The Boston Red Sox had a busy day on Tuesday, December 6th. President of Baseball Operations, Dave Dombrowski, traded away an army of prospects in Mauricio Dubon, Josh Pennington, Luis Alexander Basabe, Victor Diaz, Michael Kopech and some guy named Yoan Moncada. This netted them all of two players. Reliever Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers and another “some guy” named Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox. They packaged the first two (Dubon and Pennington) with Travis Shaw to bring back Thornburg. The rest went to the White Sox for Sale. The Red Sox then capped off the evening by signing Mitch Moreland to attempt to fill the enormous (David Ortiz) Papi-sized hole in the lineup.
Over the last year, Dombrowski has traded away highly-touted starting pitcher Anderson Espinoza for Drew Pomeranz as well as outfielder Manuel Margot, pitching prospect Logan Allen, and infielders Javier Guerra and Carlos Asuaje to acquire Craig Kimbrel. There were also trades of lesser prospects Jonathan Aro (along with Wade Miley) for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias and the Brad Ziegler trade which featured Luis Alejandro Basabe (Luis Alexander’s twin brother) and Jose Almonte. Additionally, Aaron Hill was acquired for Aaron Wilkerson and Wendell Rijo, while Pat Light was swapped for Fernando Abad.
For those keeping count, that’s 17 prospects and a little major league talent going out with eight major leaguers and one prospect coming back.
For some, these deals confirm the worst fears of the segment of the fanbase that worships at the prospect altar: That Dealin’ Dave would decimate one of the game’s best farm systems in order to fill the major league roster with expensive veterans. And to some extent, that is exactly how his first full year in control has played out. The question is: Are the Red Sox in a better position now than when he took over? The answer is complicated, and it starts several years before Dombrowski entered the picture.
The Red Sox have been transitioning from a rebuilding team to a contending team since right about the time that Dombrowski was handed the reins. It’s probably no coincidence that John Henry gave him the keys to the kingdom when he did. Many Boston fans today are wondering what the Red Sox would look like if Dombrowski had not been released from his position in Detroit and Ben Cherington was still calling the shots. It might be fair to say that they would look quite different, but as we never had the opportunity to see how Cherington would operate with a young core that was ready to compete, we cannot say he would have stood pat with his intense focus on building through development once those players were in place.
In many ways, Cherington was the perfect person for the job following the massive trade in August of 2012 that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and the incomparable Nick Punto to the Dodgers in exchange for pitching prospects Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa. They needed a hard reset and to sow the seeds of their next core. That meant having plenty of patience and plugging holes in the major league roster with mostly short-term veterans where they could hope to be mildly competitive as their very young and very far away farm system attempted to bear fruit.
Cherington came up through the Red Sox front office, starting as an area scout and working his way up to Director of Player Development, a position he held through the 2005 season. He would eventually become the assistant GM under Theo Epstein, and inherited the team upon Epstein’s decision to leave Boston for the Chicago Cubs. That player development background would serve him well as he attempted to turn around a franchise that was thin at the major league level and mostly devoid of talent in the upper levels of the farm in the fall of 2012.
Cherington happened to push the right buttons that first winter and the Sox won an unexpected World Series title in 2013 before returning to the originally expected result of floundering through the regular season and punting at the deadline in 2014 and 2015. Of course, in 2015, the farm began to pay off. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Blake Swihart enjoyed very encouraging second halves, while Eduardo Rodriguez started looking like an excellent acquisition in the Andrew Miller trade. The long winter that lasted all of one and a half seasons was apparently breaking. The future was here.
Of course, by the end of the 2015 season, so was Dombrowski, and Ben Cherington decided to seek greener pastures. Cherington left behind a shiny new core of young players and one World Series title with a loaded farm system. He wasn’t without his missteps, but it’s tough to ask for much more from a GM when he was handed the bloated mess of a roster that was the 2012 Red Sox.
