Contributions by Michael Donahue and Matthew Sussman
It’s a wonder that Dave Dombrowski, a man who started his career in baseball in the late 1970s, has managed to not only stay employed, but run circles around about two-thirds of the league’s general managers.
When you look at a typical Dombrowski team, you see a roster construction that often clashes with the Sabermetric Revolution. Nearly every team he’s constructed has featured poor defenders all over the diamond, a relatively weak bullpen, and an almost complete disregard for retaining homegrown talent.
In this article, we’re going to holistically analyze Dave D’s career to see how he’s gotten to the point where he can make it to the World Series in 2022 while playing four designated hitters at the same time.
We can see a general theme among all of these teams that will be scored by the DAVE-D Index (Derived Additional Value Extracted from Dudes). The requirements for this will be, admittedly, quite subjective, but since this is about Dombrowski, I feel it’s warranted.
Dave believes in blue-chip guys. Capital-D dudes. These players might be expensive, or have deficiencies when placed into uncomfortable positions or situations, but when you’re deep into the postseason, that production is all you need.
The DAVE-D Index will be applied to the best team under each Dombrowski tenure. At the end, we’ll compare all of the scores to see if this analysis is truly correct, and which team exemplifies the Dombrowski philosophy the best.
Top of the Rotation Pitchers: x/3 Horses (x Cy Young winners)
- These are the pitchers that can take up most of the innings available in the postseason; most likely All Stars, Cy Young-caliber, or Hall of Famers.
Middle of the Lineup Hitters: x/4 Sluggers (x MVP winners)
- Generally not high-up on the defensive spectrum, these players will hit for their weight when it matters, but cost a lot of money.
Bullpen as an Afterthought: Scored 1-3 depending on how I feel.
- Points given for how sleepily the bullpen looks to have been constructed. Most Dombrowski teams don’t emphasize relievers because they can be volatile.
Reclamations: Dombrowski’s guys from another organization.
Farm Ranking: Bottom third = 0, middle third = 1, top third = 2
- How far has Dombrowski gone in depleting the farm en route to a title?
Opening Day Payroll: Bottom third = 0, middle third = 1, top third = 2
- How much financial strain is this construction putting on ownership?
Chicago White Sox
Image: Twitter @SABR
The Bob Baffert of baseball was hired by the Chicago White Sox front office as a fresh-faced 22 year old in 1978. This was so long ago that 35 year old Don Kessinger was allowed 480 plate appearances at shortstop while offering a poor 75 OPS+. The next season he’d bench himself to become the Sox’s player-manager.
Dombrowski cites Roland Hemond, the man who hired him, the at-the-time White Sox General Manager, to be his primary mentor. Hemond would have been invaluable in shaping Dombrowski into the executive he is today.
Hemond could find guys like Brian Downing, Chet Lemon, and Goose Gossage, but wasn’t afraid to swing big on Hall of Fame veterans like Dick Allen (needs to be inducted) and Jim Kaat. What kind of GM does that sound like?
After three years of rising through the ranks of the Southsiders’ front office while they were mired in a familiar stretch of mediocrity, Dombrowski was named the Assistant General Manager in 1981. In 1983, the Sox won 99 games for the first time since they won 100 games in 1917.
Some additions during Dombrowski’s tenure made some key contributions in this era. The “Recently Acquired 35 and Over Vets Club” featured Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver, Carlton Fisk, and Tom Paciorek all had resurgent seasons in their first couple years wearing those uniquely-80s White Sox uniforms.
Youngsters like Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher would prove to be important pieces for the future of the lineup. Future Hall of Famer Harold Baines was drafted a year before Dombrowski arrived, but the two shared enough formative years for Dave to receive some credit for Harold’s development.
Ozzie Guillen and Bobby Bonilla, two more discoveries made under Dombrowski, would soon debut in 1985 and 1986, respectively.
However, in another move indicative of the times, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the long time White Sox broadcaster was named general manager in 1986. He surreptitiously fired Dombrowski and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, and traded Bobby Bo. Hawk resigned after less than a year in the position.
Evolution of an Ideology
It wasn’t soon after his firing that Dombrowski was scooped up by the Expos. Unlike the White Sox who had bottomed out when he arrived, Montreal’s really exciting young core wasn’t too far from the playoffs.
At only 31 years old in 1988, Dombrowski was the league’s youngest shotcaller. Familiar to how we’d view him today, he was extremely aggressive, making 23 trades involving 62 players through 1990. Dombrowski was named UPI’s Executive of the Year in 1990.
In his short time with Montreal, Dombrowski built up the farm to feature an embarrassment of riches. Players like Cliff Floyd, Delino DeShields, Dave Martinez, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Rondell White, and Matt Stairs were acquired during this time.
One prospect that Dombrowski did not hold onto was Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, who was traded to Seattle for Mark Langston in 1989. Langston had the best season of his career in 1989, pitching to a 2.39 ERA in the 176.2 innings he pitched in Montreal.
Alas, he was let go to the California Angels in free agency in the offseason. After a down season in 1990, Langston strung together three consecutive All Star appearances.
Randy Johnson was 25 years old throwing an ERA close to five in Montreal, so Dombrowski didn’t want to wait. The Big Unit would go on to be an All Star in Seattle in his first full season there, and would become the player that still haunts the dreams of the subsequent two decades worth of hitters that had to challenge him.
