
■ The team’s preference when it comes to moving contracts to get under the luxury tax threshold clearly seems to be a trade of a starting pitcher, but there are enough blemishes on their starters that some feel they’ll be difficult to move in anything but a salary dump.
“It’s not like the Red Sox are going to get quality prospects back in addition to trading David Price or Chris Sale. That’s not how this works,” said one AL evaluator. “You’re trading for a guy and paying a ton of money. [The Red Sox] are not getting players back. It almost goes the other way. Maybe you should be getting players back [to take the pitchers].”
Caveat: While that view might be reflective of industry consensus, trades aren’t made by industry consensus. It only takes one potential trading partner to value a Red Sox pitcher more highly to consummate a deal on more favorable (or at least less unfavorable) terms.
■ Laz Gutierrez, a Red Sox scout, pitching coach, and mental skills coach for more than a decade, has accepted a job as the head baseball coach at Nova Southeastern University, the Division 2 school that J.D. Martinez attended. Gutierrez already had been looking to spend more time at his South Florida home, resulting in the decision by the Sox to hire Rey Fuentes as the big league team’s mental skills coach earlier this winter.
■ The Red Sox have hired Dante Ricciardi as an amateur scout covering North Florida. The Worcester Academy and Bryant College alum is the son of former Blue Jays GM and current Giants executive J.P. Ricciardi.
Changing climate to the offseason
At the GM Meetings in November, agent Scott Boras described the game as in a state of “competitive hibernation.” That description seemed apt in light of widespread tanking, which yielded seven 100-loss teams in 2018-19 — matching the total from the prior seven seasons.
But this year’s offseason market has seemingly represented an industry awakening. The Yankees’ deal for Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million) is the winter headliner, but the aggressiveness of teams such as the Angels, Nationals, Rangers, Phillies, Reds, White Sox, and Twins represents a changed landscape with more aggressive bidding, resulting in bigger contracts and vastly increased activity.
“Some rebuilds take years, but at some point owners and fans want to see wins,” said one AL evaluator. “We didn’t have that in the last couple years. We had teams rebuilding, teams with new general managers trying to build infrastructure. Right now, a lot of different teams feel like the time is now.”
In 2018, the Red Sox won the World Series with a payroll (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) of a little less than $240 million — the most expensive champion in history. This year, the team had a payroll of a little less than $244 million, the second-most expensive team ever to miss the playoffs, behind only the 2013 Yankees . . . Since 2003, there have been 42 teams (including the 2018 and 2019 Red Sox) that received a luxury tax bill at the end of the year. Of those, 16 missed the playoffs . . . The 81st annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner will take place on Jan. 16 at the Seaport Hotel. Confirmed head-table attendees of the event — a longstanding staple of the Hot Stove season — include Fuchs Award winner Jerry Remy, Alex Cora, Chaim Bloom, Rafael Devers, Michael Chavis, Marcus Walden, Rich Hill, and Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, with more attendees anticipated. Nick Cafardo’s election as the Spink Award winner will be celebrated. Tickets are available through sportsmuseum.org . . . Happy 30th birthday, Noe Ramirez. The righthander, part of the franchise-changing 2011 Red Sox draft that included Mookie Betts, Matt Barnes, and Jackie Bradley Jr., has carved out a nice career as an opener and reliever for the Angels, appearing in 163 career games. Playing in Anaheim has also allowed Ramirez to be active in his hometown community. He received the key to the city of Alhambra in recognition of his charitable efforts . . . And happy birthday to Hanley Ramirez, who turns 36 on Monday. After undergoing right shoulder surgery this summer following a struggle in the big leagues this past season with Cleveland (.184/.298/.327), he’s playing for Licey in the Dominican Winter League while hoping to get another shot to play in 2020.
Best wishes to Globe alums Chris and Kelsie Snow, who revealed that Chris — now an assistant GM for the Calgary Flames in the continuation of a hockey career that followed his extraordinary work as a Red Sox beat writer for the Globe in 2005-06 — has been diagnosed with ALS. Chris is taking part in a clinical trial that offers hope that the progression of the disease can be arrested. And best wishes also go to Red Sox president/CEO emeritus and PawSox chairman of the board Larry Lucchino, who is recovering at home following surgery to remove a contained cancerous blockage in the kidney area. In a statement, Lucchino said he expects to be back at work at the start of the new year.