Enter this guy:
The dread among prospect lovers was palpable (and ultimately prescient), but Dombrowski’s first offseason hardly constituted decimating the farm. He traded redundant pieces to plug a massive hole in the bullpen and a non-prospect with Wade Miley to add another late-inning arm. It wasn’t until he sent Espinoza packing that it was worth sweating a bit.
Now, here we are, less than five months later, looking at what is likely going to be ranked a bottom-third system in the game when the major publications publish their lists just before spring training. We ask again: Are the Red Sox in a better position now than when he took over?
Ben Cherington may have shined with his new core in place. He may have made exactly the same moves as Dombrowski. We’ll never know. What we do know is that Dombrowski, through trades, has acquired one of the best closers in baseball, one of the best starters in the game, and multiple quality veterans with several years of control.
The cries of the prospect lovers are not unheard, however. They point to a future where the prospects lost offer more years of control at less cost and a projected combined WAR that far exceeds the eight veterans brought in by these trades. They extol the virtues of more payroll flexibility and the joy of watching an all-homegrown lineup compete for the division. They lament the very existence of Pablo Sandoval. I know this, because I am one of them. I know this because I have made these very same arguments. Some of them I made on Tuesday. But I’m wrong and so are they.
Coming off the heels of a division title, their first since 2013 and their eighth overall, the roster was already very competitive. The Red Sox were coming into the 2017 season with a very strong rotation, a lineup that was still likely top-five in the American League, and some money to spend on fixing the bullpen. They looked good, but were far from the AL favorites. The hope was that out of Moncada, Rafael Devers, Kopech, and Jason Groome they would be able to add at least one more star-level bat and one more star-level pitcher over the next few seasons to complement an already excellent, young team.
However, that is not the path that Dombrowski walked. After the second day of the Winter Meetings, they are the prohibitive favorites to win the pennant and could enter the season as the odds-on-favorite to win the Fall Classic. He took future potential and turned it into production for the present. Chris Sale already is more than Red Sox fans could realistically hope for Kopech or Groome to be. The cost was steep, but worth it.
The Red Sox now sport what is likely the best rotation in the game, look to feature an excellent bullpen, and are bringing back last year’s best offense with the hope that a full season of Andrew Benintendi and Blake Swihart can mitigate the loss of David Ortiz. Additionally, they have the core of this team under contract through the end of 2018 when David Price has the ability to opt out of his contract. Even if Price does, the rest of this team will be under control for the following season.
Dave Dombrowski was handed a tremendous gift when he agreed to take over as the President of Baseball Operations. A great young major league roster with a phenomenal farm system. He was looking at a window where Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright, and Blake Swihart would all be under control for at least three more years at very little money. With Dustin Pedroia, Rick Porcello, David Price, and Craig Kimbrel under team control for a few more years at mostly reasonable dollars (David Price, we’re looking at you), waiting for all of those prospects to finish developing meant wasting some of that window of an extremely low-cost young core when the opportunity to maximize their chances of winning another title was staring him in the face.
He chose to make the Red Sox the best team possible for the bulk of that window, before the kids got expensive and they were prohibited from complementing them with $20 and $30 million veterans. It’s wonderful picturing a never-ending stream of talent pouring in from the farm, but the reality is you don’t build a core like what the Red Sox have right now very often. So when you do, it’s in your best interests to jump at the opportunity and squeeze every bit of winning out of it that you can afford.
The Boston Red Sox are the best team in the American League and have, arguably, the most fearsome playoff roster in the game. And that will continue for a few more seasons. The decimation of the farm system under Dombrowski has been painful to watch, but the results are undeniable. Dave Dombrowski is the right man for this team at this point in history. The Red Sox may not actually win a title before the new young core gets expensive, but they will have as good a chance as any team in the league to win one in that span.
Heck, I might check to see if I can bet on them winning back-to-back. It’s a long shot, but after yesterday, it’s not one that is all that hard to imagine and all because Dave Dombrowski did exactly what we feared he would.