Despite that slip-up, the Expos were twice named Organization of the Year by Baseball America in 1988 and 1990. However the organization would never make the playoffs with Dombrowski at the helm, the only time in his career where that would occur.
Dave loves his sluggers, and he doesn’t really bother with young pitchers. These formative years are indicative of the direction he’d take in Florida, Detroit, Boston, and Philadelphia. Stack the lineup with pure hitters (Bonilla, Floyd, and White) and let the established veteran horses headline the rotation (Seaver, Floyd Bannister, and Oil Can Boyd).
1990 Montreal Expos (85-77) DAVE-D Index
Top of the Rotation Pitchers: 2/3 Horses (0 Cy Young winners) 2
Middle of the Lineup Hitters: 2/4 Sluggers (0 MVP winners) 2
Bullpen as an Afterthought: One high-end closer with others 2
Farm Ranking: Named 1990 Baseball Almanac Organization of the Year 2
Opening Day Payroll: 15/26 teams (16,656,388) 1
Total Points: 9
Proof of Concept
After the conclusion of the 1991 regular season, Dombrowski landed in Miami as the expansion organization’s first general manager.
Florida wouldn’t begin play until 1993, so Dave had a chance to do what he had been best at so far in his young career: find and develop young talent. He did that, drafting All Star Charles Johnson with his first pick with the organization in the 1992 MLB Draft.
Funnily enough, he selected Pro Football Hall of Famer and current 49ers GM John Lynch with his second pick.
In the 31st round, Dombrowski chose NBA journeyman Erick Strickland. Even if it’s not strictly baseball, you’d have to admit this guy’s preternatural ability to locate talented people.
Year One. 1993. In keeping with tradition, 45 year old Charlie Hough will be the team’s “ace” pitcher. Expansion Draft selections Jeff Conine, Pat Rapp, and Trevor Hoffman made for extremely shrewd moves.
Even when he traded away the future Hall of Famer Hoffman at the ‘93 deadline, Dombrowski couldn’t even screw it up; the Padres gave him Gary Sheffield. Robb Nen was another great, under-the-radar acquisition at that deadline as well.
In a new tradition, one that was the canary in the coal mine for something that continues to be seen throughout Dombrowski’s career, Expo second base Bret Barberie was reunited with his old GM to slot in at the keystone.
It was a typical expansion team’s inaugural season. Have a little fun. Sell some fresh merch. Suck. However, under the auspices of Dombrowski, the Marlins winning percentage increased in each of the team’s first five seasons; a feat that remains unique to this day.
For a while, as is typical for expansion teams that need to wait for their prospects to mature, the team was often full of stopgap vets.
Andre Dawson played for the Marlins?
However, Trader Dave kept making moves along the way, though, to build momentum for potentially the organization’s first playoff push.
Following an 80-82 1996 campaign that saw the team play with three different managers, Jim Leyland, who previously worked with Dombrowski in Chicago as Tony la Russa’s third base coach, was hired as a bonafide baller of a manager.
Leyland had won two Manager of the Year Awards in Pittsburgh with the Bonds-era Pirates, and would take over for the only full time manager in Marlins’ history, Rene Lachemann.
The leadership of Leyland, in combination with great first-season efforts by free agent signings Kevin Brown and Al Leiter could push Florida into a shiny, new Wild Card spot. Promising youngsters like Livan Hernandez, Luis Castillo, and Edgar Renteria could have been conceived as too raw, though. Florida would be happy to go above-.500.
In 1997, the Florida Marlins won the World Series against the Cleveland Indians in seven games. They were the fastest expansion team to win it all until the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. Excuse me?
This was the first confirmed sighting of Dave Dombrowski’s full vision for his ballclub. He wasn’t in Chicago or Montreal long enough to see his process through, but Wayne Huizenga of all people allowed him to see it come to fruition.
Florida spent about $89 million on free agents in the 1996 offseason. Several key aspects of Dombrowski’s philosophy were made salient in those cold—wait, they’re in Miami—warm Winter months. The money was spent on now-familiar Dombrowski staples.
Alex Fernandez was the mystical third pitcher that the rotation needed. Think Kenny Rogers, Anibal Sanchez, or Nathan Eovaldi (maybe not as much). If two 1996 All Star starters aren’t good enough, why not sign a guy who has the ability to be a third?
The bullpen wasn’t going to be elite, the complete unit hovered just below a four ERA, but the signing of Dennis Cook stabilized it. As it will be for the rest of Dombrowski’s career, the bullpen wouldn’t be important when the majority of the spending spree would be spent on improving the lineup.
Dave was finally able to witness the now-blossomed fruits of his early career playing for his own ballclub. Come back Bobby Bo, Moises Alou, and Cliff Floyd, we’ve missed you.
If you’re quick to cry, you’ll want the tissues ready for the acquisitions that feel like a “Missing Dog Reunited with Owner” YouTube video that take place throughout Dombrowski’s career.
Although, in a flash, it seemed like our old friend Wayne Huizenga would only give Dave one bite of the apple before making him tear it all down. This Secret Base episode of Collapse gives an excellent summary of the subsequent tear down, but, in summary, anything not bolted down was thrown off the ship as ballast.
