The general manager of the Boston Red Sox, no matter the season or the circumstances, has but one mandate: Win or else. And nobody fit the job description better than Dave Dombrowski, the 63-year-old executive who has built a reputation and a successful career on precisely that mentality. With Dombrowski, there was no blockbuster trade too massive, no free agent too expensive, no contract extension too exorbitant and no prospect too promising to give up — if the move contributed to winning in the present.
But this summer, less than a year after helping guide the Red Sox to the World Series title after a 108-win regular season, the Dombrowski method reached its apparent endgame – with the Red Sox too bloated, injured and inflexible to fix. And just after midnight Monday, the team fired him as its president of baseball operations.
Dombrowski will be replaced for the rest of this season by a four-person committee that includes three longtime Red Sox lieutenants — assistant GMs Brian O’Halloran, Eddie Romero and Zack Scott — as well as Senior Vice President Raquel Ferreira. Though it is only an interim position for now, Ferreira becomes the highest-ranking female baseball operations executive in the sport’s history.
The stunning move comes as the Red Sox, carrying the biggest payroll in the majors for the second straight year, head into the final three weeks of a deeply disappointing season, with largely the same roster that carried them to the pinnacle some 10 months ago now sitting at 76-67 and residing 17 1/2 games behind the first-place New York Yankees in the American League East.
The culprits for the downturn are many, but the underlying disease may have been an overabundance of faith in the team’s personnel. Over the winter, Dombrowski failed to counter the free agent losses of relievers Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly — only to watch in horror as the bullpen imploded night after night — and used what little money he had at his disposal to re-sign 2018 stalwarts Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce, both of whom have suffered an injury-plagued 2019.
Again at the July 31 trade deadline, despite ample evidence that desperate measures were required, the Red Sox stood pat – a non-move that straddled a season-worst eight-game losing streak that all but spelled the end of the competitive portion of the team’s season.
The team’s maxed-out finances were an obvious factor in Dombrowski’s lack of roster upgrades, but that was largely the result of his own aggressiveness in previous years. Under his regime, the Red Sox signed pitcher David Price and designated hitter J.D. Martinez, traded for starter Chris Sale and Kimbrel, then handed Sale a five-year, 45 million extension this spring.
In each moment, those moves appeared sound, supplementing Boston’s enviable, homegrown core – right fielder Mookie Betts, center fielder Jackie Bradley, left fielder Andrew Benintendi, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, third baseman Rafael Devers, et al. – with a bevy of high-end, proven talent. The ultimate payoff, of course, came last fall, when the team steamrolled its way through the playoffs, capped by a five-game victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
But the teams Dombrowski leaves behind are typically pitiable messes – witness, most recently, the steep decline of the Detroit Tigers, whom he left in 2015 – and the trick for Boston’s next era will be to avoid any such plummet. But many of the same factors that led to Dombrowski’s ouster will hamstring his successor.
Chief among those factors is the roughly 9 million in each of the next three seasons committed to three starting pitchers — Sale, Price and Eovaldi — who dealt with issues of health and/or underperformance this season. But there are others: Martinez can opt out of his contract at the end of the season. Betts could be a candidate to be traded if the team is unable to work out an extension. Starting pitcher Rick Porcello will be a free agent.
And the franchise’s farm system will be of little help, gutted as it was during the Dombrowski era to feed the win-now ethos and now widely considered to be in the bottom tier of minor league talent rankings.
Dombrowski’s replacement will also need to deal, at least subconsciously, with the unsettling reality of life as chief of the Red Sox – that the tenure is destined to be short-lived and filled with suffocating pressure, no matter the level of success you achieve.
Although the franchise has won four World Series titles in 15 years, it is worth noting those championships came under three different GMs (Theo Epstein, Ben Cherington and Dombrowski), as well as three different managers (Terry Francona, John Farrell and current skipper Alex Cora). Stability has not been a hallmark of John Henry’s tenure as Red Sox owner.
Inevitably, the lure of the franchise’s top job will bring intense interest, and the team will emerge with a well-regarded new boss. Among the top outside candidates, at least as measured by media speculation, are sure to be Mike Hazen, who spent 11 years in Boston’s front office before leaving to head the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Derek Falvey, a Boston-area native whose Minnesota Twins are closing in on the AL Central title.
But whoever is chosen to head the Red Sox, he — or perhaps she — will enter the job understanding two difficult-to-reconcile facts: They will be expected to win immediately, and they will be hard-pressed to do so.