The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 12, No. 105
December 11, 2020
After months of denying he wanted back into a major-league front office, repeatedly averring his commitment to a group trying to bring an expansion team to
Nashville, Dave Dombrowski apparently changed his mind. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported
that Dombrowski is now ready to take his talents to South Broad, joining the Philadelphia Phillies as their president of baseball operations.
Dombrowski was last seen being dumped by the Red Sox not a year after a team he helped build a team that won the World Series. That 2018 squad, a mixture of Ben Cherington’s talent base and Dombrowski’s acquisitions, was one of the best of the last decade. Its title, however, came at significant cost in prospects and contract commitments. The Red Sox, under Dombrowski, had the highest payrolls in franchise history in 2018 and 2019, and, in fact, the highest in baseball in both those years. John Henry was fine with that when he had a .600 team running away with the AL East, less so when the Sox slipped under .500 a season later.
John Henry, having watched his team win four World Series in 15 years, had the luxury of becoming patient, the luxury of emphasizing, at least for a little while, process rather than results. In Chaim Bloom, he has a team-builder also likely to assemble a great team, but one who is steeped in how to do so without writing the biggest checks.
John Middleton, who owns the largest piece of the Phillies, may not think he has that luxury. Middleton has owned a piece of the Phillies since the 1990s, but it is only since 2015 that he’s been the most prominent member of the ownership group. David Montgomery, not Middleton, got to ride the biggest float in 2008, when Chase Utley and
Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard brought home the hunk of metal. Middleton has presided over a rebuild that started late and has gone sideways. Poor drafting, in particular, has stalled the Phillies short of a playoff berth. Just three drafted-and-developed Phillies -- Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, and Alec Bohm -- were positive contributors last year. Middleton signed off on the two highest payrolls in team history the last two years, pushing up against the luxury-tax threshold in 2020, and got a 109-113 record for his trouble.
Enter Dombrowski, who has as strong a record as any executive over the last 30 years. Dombrowski was responsible for developing much of the 1994 Expos team that lost its chance at a title to the strike. By ’94, though, he’d moved on to Florida, where he was the architect of the 1997 champion Marlins and had a significant hand in the roster of the 2003 champs as well. Again, though, he was gone by the time the latter team won, on to Detroit. Dombrowski’s Tigers won four AL Central titles and two AL pennants in 13 seasons. Let go in 2015, he then quickly moved to Boston and built that 2018 team.
If the first part of Dombrowski’s career was marked by player development in Montreal and Miami, the second part has been much more about going outside his organizations for short-term gain. Those 1997 Marlins had Charles Johnson and Edgar Renteria and Jeff Conine, scouting finds to one degree or another, but the pitching staff was built with money, as was most of the lineup. In Detroit, Dombrowski took over a team that had not reached the playoffs since 1987 nor finished above .500 since 1993. His second team lost 119 games. Three years later, the Tigers had doubled their payroll and reached the World Series. That was the most balanced of his good teams, a mix of free agents, trade acquisitions, and two of the best Tigers draft picks ever: Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson. Dombrowski would follow that by trading for Hall of Famers Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer over his next decade in Detroit.
With the Red Sox, Dombrowski didn’t need to do a slow build. The Sox were two years removed from a World Series. They had a championship-caliber young core in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Eduardo Rodriguez, along with a top-five farm system about to cough up Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi. Dombrowski tapped into that system, trading top prospects for Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel. He then signed J.D. Martinez and David Price to big free-agent deals.
If Middleton expects that kind of result here, he’d be well advised to look through that paragraph again. The Phillies’ miserable drafting during their rebuild has put them far behind where the Sox were five years ago. They blew the top pick in the 2016 draft, taking high-school outfielder Mickey Moniak, who might be a fifth outfielder in the majors. Top-ten picks Cornelius Randolph (#10, 2015) and Adam Haseley (#8, 2017) are not impact players. There’s no Betts or Bogaerts on the field, no Devers or Benintendi on the way. You have to go back quite a way to find the Phillies’ last good international signings. Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis in 2006; Maikel Franco and Hector Neris in 2010; Seranthony Dominguez, if you want to push “good,” in 2011.