So, what to do from here? Was Dombrowski going to get canned or jump ship again before a full narrative arc could be achieved? Yes, well, not yet. In 1998, the Marlins free-falled to 54 wins. Of a team that was robbed of almost all its vital organs, a strong, Organization of the Year-winning farm system kept its heart beating.
El Duque’s brother, who had just won WS MVP, experienced a hard Sophomore Slump. He was supported by subpar performances by other future Major League-caliber players in the early stages of their careers, like Ryan Dempster, Mark Kotsay, Alex Gonzalez, and Derrek Lee.
By 2001, Dombrowski had again restocked the team with talent, even with the restrictions imposed by ownership. He was finally eyeing great young pitchers, too. Dempster, AJ Burnett, Jason Grilli, and Josh Beckett all debuted around this time. Kevin Millar was an older rookie that was helping the young middle infielders along nicely. Dombrowski brought back Charles Johnson.
Alas, after four years of spinning the wheels after the surprise World Series, the Marlins couldn’t get over the hump of .500. Dombrowski left the organization for Detroit during the 2001 offseason with an ownership change on the horizon.
With many of the players he had acquired over his decade’s long tenure in South Florida, the Marlins farted their way to the franchise’s second World Series in 2003.
1997 Florida Marlins (92-70; World Series Champion) DAVE-D Index
Top of the Rotation Pitchers: 3/3 Horses (0 Cy Young winners) 3
Middle of the Lineup Hitters: 3/4 Sluggers (0 MVP winners) 3
Bullpen as an Afterthought: Robb Nen and not much else 1
Reclamations: (Bonilla and Alou; Floyd) 2.5
Farm Ranking: Crawled their way back in 2003 2
Opening Day Payroll: 7/28 teams (47,753,000) 2
Total Points: 13.5
Detroit Tigers – Act 1
On a personal note, before diving into Dombrowski’s time leading the Tigers, I want to acknowledge that this section is extremely personal to me.
I would go on to be a football player, but baseball was my first love. I got to watch the 2005 All Star Game from up high in the Detroit Athletic Club. I was given a signed ball by Kenny Rogers during BP in 2006 (see below). I used to carry around the 2008 Topps team pack in my pocket all Summer long. The Tigers wouldn’t hurt me like the Lions.
The days I spent with my grandparents are filled with memories of Rod and Mario echoing out onto the second-story balcony while we sat and read. I remember coming home from school in the spring to watch the matinee games with my dad.
I love the Detroit Tigers because of Dave. That’s why I decided to write this in the first place.
Me as a small child.
Detroit had previously sucked wind because of an awful front office that bungled almost every draft pick and trade they had the opportunity to bungle. Randy Smith, who could give Matt Millen a run for his money as the worst Detroit sports GM of the last 50 years, was mercifully put out to pasture only about a week after 2002 Opening Day.
Little Caesars Pizza founder Mike Ilitch had bought the team in 1992. They suffered through a decade of losing before Mr. I decided to focus his efforts on getting the city another winner following the dynastic run of his other team, the Detroit Red Wings, in the late 1990s.
I will shout out Randy Smith, and his unrelated scouting director Greg Smith, though. Realistically, those two had done a lot of the scouting needed to make the 2002 Draft at least passable.
Their work helped Detroit land Joel Zumaya and Curtis Granderson, two of the most beloved players in team history. Another huge fan favorite, Brandon Inge, was also already on the team by 2002.
Other acquisitions made under Smith’s leadership just before the buzzer were the waiver claim of Craig Monroe and the trade for Dmitri Young.
Dave Dombrowski wasn’t meant to wholly control the franchise right away, but his track record surely gave Ilitch confidence to get Smith out of the building. In one of his first trades in 2002, Dombrowski flipped the aggressively average, former first round pick Jeff Weaver for Carlos Pena and a PTBNL, Jeremy Bonderman. Dub.
The team was still, like, more than historically bad the first two seasons of Dombrowski’s tenure. It was in worse shape than any other team he had inherited. 106 losses in 2002, 119 in 2003. Bonderman debuted at 20 years old, and Dmitri Young made the All Star Game. That’s all you need to know.
The situation wasn’t too different to what Dombrowski faced in Florida, and since this was an existing major league team with a full minor league system, the window could be propped open even faster than it was with the Marlins.
Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez signed away the last great years of his Hall of Fame career to be a Tiger. A shortstop-for-shortstop swap gave the Tigers 2004 All Star and World Series starter Carlos Guillen in exchange for the light-hitting Ramon Santiago. Utility infielder Omar Infante was acquired. Minor league pick-up Marcus Thames would be the team’s DH for the near future.
At each opportunity, it seemed, Dombrowski was taking the right course of action at the right time. In the 2004 MLB Draft, the Tigers selected face-of-the-franchise Justin Verlander second overall. It was a pick that single-handedly altered team history.
JV would debut in 2005 with the recently acquired Placido Polanco and friggin’ Magglio Ordonez, baby. With Granderson’s debut, Tiger fans didn’t have to be too sad about the departure of one of the only great players during the dark times, Bobby Higginson.
