The writing was on the wall for Ben Cherington. Dave Dombrowski, one of the most well-respected executives in baseball, was made available when Detroit Tigers’ owner Mike Illitch made the surprising move earlier this month to dismiss the 29-year baseball executive veteran of his responsibilities as team president.
Dombrowski has a history with Red Sox owner John Henry. Dombrowski worked under Henry in Florida over a decade ago. Dombrowksi assembled the Marlins team that won the World Series in 1997 (prior to Henry’s arrival)– no small accomplishment for a franchise that was only in its fifth season.
No doubt when Henry drove by Dombrowski who was suddenly left standing on the curb trying to hitch a ride, Henry rubbed his eyes, cleaned his glasses, and put his car in reverse.
Things just weren’t working in Boston. Three last place finishes in four years. Bad contracts, bad signings, bad trades. Henry had a CEO running the franchise who was maybe getting too old. He had a general manager who was maybe too young. The team seemed to have no direction- constantly changing philosophies.
Dating back over a decade, there were so many deemed revolutionary concepts that were miserable failures. The Red Sox were just so much smarter than everyone else. There was the failed bullpen-by-committee (see Chad Fox, Bob Howry, Ramiro Mendoza) approach. The run prevention (see Mike Cameron) thing after that didn’t work. The cheap, short-term contracts (see Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli) worked for one glorious season in 2013, but it didn’t have legs. Lester wasn’t going to be re-signed because the team didn’t believe in giving big contracts to pitchers on the wrong side of 30 years of age. But it was okay to gamble on a pitcher in his mid-20’s who had never proven he could pitch in Boston. Suddenly it was okay to spend big money this past winter on free agents again after Lucchino, following the Red Sox championship season of 2013, mocked the Yankees for spending money foolishly. The Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez signings look pretty foolish right now.
So Cherington must have known he was in trouble. At the same time, his owner was saying all the right things.
In a press conference on June 2, John Henry gave Cherington the dreaded vote of confidence, “The general manager is going to be the general manager of this club for a very long time.”
Cherington must have felt pretty good that he would be given the chance to fix things. Henry pinned as much blame on ownership as he did on his GM. “We have a certain philosophy. We’ve talked a lot about adjusting that philosophy. There are adjustments we need to make as an organization. Ben will make those adjustments, and he’ll lead that process.” We. We. We.
But that was before Dombrowski was scorned by Detroit.
To compound things for Cherington, his staunchest supporter, you know, the guy that “runs the Red Sox”, Larry Lucchino, had stepped down as CEO of the Red Sox just a couple of days earlier. Did the 70-year-old Lucchino step down, or was he strong-armed out the door?
Cherington should have known it was all over then and there. Sure, initial reports stated the Red Sox weren’t interested in Dombrowski. Surrrrre. Some reports had the Toronto Blue Jays as the frontrunner for Dombrowski’s services. Who were they kidding? There was no way Henry would let Dombrowski get away.
So Dombrowski got hired by Henry. They offered Cherington to stay on as GM (yeah, right), but Cherington declined. He knew he would only be a puppet GM– even more than he was with Lucchino.
Now Dombrowski has to put his vast experience in building winners to work. There is no doubt this was the right decision. Cherington/Lucchino had put together two years of garbage teams whose pieces just didn’t fit. They failed to put together a starting pitching staff or a bullpen. Their minor league prospects, with few exceptions (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts), were all over-hyped. They catered to their veterans too much (“Shane Victorino is our starting right fielder”). They had the wrong field general leading the team.
This is what Domborwski is faced with now. He will hire a puppet GM, like Theo Epstein has in Chicago with Jed Hoyer. He will have to tactfully handle changing managers in the offseason. Detroit’s Brad Ausmus will, likely, become available in the offseason. Dombrowski will have to figure out how, where, and if Sandoval and Ramirez fit into the future plans. He will have to figure out what to do with a struggling $20-million-per-year pitcher, Rick Porcello, that he traded away less than a year before. He will have to build a bullpen from scratch. He will have to figure out how to do all this while having a farm system whose best prospects are in the low minors.
Dombrowski has his work cut out for him. His best player is a 40-year-old designated hitter. Dombrowski has helped get organizations turned around (Detroit) and he has built winners from scratch (Florida). One thing is for sure– there will be no doubting who is calling the shots. This is now Mr. Dombrowski’s neighborhood.