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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 11, No. 77
September 9, 2019
The Red Sox lost to the Yankees 10-5 last night, running their record in this key week against the Twins and Yanks to 2-4. They had long lost any chance to win the AL East -- they can, in fact, be mathematically eliminated tonight -- and they’ve now dropped nine games behind the Rays, eight behind the A’s, and 6 1/2 behind the Indians in the AL wild-card chase. Fangraphs has them down to a 250-1 shot to make the playoffs, and that sounds about right to me. It’s over.
The team seems to agree. After last night’s game, as attention in New England more or less officially shifted to the Patriots, the Sox fired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. The move was a surprise for the timing; we’re not a year removed from a 108-win Red Sox team winning the World Series without dropping more than a game in any postseason series. If Dombrowski’s work since then had been lacking, both in quality and volume, it’s rare for a baseball team to move on from a successful executive this quickly. It’s an NHL move, a Premier League move, and you remember that the owners of the Red Sox also own Liverpool and wonder if they’re getting their sports mixed up.
Dombrowski may well have been a victim of that postseason run, driven by a number of randoms who had unremarkable performances both before and since. From last October:
“The fascinating thing about the Red Sox, though, is how those two elements -- the great regular season and the great postseason -- were achieved by, exaggerating only slightly, two different teams. Boston’s romp through October is illustrated nicely by a platoon first baseman who joined the team in June becoming World Series MVP. It’s not that Steve Pearce is undeserving -- he slugged 1.157 and had huge hits in Games Four and Five -- but, rather, that he represents the back half of a roster, featuring players who the Sox and their fan base had tried to bury at various times, that simply went off this month.
The Turnaround (ERAs, Selected Red Sox Relievers)
2018 2H Sept Post
Joe Kelly 4.39 4.50 8.31 0.79
Matt Barnes 3.65 6.41 5.06 1.04
Ryan Brasier 1.60 1.88 2.31 1.04
The Red Sox were supposed to be at their most vulnerable between when the starters left the game and when Craig Kimbrel entered. In the sixth through eighth innings across 14 postseason games, the Red Sox outscored their opponents 31-14, including 11-5 in the World Series. (Seven of the 14 runs they allowed were by Eduardo Rodriguez.)”
There were two effects here, both of which served Dombrowski poorly. One is that he bought in completely to his championship roster. The Red Sox re-signed Steven Pearce while they were still cleaning up after the parade, and they locked in Nathan Eovaldi not long after that. The two have provided nothing this year at a cost of $23 million. Of the 25 players the Red Sox used in the 2018 postseason, 20 returned to the Opening Day roster. A 21st, Pearce, was injured at the time. The four who didn’t were Kimbrel, Kelly, the backup catcher (Sandy Leon, who would return), and the rental second baseman (Ian Kinsler).
Dombrowski didn’t bring in any reinforcements from outside the organization, a choice that may have been influenced by Boston’s position relative to the highest tier of luxury-tax penalties. It nevertheless burned him when the relief pitchers went back to their level and Eovaldi, shockingly, couldn’t get through a season healthy.
The second, related effect was that winning a championship set the expectations for 2019. We now judge teams by their postseason performance almost exclusively, ignoring all that came before October. A 108-54 Red Sox team that flames out in the playoffs doesn’t get praised as one of the best teams of the century. That playoff run, however, was the product of the bottom half of the roster, almost entirely disconnected from the squad that won two of every three games for six months.
“Pearce, Kelly, Barnes...Rafael Devers was benched during the Division Series due to Alex Cora’s concerns about his defense. This after a second half in which Devers battled a left hamstring strain and questions about his defense, conditioning, and development as a hitter. He ended up hitting .294 in the postseason and making a key stop in the ninth inning of Game Four.
The Sox needed everything they got from the middle of the roster because the front of it didn’t play well. Mookie Betts, the likely AL MVP, hit .210/.300/.323. Xander Bogaerts hit .224/.303/.310. Andrew Benintendi hit .268/.328/.339, and it was that good a line thanks to a number of bloopers and cue shots in the Series. The Red Sox offense in the postseason was driven by the bottom of the lineup, not the top.
OPS by Batting Order Slot, Red Sox Postseason
1st 1028 623
2nd 759 587
3rd 871 888
4th 968 828
5th 796 719
6th 684 639
7th 667 916
8th 607 464
9th 704 917
That’s Jackie Bradley Jr. carrying the players on either side of him. Bradley Jr. hit .200, but it was an incredibly loud .200, with two doubles and three homers, all of them in enormous spots.