Following that one swing, another Dave Dombrowski team made the World Series. This team had every Dombrowski stereotype. Nate Robertson, Jason Grilli, and Matt Stairs were all previous Dave D guys, although their contributions were probably the most understated out of any of the pennant-winning Dombrowski teams.
Oh yeah, guess who was hired to take over for Tigers legend Alan Trammell as the team’s manager after 2005. Jim Leyland! For the second time in both of their respective careers, Dombrowski and Leyland teamed up to reach the World Series in the first season Leyland played skipper. Humperdinck won 700 games and two pennants in Detroit.
Robertson was paired with Kenny Rogers as the veteran frontliners, but this time they got help from Bonderman and JV. The bullpen gave you three competent arms, as is customary with Dombrowski-built teams, and that was it. Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, and Fernando Rodney constituted an above average bullpen that ranked fourth in ERA in 2006 (largely due to Zumaya’s brilliant 233 ERA+).
The lineup was the biggest outlier of any Dombrowski team. They had bats, sure, but a look at the Baseball Reference page is underwhelming. Is there anyone you are extremely scared of in the playoffs, especially when they’re not facing the dregs of the AL Central? This was the lone Dombrowski-constructed team that truly led with its defense, ranking third in team DRS in 2006.
It wasn’t a surprise that the bats went silent against the Cardinals, who coincidentally fielded the best defense in MLB that year. The Tigers lost in a Gentleman’s sweep.
2006 Detroit Tigers (88-74; AL Pennant) DAVE-D Index
Top of the Rotation Pitchers: 2/3 Horses (0 Cy Young winners) 2
Middle of the Lineup Hitters: 2/4 Sluggers (1 MVP winner) 3
Bullpen as an Afterthought: 38 year old Todd Jones and Joel Zumaya 1
Reclamations: (Leyland; Robertson, Grilli, and Stairs) 2
Farm Ranking: 2006’s number one prospect was Cameron Maybin 0.5
Opening Day Payroll: 14/30 teams (82,612,866) 1
Total Points: 9.5
Detroit Tigers – Act 2
Detroit’s offense bounced back in 2007 (shoutout to another Marlins retread in Gary Sheffield), but the pitching was lackluster, with many of the guys that played well in 2006 regressing.
Even though I had yet to truly gain sentience, I knew that the biggest move made in the 2007 offseason was meaningful. It was a move that wrapped up nearly every Dave Dombrowski trope into one. This future Hall of Famer was the perfect big name bat to inject juice into an aging lineup.
This was a guy that Dombrowski had scouted and signed with a different organization. Dombrowski wouldn’t be shy to give up promising players like Andrew Miller or Cameron Maybin in a blockbuster deal. He had come out on the winning side of trades like these before.
The Marlins were calling, ready to unload their young superstar. Dave D worked the phones and gave us Miguel Cabrera.
Miggy was the bridge between the old and the new. A changing of the guard to lead us into the real era of sustained success. The first generation of Dombrowski Tigers were really fun and cool, but they were plucky upstarts. Just wait until the real master plan comes together.
If you’re from Detroit, you don’t expect anything from the Lions, but you still get hurt. You expected big things from the second generation of the Dombrowski Tigers, and that’s what made you susceptible to a deep, lasting sensation of heartburn whenever you think of Joaquin Benoit.
The years in between pennants offer the same story. A team with a ton of high-end talent can’t get over the hump because of its depth. Dontrelle Willis was brought over in that Miggy trade and he was a flop. Bonderman and Zumaya both flamed out.
There was a lack of quality homegrown members of a supporting cast. Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch were initially very good, but proved to be relative flashes in the pan. This fascination with little white guys continued with Donny Kelly, baby and Andy Dirks. As much as we love Gerald Laird and Ramon Santiago, they didn’t need as much burn as they got, too.
There was a near-full sea change before 2010. In one of the countless trades under Dombrowski that saw big names going both ways, the Grandy Man and Edwin Jackson landed Detroit Phil Coke, Austin Jackson, and … Max Scherzer.
Alex Avila and Rick Porcello were in their early-20s ready to make a name for themselves. That bullpen, remade with Coke and Jose Valverde looked better than it had. The team went 81-81, and was ready for the next step, as Dombrowski teams at this stage are often set up to be.
A 2010 deadline trade netted Detroit Jhonny Peralta, and a Dave D-patented, big-time free agent deal was consummated with slugger Victor Martinez. Former Marlin Brad Penny was signed to be a veteran starter, but he stunk. Al Albuquerque and Benoit paired with Valverde to form a competent backend, on paper.
Doug Fister was traded for at the deadline, and the end of 2011 saw a painful loss to the Texas Rangers in the ALCS. If 2009’s offseason was a sea change, then the successive churn of those waves swept away what was left of the team’s 2006 AL Champion identity.
Magglio’s production was supplanted by another huge acquisition in Prince Fielder. Anibal Sanchez was acquired in a very cheap trade. Octavio Dotel was yet another move to shore up the bullpen.
It seemed at every turn, the Tigers were willing to add any big name it took to finally win it all for the first time in thirty years. Unlike in Florida, ownership was willing to foot the bill, no matter the cost.
