If Tuesday feels like a new beginning for the Red Sox, well, that’s because it is, and not just because it’s Opening Day and we get to dust off all of those sappy, irresistible baseball bromides about hope springing eternal and the emerald green grass and everyone is 0-0 and so on. So what if the show was delayed by a day? That only heightens the anticipation, right?
The new ace will be on the mound, and to see David Price out there making his Red Sox debut against the Indians, No. 24 on his back and 95 miles-per-hour heat in his left arm, will be the visceral confirmation that, yup, they really did get arguably the best pitcher in the American League, a worthy addition to that Clemens-Martinez-Schilling-Beckett-Lester lineage.
Price is a $217 million symbol of a new beginning. He also represents a welcome return to the days when the Red Sox featured a legitimate No. 1 starter and didn’t force us to pretend that one uninspiring, mediocre righthander or another was capable of heading a competent pitching staff. In my experience, hope is much more likely to last months beyond its springing-eternal phase if the starting rotation actually has someone capable of winning more than 11 games, which, sadly, was Wade Miley’s team-leading total last season.
But the new hope for the Red Sox isn’t just about Price, but also about the man most responsible for bringing him here. Opening Day is not technically a new beginning for president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski; the Red Sox went 26-18 last season after he took the reins from general manager Ben Cherington on Aug. 18. But in a philosophical and strategic sense, it cannot be viewed as anything but a significant moment in the franchise’s timeline.
Dombrowski himself is not a mystery. He has been in organized baseball since 1978. The Expos hired him as a general manager in 1988 at age 31. He was established as the original boy-wonder GM while Theo Epstein was just a teenager wandering the halls of Brookline High.
Dombrowski stockpiled young talent in Montreal, then moved on to built the expansion Marlins in 1993. Four years later, they won the World Series. He took over the Tigers in 2002. In 2003, they lost 119 games. Three years later, they won the American League pennant. That his teams have won only one World Series – as many as Cherington won in three years in charge here – is mostly a matter of unpredictable October circumstance and the cruel twists of the postseason. His track record is lengthy and distinguished; he knows how to clean up a mess and build a winner in a hurry.
The mystery is how Dombrowski specifically plans to clean up this particular mess and rebuild a winner after two consecutive last-place finishes. He is running this team right now, but that’s not the same as it being his team, his construction. He’s the showrunner, but this is not entirely his handpicked cast.
He still has to sort out his predecessor’s mistakes, such as $90 million backup third baseman Pablo Sandoval, $82.5 million fourth starter Rick Porcello, and $72.5 million fifth outfielder Rusney Castillo. You know it’s bad when a recounting of Cherington’s worst deals barely even acknowledges the acquisition of current PawSox outfielder Allen Craig, due $20 million over the next two seasons.
Of course, we do have some evidence on Dombrowski’s probable approach, based on trends and preferences in 27 seasons elsewhere and what he’s done in seven months here. We know he believes in evaluating players in person and the insights of scouts, though talk of the Red Sox’ decreased usage of analytics is wishful thinking by those who have never cared to grasp them. The promotion of Brian Bannister to director of pitching analytics is evidence that the organization under Dombrowski’s watch remains open to new and innovative ideas, as it should be.
What else do we know? He is an accomplished trader. In Detroit, he pulled off exceptional deals for Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, among others. Notably, he hosed Cherington in a Porcello-for-Yoenis Cespedes swap. He has a knack for finding value in readily available talent (most recently with Astros discard J.D Martinez). With the Tigers, he was not shy about spending owner Mike Illitch’s pizza loot, signing veterans Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez to lucrative long-term deals. But that may have been out of a desire – or even a mandate – to win a World Series for the 86-year-old owner.
His deals so far here suggest that he has full autonomy to restructure the roster as he sees fit. A year after the Red Sox were adamant in refusing to pay the steep industry rates for accomplished pitchers older than 30 (see ya, Jon Lester), Dombrowski got the go-ahead to make the accomplished 30-year-old Price the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history. He also traded four prospects – including two especially promising ones in outfielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javy Guerra – to the Padres for closer Craig Kimbrel, a deal that should help quell the notion that he has trouble building a bullpen.
Given his willingness to wheel and deal, especially when he’s swapping prospects for established stars, I suspect we’ll always have something to talk about at the annual trading deadline for as long as he’s here. It might sting if he trades one or two of the Red Sox’ premier prospects to get a player who can immediately help – perhaps a left-handed-hitting outfielder or a No. 2 starter. But his history tells us he should be trusted to do it, and that’s reassuring.
That’s the most interesting irony in all of this. Cherington’s string of failed trades left him without a job a mere two years after winning the World Series. Yet his deft curation of the Red Sox’ rich farm system left his successor with the assets and tools he needs to repair this.
As far as bad situations go, Dombrowski inherited a pretty damn good one. He signed Price. He traded for Kimbrel. Now, as the new season begins, we can’t help but anticipate what else he’ll do to make it better.