Red Sox fans have a lot to be thankful for in the midst of this incredible run and no one deserves thanks more than Dave Dombrowski.
Three years ago today, the Boston Red Sox were dwelling in the cellar of the American League East. It was not about to get better. The Red Sox would stay in the cellar, finishing last in the AL East for the second straight season and third time in four years.
The two most expensive players on the team, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, played far below replacement level. Their major league roster had star power but had more holes than swiss cheese. Boston’s farm system was much better, but almost all of the blue-chip prospects – Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi, Michael Kopech, and Anderson Espinoza – had yet to play a game in Double-A. Simply put, the 2015 Red Sox team was a mess and the organization as a whole was in rough shape.
But a new man was calling the shots for the Red Sox in the offseason that followed the 2015 season. On August 18, 2015, Ben Cherington stepped down as General Manager and the Red Sox hired Dave Dombrowski as President of Baseball Operations to fill his role. Though Dombrowski’s tenure in Boston had already begun, he would have to wait until the season ended before enacting his vision of the organization.
Many members of Red Sox Nation, including myself, were skeptical that Dombrowski was the right man for the job. In his time at the helm of the Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins, and Detroit Tigers, Dombrowski earned himself the moniker “Trader Dave” for his propensity to sell off high-end prospects for short-term gain. We can debate his level of success in those trades – hint: he did very well – but the nickname was far from a misnomer. Over the course of his pre-Red Sox career, Dombrowski traded highly regarded young assets for Mark Langston, Gary Sheffield, Dmitri Young, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, and David Price. This aggressive history, despite his relative success, scared me.
The Red Sox, in my mind, needed to be patient. The team itself was not as far from contention as they appeared at first glance. Their major league roster was chock full of underperformers: Sandoval, Ramirez, Rick Porcello, and Rusney Castillo all seemed likely to improve. Meanwhile, Boston was also set to benefit from full seasons from Eduardo Rodriguez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Clay Buchholz who all looked great in limited action in 2015. I believed that this team could make a legitimate run in 2016 with just a few free agent acquisitions and modest moves. I didn’t think that blowing up one of baseball’s best farm systems would be prudent and I was certain Dombrowski brought his TNT with him from Detroit.
Dombrowski certainly did make some major moves in his first year in Boston. And his second year. And his third year. In the 2015-2016 offseason, he gutted a large portion of his resources for Craig Kimbrel and David Price. In the 2016-2017 offseason, he blew up the farm system in a trade for Chris Sale. And this past offseason he signed J.D. Martinez to a massive contract. That’s by no means an exhaustive list – on a more depressing note Carson Smith, Tyler Thornburg, and Drew Pomeranz say hi – but it’s a reminder of how many stars Dombrowski has made plays for in his still young tenure.
At the time, many complained that some of these trades and signings were slight overpays. Was Price going to be worth $200 million after the age of thirty? Are four legitimate prospects too much to give up for a closer? Is it prudent to give Martinez two opt-outs? But in hindsight, these moves all look pretty good. All told, Dombrowski’s acquisitions have accumulated approximately 46.1 fWAR, including 27.1 fWAR from players acquired via trade. In contrast, the players Dombrowski traded have accumulated just 16.3 fWAR for their new teams. This is, of course, ignoring the fact that many of the players the Sox traded still have the potential to generate lots of future wins. In particular, Margot, Moncada, Kopech, and Espinoza will surely increase that fWAR total in the years left on their rookie contracts.
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But the Red Sox are a big market team that was operating in a window of contention. There was never any real doubt that whoever was at Boston’s helm would make huge transactions. The question was always how well those acquisitions would pan out. Cherington failed horribly in this aspect near the end of his tenure with a slew of poor deals culminating in the signing of Ramirez and Sandoval. He may have not made the best value plays, but it turns out the when you have a huge payroll, production matters more than value. And in this sense, Trader Dave hit the mark on almost every major deal.
What Dombrowski has done over the last three years has been nothing short of remarkable. After clinching the division this past week, the Red Sox have now won three straight AL East titles – a feat they have never achieved – and set a franchise record for wins in a single season. The stars Dombrowski acquired – Kimbrel, Price, Sale, and Martinez – have played a monstrous role in that success. Sale would probably win a Cy Young had he not spent a period of time on the shelf, Price has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since the All-Star break, and Martinez may win a Triple Crown.
However, the players Dombrowski held onto contributed almost as much. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts were obvious keepers, but there were logical scenarios where Dombrowski could’ve moved Devers, Bradley, Rodriguez, or even Benintendi and he rightfully chose to move the lower level high-upside prospects like Manuel Margot, Michael Kopech, and Yoan Moncada instead.
Dave Dombrowski doesn’t seek out creative solutions the way Theo Epstein and Cherington did during their time in Boston. He tends to set his sights on a particular player and do what it takes to land them. We’ve seen it with Kimbrel, Price, Sale, and Martinez. Have a hole at a position? Go get the best player available at any reasonable cost. This is the kind of approach that scared me when he was hired three years ago. But maybe that is the correct approach to take when you’re the Red Sox and have a payroll only limited by the Luxury Tax penalties.
However you spin it, Dombrowski has made the Red Sox into a juggernaut. Their recent run of success stacks up well with just about any stretch of baseball in the organization’s long history. We can say they haven’t done it in the playoffs yet and that much is true. But playoff performance is an unfair measuring stick to judge executives. Too much of the postseason is an absolute crap-shoot and trying to find meaning in a three to seven game sample is a fool’s errand. All you can ask of your front office is to put your team in a position to contend for a title. For three straight years, Dombrowski has gone above and beyond that standard.
Prior to last season, the Red Sox had never won back-to-back division titles. In fact, the Red Sox had won exactly two division titles in my lifetime before Dombrowski took over. The Red Sox now look down from the top at their division rivals for the third straight season. If you’re wondering where the lion’s share of the credit is due then look no further than Dave Dombrowski.