The Tigers were no longer a fun loving group of underdogs hoping to punch up, they had a team that was ready to win now. A 2012 World Series sweep at the hands of the mid-dynasty San Francisco Giants pushed the team into desperation mode.
The team was still spending beyond their means, and spinning the wheel of investments. They brought in Torii Hunter for 2013 and traded Prince Fielder’s massive deal for Ian Kinsler. Forward thinking deals like getting Jose Iglesias for Avisail Garcia were interesting, but wouldn’t move the needle for the here and now.
A big issue with the roster construction of those Tiger teams, and something we wouldn’t see with Dave in Boston, was a complete disregard for team defense. In that last gasp stretch from 2012-2014, Detroit went from a team DRS that ranked 24th, to one that ranked 27th, to one that played a hand in the Orioles sweep, ranking 29th. You have to have a better offense/defense balance than that.
Detroit lost in heartbreaking fashion, again, in 2013 to the eventual World Champion Red Sox. Who cares? I sure don’t think about the Tigers blowing yet another series with multiple Cy Young winners in the rotation.
Wanna see them do it again? Yeah, they lost to the Orioles in the ALDS in 2014. F**k Nelson Cruz, whatever. That desperate push for the title that season is what made the mess the Tigers are still cleaning up today.
Even with an endless cycle of promising prospects debuting simultaneously with the acquired veterans, it seemed that the timelines never perfectly matched up. A lack of foresight shown when Rick Porcello was traded to Boston is evidence of that. Detroit ended up with Yoenis Cespedes, sure, but Porcello wound up a Cy Young winner.
This was the offseason that Scherzer left, too, so the Tigers were forced to trade Eugenio Suarez for Alfredo Simon so he could fill out the rotation. Miguel Cabrera was also given his mega-extension that hamstrings the team to this day. Even though he had two more All Star years in him, we all knew what the end of the deal would look like when it broke.
Those were spots that could have been filled by Robbie Ray or Drew Smyly, but they were dealt for David Price. Hindsight is 20/20, and I don’t think anyone wouldn’t do this move given the situation with which the Tigers were faced, but the lack of a plan was concerning. Another no-brainer trade that came back to haunt Detroit was the Corey Knebel for Joakim Soria swap.
I think this is where the reputation of Dombrowski’s disdain for prospects begins, but I think that this is more because he had lost his evaluating touch.
When you go from all the previously mentioned All Stars and Hall of Famers that Dave had unearthed to hoping that Steven Moya, Hernan Perez, Bruce Rondon, James McCann, Anthony Gose, Tyler Collins and Dixon Machado will save the franchise, you’re in deep trouble. Not to mention the guys Dombrowski chose to trade away.
Remember, though, Dombrowski held onto Nick Castellanos and Alex Avila. He missed on a few players, but that’s the cost of doing business. If there is a critique I have with Dave, I don’t think he can scout as well as he could anymore. These are players with average tools, albeit nothing truly above average. Good players for the 90s, not so great today.
Although, I would have liked to see what he would have done if he was given the chance to fix the mess he created. We all know the product Al Avila made us consume, Dave certainly wouldn’t have been that bad. He left us with parting gifts of Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, and Michael Fulmer after the trades of Cespedes and Price.
I wish we could have won it for Mr. I.
I wish we didn’t suck so bad right now.
On August 4, 2015, Dombrowski was released from his contract by Detroit. Two weeks later, he had been brought in to run the Red Sox by his old pal John Henry.
2012 Detroit Tigers (88-74; AL Pennant) DAVE-D Index
Top of the Rotation Pitchers: 4/3 Horses (2 Cy Young winners) 6
Middle of the Lineup Hitters: 3.5/4 Sluggers (1 MVP winner) 4.5
Bullpen as an Afterthought: Some decent arms, but I hate them 1
Reclamations: (Miggy and Leyland) 2
Farm Ranking: 25/30; Castellanos is the #1 prospect 0
Opening Day Payroll: 5/30 teams (132,300,000) 2
Total Points: 15.5
Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus
Boston Red Sox by Michael Donahue
The above Latin is the motto of the City of Detroit. Sadly for me, but fortunately for Red Sox fans, this instance of its usage refers to the legacy of Dombrowski.
After unceremoniously zipping up Dombrowski’s previous team in a bodybag in 2013, the Red Sox hadn’t been able to reassert themselves at the top of MLB. It was a unique opportunity for Dave Dombrowski to repair and cement a dynasty, not create it himself.
Now, here’s M-SABR’s resident Masshole Michael Donahue’s take on the Dombrowski Red Sox.
The 2015 Red Sox team that Dombrowski took control of on August 18, 2015 was one that lacked a sense of direction. The team had the beginnings of a great young core. Xander Bogaerts started coming into his own, winning a Silver Slugger. Mookie Betts’ first full season with the club netted him MVP votes.
Along with the arrival of everyone’s favorite utility-man, and 2015 All-Star, Brock Holt, a 22-year Eduardo Rodriguez had also burst onto the scene and looked to be a good building block for the rotation.
Despite having these young studs, the Sox started to see some regression from players with large salaries, most notably Pablo Sandoval. Whether it was due to struggling in the box or to stay healthy, it seemed as though the Kung Fu Panda was never able to find solid footing once he had arrived in Boston.