It was much the same on the pitching side. Chris Sale, who will finish second in the AL Cy Young balloting, got the last out of the Series, but in his three playoff starts he never got more than 16 outs and had a 4.73 ERA. Craig Kimbrel had six postseason saves; he allowed runs in four of them and had a 5.91 ERA overall.”
The run the Red Sox made was driven by the flawed back half of a roster playing out of its mind for four weeks. Flags fly forever, and I take nothing away from those Red Sox. The lesson Dombrowski seemed to learn, and again this happened in the context of the worst penalties any team has ever suffered under the payroll limiters, was that the back of his roster was to be kept together. It was running it back with that group, rather than looking to improve upon it, that set the 2019 season in motion. If the middle relievers don’t have the best month of their lives all at the same time, and the 2018 season goes down in a hail of Astros comebacks, the 2018-19 offseason almost certainly plays out differently.
Was that a firing offense? I think it’s rash to say so, given that Dombrowski had a 30-year track record within the game leading up his bad offseason. Forgive me for returning to this again, but MLB has put rules in place that by themselves aim to cripple the teams that have the most success. Some are able to work around it, at least for a while, but when you’re looking for scapegoats for the 2019 Red Sox, you alight on Rick Porcello and Chris Sale and Dombrowski before landing pretty quickly on the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The 2020 team, now helmed by a front-office collective, will face similar challenges, as the payroll appears to be pushing against the tax threshold even if J.D. Martinez opts out, and it will be $20 million over it if he doesn’t.
Boston's four titles in 15 years have served to mask considerable instability and even chaos in how the Sox have been run under John Henry. Theo Epstein was more or less run out of town by ownership after 2011, and Terry Francona was let go with him, despite two World Series in eight years together. Ben Cherington inherited the GM job and lost a season to ownership’s foisting Bobby Valentine on him. In Cherington’s second year, with John Farrell managing, the Sox won the World Series. Not two years after that, though, Cherington was let go, and then Farrell followed after the 2017 season. Now, not a year after a title, Dombrowski is gone. I understand the argument that it’s worked, given the 2013 and 2018 championships, but we don’t talk about John Henry like he’s a lost Steinbrenner cousin, and maybe we should.
As for Dombrowski, well, he’ll be unemployed for exactly as long as he wants to be. At 63, he may decide that’s forever. One thing to keep in mind is that while he made his bones building for the long term in Montreal, Florida, and Detroit, of late he’s been a quick-change artist. He successfully dealt prospects for veterans and pumped up the payrolls in Detroit over the second half of his tenure there, and then did the same in Boston. He’s probably no longer the guy you hire to start a decade-long project, but rather, the one you hire when you’re ready to move from building to winning.
Eyeballing the landscape, it’s hard to find spots where a team has a positive short-term future due to a good MLB roster and a deep farm system, and is also unhappy enough with its current situation to make a GM change. The best farm systems in the game belong to the Padres, Rays, Dodgers, and Braves, and of those only the Padres’ A.J. Preller seems remotely like a candidate to be replaced. The Indians have a championship core, but a weaker system and I can’t see Dombrowski going to a team that won’t spend.
If you broaden the search, though, you do see some landing spots. The Blue Jays and Tigers are more like the places Dombrowski landed earlier in his career, and perhaps bad fits for someone eyeing his first Social Security checks. They’re longer burns, and behind the front-line young talent, there’s not a ton of depth for trading. To the extent that the Marlins have any history, it was built by Dombrowski, and heaven knows Michael Hill hasn’t done much to secure his job. Again, though, I can’t see him going into a long-term build.
Reach back into Dombrowski’s career, though, and you’ll find that before he began building his own name in Montreal, he spent a decade on the South Side of Chicago, working his way up through the organization from the minor leagues. More than 30 years after he was fired by Ken Harrelson, an early sign he must have been good at his job, the White Sox seem like a strong fit for his talents. They have a core at the MLB level that is coming together. They have prospects who will be joining that core but enough minor-league depth to provide fodder for trades. It’s been a decade since they’ve reached the playoffs, and the current GM, Rick Hahn, has been in his post for six seasons without producing even a .500 team. In the same way that Dombrowski came in to profit off the work Cherington did in Boston, he could do the same with Hahn’s building blocks in Chicago.
This isn’t to say Hahn’s job is in trouble, but just to point out that if Dombrowski wants to move into his next job quickly, like Theo Epstein before him, the Windy City may be his most inviting landing spot.