The Phillies went into a rebuild in 2013 and have precious little to show for it seven years later. Nola is a #2 starter, a legitimate core player. Hoskins is a bat-only first baseman who is probably a three-win player at his peak, which is happening right now. Scott Kingery will be 27 in April and has a career .233/.284/.393 line. Andrew Knapp is a decent backup catcher. The Phillies traded good prospects for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto, both of whom played well in Philadelphia without pushing the team into October. On the horizon are Alec Bohm -- who may not stick at third base -- and Spencer Howard, a #3 to Nola’s #2. Maybe Adonis Medina, a right-handed starter, will contribute in 2021. Beyond that group, there’s nothing much coming for a while.
The 2021 Phillies aren’t close to the 2015 Red Sox, and the competition they face in the short term is deeper than what the AL East put up from 2016-18. If they don’t sign Realmuto, they’re one of the weakest teams in baseball up the mid....oh, what the heck, we’ll do this.
LF-R Andrew McCutchen
3B-R Alec Bohm
RF-L Bryce Harper
1B-R Rhys Hoskins
CF-L Adam Haseley
2B-R Scott Kingery
SS-R Jean Segura
C-B Andrew Knapp
That could be a good offensive lineup. The error bars are very wide on what McCutchen and Haseley and Kingery could provide in 2021. What I’m more sure about is that it will be a bad defensive team for the 135 games Roman Quinn is on the injured list. Bench
OF-B Roman Quinn
OF-L Mickey Moniak
OF-R Kyle Garlick
C-B Rafael Marchan
IF-R Ronald Torreyes
IF-L Kyle Holder
(This is mostly straight from Roster Resource
. It’s December 11 and no one’s done anything yet.)Rotation
SP-R Aaron Nola
SP-R Zack Wheeler
SP-R Spencer Howard
SP-R Zach Eflin
SP-R Vince Velasquez
SP-R Adonis Medina
That’s a very good top two, and a lot of speculation behind it. Velasquez, like Kingery and Quinn, is a player who has exhausted his rope with me. If this is the year the three of them finally meet expectations, the Phillies could run away with the division. Bullpen
The Phillies had every one of their relievers back to Don Carman get hurt in 2019, and of course 2020 was far too short to evaluate individuals. Hector Neris will be here; the next four Phillies relievers in 2020, by appearances, are all free agents. Check back in February.
This is a much different job for the new employee. Dombrowski isn’t inheriting a pre-peak core the way he did in Boston. He doesn’t have prospects the caliber of Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to trade for a superstar. He may not have as much room to bump the payroll as John Henry gave him five years ago. He also can’t punt four years while building the team the way he did in Detroit; Middleton didn’t hire him to restart the rebuild.
What can he do? Well, the top three free agents -- Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, and George Springer -- all make the Phillies four to six wins better than they are right now, and all fit the roster. The projected 2021 payroll is around $141 million, per Cot’s
, down $60 million from last year’s full-season projection, so sliding in one of those guys wouldn’t be too hard, and adding two of them not out of the question. Given the defensive issues with both players, Dombrowski could trade one of Hoskins or Bohm in a deal for a starter or a center fielder, or Spencer Howard for a more contention-ready starter. One of the things we saw from him in Boston was a willingness to cash in the chips he inherited.
Looking past this year, it seems certain that the Phillies will be in the mix for one of the five shortstops next winter. Segura hits free agency after the 2022 season and the Phillies have no shortstops ready to follow him.
Success has followed Dave Dombrowski from Montreal to Miami to Detroit to Boston, but the specifics of this job, the team he’s inherited, will make continuing that streak a challenge.