Some other offseason misses include Hanley Ramirez and Cuban defector Rusney Castillio. Ramirez had two decent seasons of production in 2015 and 2016 before his decline, while Castillio’s game never translated to MLB. He ended up spending the majority of his career in the minors.
Key pieces from the 2013 World Series team were either on their way out or had already been shipped out. Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino both had tough years at the dish and were dealt at the deadline. Napoli for cash to the Rangers, and Victorino along with cash to the Angels for Josh Rutledge.
Key players like Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholtz both struggled to stay healthy, with both already having a long injury history. Without Buchholtz, the rotation was headlined by the likes of Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Joe Kelly. A weak rotation is not fit for a Dombrowski-style team and would need a massive makeover. Taking a quick glance at the bullpen, Koji Uehara and Rich Hill were the main bright spots in 2015, but both were north of 35 years old.
Another huge blow to the lineup was the announced retirement of David Ortiz. Not only was this a huge blow to the overall offensive production of the team, but it was also a huge blow to the culture the team had built and always been attributed with during their dynastic run.
At 78-84, battered and bruised, expensive and unproductive, all signs pointed to a near full-scale tear down in the next two to three seasons, but Dombrowski had other plans.
The Red Sox farm system had plenty of elite talent at the top. Dombrowski’s growing lack of patience for young prospects, along with the Red Sox organization and willingness to spend, made this connection a perfect match. Dombrowski got to work in the 2016 offseason with the key acquisition of high-quality pitchers.
The first was acquiring Craig Kimbrel from the Padres for Manuel Margot, Logan Allen, Carlos Asuaje, and Javy Guerra. Margot has been the only player from this deal to see consistent major-league action but has only been a league-average player.
The next player was an old Dombrowski acquisition from his time with the Tigers in David Price. Price signed a seven-year $217 million deal with the Red Sox, and he fit into the classic Dombrowski framework as one of many frontline starters that would ultimately grace the rotation.
In a resurgent 2016 season, Boston said goodbye to some old friends, welcomed in some new ones, and looked to the future after a Division Series sweep by the Indians. The Red Sox had two great starters and it was time to add one more.
By 2016, Boston had four remaining great prospects in their farm system: Yoán Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and Michael Kopech. The Chicago White Sox made their ace, Chris Sale available. The Southsiders reportedly wanted two of those four big names to headline the deal, but Dombrowski saw Benintendi and Devers as untouchable.
The package ultimately ended up being Moncada, Kopech, Victor Diaz, and Luis Alexander Basabe (A former Top 10 prospect according to MLB.com). Some of the scouting knowledge that he had seemed to have lost towards the end of his tenure in Detroit, had come back one more time. Much like Castellanos and Avila, Dombrowski made the right choice in keeping Devers and Benintendi.
With Sale, and the addition of guys like Mitch Moreland, the Red Sox finished with the exact same record of 93-69 in 2017, winning the AL East once again. Sale had the best season of his career, posting a 2.45 ERA and 308 strikeouts over 214.1 innings pitched. Along with the further emergence of young stars like Bogaerts and Betts, and the debuts of Benintendi and Devers, the team was set-up well for a deeper playoff run.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox would lose another Division Series matchup, this time to those 2017 Houston Astros. The outcome ultimately led to the firing of manager John Farrell, who was not a Dombrowski hire during his time with the team.
Alex Cora, who was the bench coach in Houston, was hired to replace him. Cora was also a former player on a Red Sox team that won the World Series in 2007, and could better connect with young players trying to find their footing in a large and chaotic sports market like Boston.
The team had young talent, a new promising manager, and was in a great spot for the future. Surely Dombrowski and the Red Sox didn’t need to make another big splash, right? If you have made it this far into the article and didn’t expect Dombrowski to talk the Red Sox organization into another big contract then I don’t what to tell you.
Dombrowski saw the championship window propped wide open for this Red Sox team and went for it. JD Martinez was his man, and eventually proved to be worth every penny of the $110 million deal he was given. Dave had picked JD up off the scrap heap in Detroit, and after Martinez’s brief stop in Arizona, they were reunited.
Before the deadline passed, it was time for the final puzzle pieces. Nathan Eovaldi, the hard-throwing right-hander who had bounced around his whole career due to arm injuries, was acquired from Tampa. He had only pitched 57 innings up to the point in the season after coming back from injury.
Steve Pearce was also added from Toronto. Pearce’s role would be to platoon at first base and DH adding more right power depth to the lineup. After the release of Hanley Rameriz earlier in the season it was a very important hole that needed to be filled.
This historic season ended with the Red Sox finishing with a record of 108-54, which was the best record in MLB since the 2001 Seattle Mariners. The Red Sox finished the season with a +229 run differential, which was led by batting title-winning MVP Mookie Betts. Martinez was right behind Betts in the batting title race.
The bullpen, like most Dombrowski-led teams, was still a work in progress made up of a mishmash of arms from the minors and one to a few good quality relievers. Despite the lack of great bullpen talent, the bullpen was able to log a good amount of innings to keep the starters fresh.
Craig Kimbrel remained to dominate out of the bullpen, posting 42 saves on the season in 47 opportunities, while pitching 62.1 innings. The bullpen also got a boost from Ryan Brasier who in 33.2 innings pitched saw a 1.60 ERA, a 2.83 FIP, and a WHIP of 0.772.
