It’s been less than a year since the Boston Red Sox finished off the greatest season in franchise history. 108 wins and a World Series title, all accomplished by a team with a strong core that wasn’t going anyplace for a while. That’s all that a baseball team can dream of, right?
So how did Dave Dombrowski go from presiding over that to being on the unemployment line in less than 11 months?
Some of it is the result of self-inflicted wounds. The Red Sox entered the offseason knowing that they’d probably lose Craig Kimbrel and would thus have to address their bullpen problems. They also had a couple of postseason heroes — Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce — hitting free agency. Dombrowski spent a good deal of money on Eovaldi and Pearce and almost no money on addressing the bullpen, figuring Alex Cora would work some magic with spare parts and that he’d fix it on the fly if need be. Both of those gambles failed pretty badly.
Those moves alone should not have ended Dombrowski’s tenure, though. And they didn’t, I don’t think. Some bad luck definitely contributed.
There has been some natural regression, obviously. No 108-win team isn’t going to see that. The rotation has been shaky, with said gamble on Eovaldi, perhaps not surprisingly, not working out, Chris Sale struggling, Rick Porcello cratering and David Price proving less effective than he was last year. It wasn’t the worst plan to enter 2019 like the Sox did, but the plan hasn’t survived engagement with the enemy. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez have gone from MVP-caliber last year to merely good or, sometimes, very good this year. Some others have improved, but overall the offense has slid from best in the league to fourth-best and when your pitching betrays you, that’s gonna be felt. Championship teams sometimes experience hangovers and the Sox have experienced one in 2019.
What probably killed Dombrowski, though, was just how expensive this hangover happens to be and how expensive it would likely be for the Red Sox to cure it with Dombrowski at the helm.
While the Red Sox have the highest payroll in baseball and have shown that they are willing to spend money to win, even the owner of the very, very rich Boston Red Sox doesn’t have a ton of patience for expensive mistakes. Here was what he said about deciding to spend big money around the time of the London Series last June:
It’s a question of how much money do we want to lose. We’re already over budget and we were substantially over our budget last year and this year. We’re not going to be looking to add a lot of payroll. And it’s hard to imagine fielding a better team. If we play up to our capabilities we’ll be fine. That’s the question: Will we? We’re halfway through and we haven’t. … It’s a worthy team because we invested. Two years in a row we have the highest payroll. It’s not a matter of investment, it’s a matter of playing well. If we play up to our capabilities we will easily make the playoffs. That’s how I see it.
Translation: “I’m OK with spending money as long as we’re winning, but I’m not if we’re losing.” Which seems fairly reasonable, of course. It’s certainly a preferable world view to some other ownership groups around the game who seem happier spending less and losing than spending more and winning. But it does show that John Henry has his limits. Based on Dombrowski’s firing, it’d appear that letting Dombrowski spend his way out of the trouble the club is in at the moment is beyond his limits.
And really, that’s what you’d have to expect were Dombrowski’s plans. It’s his m.o. It’s what he did to bring that trophy to Boston, really, with his predecessor Ben Cherington building the base and Dombrowski going out and acquiring the big pieces like Sale and Kimbrel and Martinez to put the club over the top. Dombrowski has always done well with the big splash and the bold moves, with his work on Boston over the past few years serving as his best performance in that regard.
While he built strong organizations in Montreal, Miami and, in the early going, in Detroit, making more modest, incremental moves to address problem areas less expensively is not a skill set Dombrowski has shown in the latter part of his career. When the Tigers seemed close to stalling out he’d make big and expensive moves, all while hoping they’d paper over the problem areas (i.e. the perpetually underperforming bullpen). Some bad luck and some bad bounces kept that from working out. Even if they had worked out, though, in the end the bill would’ve come due either way, and it did with a vengeance in Detroit.
Very soon the Red Sox are going to have to pay Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. some big money or figure out how to live without them if they prove unwilling to do so. The bullpen needs an overhaul. Chris Sale’s shoulder may or may not be a long term concern. We’re also getting to the point where Porcello and Price become too old to expect their up-and-down cycle to always return to “up.” The Red Sox are still enormously talented, but there is no team, however talented, for which you can just lash the wheel, sit back in the captain’s chair and expect things to stay on course. Adjustments have to be made pretty regularly, and the Red Sox, even less than a year removed from a championship, need to make some adjustments.
Dombrowski did what he was expected to do in delivering another championship to Boston. But there’s not a ton of reason to believe he’s the guy who can make efficient and refined, as opposed expensive and broad course adjustments. John Henry is well aware of how letting Dombrowski try to work his way through problems in Detroit worked out for the Tigers and doesn’t want to see that happen to the Red Sox. He has shown he’ll spend money, but he said last June he won’t do it frivolously.
It would appear that his faith in Dombrowski to carry out that brief was too low and thus he canned him.