Now comes the interesting part, it’s time for Dombrowski’s third postseason with the team, and they have accumulated the best record in baseball. This is a make-or-break season for the Red Sox, as they flirted with the luxury tax and had many young players to pay in the near future.
A trait Dombrowski always values in a player is their ability to not be afraid of a big moment, that’s what the postseason is all about. In steps his additions: Chris Sale, J.D Martinez, Steve Pearce, Mitch Moreland, and David Price.
The Sox beat the hated Yankees in the Division Series, finally escaping that round. After an initial scare in Game One with a big win from the Astros in the ALCS, the Red Sox rattled off four straight to win the series.
It had been six seasons, but Dombrowski was back in the Fall Classic. He had another chance to capture what had eluded him since 1997. A championship that could finally seal his legacy as one of the greatest team builders of all time.
The Sox were up 2-1 against the Dodgers entering Game Four. Boston found themselves in a hole in the seventh and needed a savior. How about two of the smaller Dombrowski additions that ended up saving the season? Batting around, the rally starts with a Moreland three-run bomb, then by a Pearce solo shot, and finally a bases-clearing double by Pearce. The two stepped up when the team needed them most, and delivered 7 RBI.
In Game Five, David “Elimination Game” Price was back on the bump ready to deliver. He pitched seven innings giving up one run. Pearce remained hot with two homers and three RBI, while Martinez and Betts also joined in with solo shots. It was time to close the game, no better man to do it than the ace Chris Sale.
Sale made quick work of a demoralized Dodgers squad, sitting down the first two batters with ease. It all came down to Sale and Machado, Chris reached back on and chucked one more iconic sweeping slider that sent Machado to his knees for strike three. Dombrowski was back on top of the baseball world.
It would be naïve to give Dombrowski all the credit for how this roster was constructed for this championship run, but many, if not all of his additions over the three-year period made key contributions to winning the 2018 World Series. Every guy had an impact.
After the championship in 2018, it was clear the Red Sox organization wanted to focus on resetting their finances after the 2019 season. There was no mutual interest from either party to stay together, so Dombrowski was fired on September 9th, 2019.
At the time of his departure, Dombrowski had left the Red Sox minor league system in ruin, like many of his operations, but the ability to win a championship makes practices like this well worth the post-event pain.
If you were to look at the Red Sox’s best young players today though, many are from the days of Dombrowski. I don’t believe he gets enough credit for his drafting and international signings. Players of the likes of Triston Casas, Brayan Bello, Tanner Houck, Bryan Mata, and Ceddanne Rafaela were all Dombrowski additions.
At the end of the day, Dave D doesn’t care to preach about creating good farm systems, he creates teams that are fit for championships.
2018 Boston Red Sox (108-54; World Series Champion) DAVE-D Index
Top of the Rotation Pitchers: 3/3 Horses (2 Cy Young winners) 5
Middle of the Lineup Hitters: 4/4 Sluggers (1 MVP winner) 5
Bullpen as an Afterthought: Kimbrel and some guys 1.5
Reclamations: (JD and Price; Kinsler) 2
Farm Ranking: 28/30; all hail Michael Chavis 0
Opening Day Payroll: 1/30 teams (235,649,368) 3
Total Points: 16.5
The Platonic Ideal
Image: Lynne Sladky / Associated Press
After only those few years in Boston, Dave Dombrowski flew the coop to Philadelphia. His sights were set on creating his version of Michelangelo’s David, his version of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, his version of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
The Phillies would be the canvas, the stage, the medium, for Dave Dombrowski’s magnum opus.
It was a roster that didn’t require much retooling. Much of what was already there was enough. One could argue that at this point in his career, Dombrowski could be seen as a hired gun. Someone to fix a couple problems for an organization on the rise in order to win it all.
Take away what we know about these Phillies now and put yourself back in the mindset before Joe Girardi was fired. This team was dysfunctional, misshapen, and underachieving. The depth was awful and the roster construction seemed like a comical attempt to recapture old Dombrowski magic.
The first big move for Dombrowski was signing Zach Wheeler away from the Mets before 2020 to supplement the young ace Aaron Nola. He also added Didi Gregorius, who played well in the shortened season, but had hit 2019’s juiced ball poorly and subsequently fell off a cliff in 2021 after being tendered an extension.
Not a ton of production was added after the COVID season with Philadelphia missing out on the playoffs. At the 2021 deadline, hovering around .500, Spencer Howard was sent packing for Kyle Gibson. Gibson made the All Star team with Texas before the trade, but sucked in Philly. Finishing 82-80, the franchise looked snakebitten.
Even though this stretch was tough for Phillies fans, we’ve seen Dave D come through in these scenarios before. Why couldn’t he do it again? Kyle Schwarber! Awesome. He finally played up to his potential last year. He’ll have to play some innings in the field, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Nick Castellanos? He had a great season last year, too, but where are we gonna put these guys?
He figured it out with Prince and Miggy before, I’m sure everything will be okay. You’re bringing back Odubel Herrera after that suspension because you have no depth? The team had four DHs, no center fielder, and a light-hitting middle infield. They hadn’t made the playoffs in ten years, and were on the books for five massive contracts.
They start the year 22-29. We all know the story. In steps Rob Thomson. The team bonds over how much they hated the old skipper and catch fire, they add Brandon Marsh at the deadline to have a living body in center, and they reach the postseason in the newly-added third Wild Card spot. Great story, right?
Wrong. Nick Castellanos sucked for a good portion of the season. The team was 25th in DRS with -33 (they were the only playoff team outside the top 20). Alec Bohm sucks at third and can’t hit above average. Bryson Stott plays a below average shortstop and can’t hit. Young guys like Mickey Moniak and Matt Vierling stink (and will soon be discarded).
Nobody picked the Phillies to make it as far as they did. The team had the fourth longest odds, and the longest in the NL to win it all when the postseason opened. Between Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report’s playoff predictor articles, only one writer, RJ Anderson, picked Philadelphia to even win their Wild Card Series.
All you have to do is punch a ticket to the dance, though, and play the odds. Furthermore, Philly had the juice. In 2019 we saw the Washington Nationals win it all in a situation nearly identical to Philadelphia’s, albeit without a midseason sacking, but this time the Phillies have Bryce Harper.
With a 2-0 lead, Cardinals’ flamethrower Ryan Helsley melted down in Game One of the Wild Card Series (and cost me my St. Louis futures bet). That was the rally that ignited Philadelphia.
We got Rhys Hoskins’ bat spike amid a massive rally.
Realmuto’s inside-the-parker, which all but clinched the NLDS.
Schwarber’s big fly in the NLCS.
Castellanos (!) making huge defensive plays.
The swing of Harper’s life (shoutout Joe Davis for one of the coldest calls ever).
Blue-chip players step up when it matters most. To me, this postseason run is emblematic of Dombrowski’s entire career. They lost the World Series and they didn’t have the best regular season. They didn’t eclipse what he did with the Red Sox. However, if you give Dave carte blanche to do what he wants, you’ll get this.
Dombrowski was extended into 2027 this offseason. I would struggle to believe that would have happened without this postseason run. In any event, he’s no longer a GM for hire. He’s already made a move to bring back an old friend that he signed in 2012, Gregory Soto. He gave up Matt Vierling and Nick Maton in the deal.
Trea Turner also was signed to another classic “Dombrowski Deal”. 11 years, $300 million for an average (soon to be below average) defensive shortstop. In my opinion, though, he could actually enter into the MVP conversation in the near future playing at the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, despite being one of the most valuable players in baseball since his career began. This team is all in.
Those previously mentioned young players, though, along with the rest of Philly’s depleted farm may stand in the way of a dynastic run, but right now, the Phillies are set up for success. They have found top-tier pitching prospect Andrew Painter through the draft, though.
They have fear-inducing top-end starters, some of the best bats in the game, and postseason improvement shown from the young players Dombrowski has chosen to hold onto: Bohm, Stott, and Marsh.
These Phillies are constructed nearly entirely different from the Astros and Dodgers clubs that have run the league, but Dombrowski has shown that this model can still work. I’m excited to see what Philadelphia shows us in 2023.
2022 Philadelphia Phillies (87-75; NL Pennant) DAVE-D Index
Top of the Rotation Pitchers: 2.5/3 Horses (0 Cy Young winners) 2.5
Middle of the Lineup Hitters: 4/4 Sluggers (1 MVP winner) 5
Bullpen as an Afterthought: Major weakness in the WS 1
Reclamations: (Castellanos and Knebel) 1
Farm Ranking: 26/30; Gross 0
Opening Day Payroll: 4/30 teams (221,738,462) 2
Total Points: 11.5
Dave Dombrowski helped the White Sox have their best stretch of form in 20 years. He created the prospect pool that the Montreal Expos used to ascend to the top of Major League Baseball before the 1994 Labor Strike.
He was the sole reason that the worst-run organization in baseball has captured two World Series while not winning their own division and not making the playoffs in any other full seasons.
He dug the Tigers out of the depths of Hell, using much of what he learned with the Marlins, after their World Series appearance in 2006. Detroit hadn’t won more than 88 games since 1987, when a 98 win squad lost the ALCS. Starting in ‘06, continuing until today, Dombrowski has only had one losing season (2008) in full seasons as the chief decision maker.
He left Detroit stranded in choppy waters, but upon making it to his next destination, Dombrowski solidified a Boston dynasty, while repairing his own image and furthering his legacy in the process. He proved in 2018 that he hadn’t lost his touch.
He combined what he had learned over 40 consecutive years of experience in baseball front offices, with the Philadelphia Phillies near unlimited resources, to create arguably the purest, most-uncut, physical embodiment of his team building philosophy, but not necessarily the best.
At every step along the way, Dave Dombrowski completely rebuilt the teams for which he assumed control. At every step along the way, he won.
DAVE-D Index Rankings
- 2018 Boston Red Sox (16.5)
- 2012 Detroit Tigers (15.5)
- 1997 Florida Marlins (13.5)
- 2022 Philadelphia Phillies (11.5)
- 2006 Detroit Tigers (9.5)
- 1990 Montreal Expos (9)
It seems you can build your roster like the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s to reach the playoffs, but when it comes to winning it all, you have to play “Dombrowski-ball”.
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