RED SOX: Dombrowski in, Cherington out

Like with my post when Larry Lucchino stepped down as Red Sox president and CEO, I have many thoughts swirling around my brain about the hiring of Dave Dombrowski as the Red Sox first-ever president of baseball operations and the departure of GM Ben Cherington. As such, I will present my thoughts in bullet form starting…now.

  • There hadn’t been much indication the Red Sox were interested in hiring Dombrowski when word came down this week that it was, in fact, happening, and after being offered a chance to stay on, Cherington would leave. It took me by surprise for sure, and the Red Sox did a great job of keeping the whole thing quiet until they broke the news themselves. I’m excited Dombrowski is coming on board for a multitude of reasons, but my surprise is mostly due to what I believed was a philosophical clash between John Henry’s stats-driven approach and Dombrowski’s more traditional, scouting-based evaluations. But, clearly discussions between the two sides left both believing the arrangement will work. In all of his stops, Dombrowski has shown willingness to do the bidding of his owner (for example, building up, tearing down and then building back up the Marlins of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, then building up and sustaining success for the Tigers for nearly 10 years).
  • If the Red Sox were going to hire someone from outside the organization to run baseball ops, they could not have picked a better candidate than Dombrowski. For nearly 30 years, Dombrowski has been a successful GM, winning the World Series in Florida in ‘97, building the foundation for the ‘03 championship Marlins club, taking the Tigers to the World Series twice in ‘06 and ‘12 and nearly going there in ‘11 and ‘13. Mike Ilitch wanted to win a World Series and while it didn’t happen, it wasn’t for lack of work by Dombrowski. He made big, bold, ballsy moves throughout his tenure, signing the likes of Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, while trading for Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. While running baseball ops, Dombrowski also drafted stars like Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson while also picking up scrap-heap guys like J.D. Martinez. So the pedigree for sustained success is there.
  • The biggest knock against Dombrowski in his time in Detroit was not putting together a championship-caliber bullpen. To me, this isn’t a huge concern. At different times, Dombrowski had guys like Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria and many other guys with terrific track records in his bullpen. The problem with bullpens is you could put together a collection of All Star closers and there’s still a chance they all suck. These guys are so volatile and can go from being amazing one year to out of the big leagues the next. Dombrowski just never hit on the right mix. Don’t forget that in Florida his closer was Robb Nen, so it’s not like he has no idea how to find relievers.  
  • Dombrowski comes to Boston with a treasure chest of prospects, many at lower levels, and a solid amount of young talent at the big league level. It’s going to be very interesting to see how he handles those guys, since he has no attachment whatsoever to players drafted, signed or traded for before he arrived. In some respects that’s a good thing, since I think Cherington and Theo Epstein before him were hesitant to move prospects they’d brought into the franchise. At the same time, it’s up to Dombrowski to pick the right players to move to address the team’s big league needs. Based on his track record in Detroit, I have a lot of confidence in Dombrowski to do just that.
  • Dombrowski plans to hire a GM to work under him, mostly to cross the Ts and dot the Is on contracts, initiate discussions with other clubs and agents on moves, and generally ease the workload Dombrowski will now face. While the Red Sox will hold an interview process for GM candidates, much of the recent speculation has focused on Frank Wren, who worked with Dombrowski in Montreal and Florida and was most recently GM of the Braves from ‘10 to ‘14. Wren has a reputation as a bad manager of people and, like Dombrowski, doesn’t grasp analytics in a way Henry probably likes. He also signed Melvin Upton Jr. to a bad free agent deal and gave Dan Uggla an ill-advised extension. But, as Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out here, Wren did take the Braves to the playoffs three times as GM. And, it’s not like he’d have final say on baseball ops like he did in Atlanta. I wouldn’t get too hung up on who gets hired to be GM under Dombrowski. It will effectively be like what Cherington was to Epstein before Epstein left.
  • The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier has a good look at how Dombrowski may handle the logjam of DH-types the Red Sox currently employ, given that Dombrowski faced a similar conundrum in Detroit after ‘13. As long Dombrowski can drum up interest, I could see him moving Hanley Ramirez as early as this month and definitely in the offseason. As much as I love Hanley’s bat, there simply isn’t a position here for him. I like that Dombrowski didn’t simply stick to the club mantra that Ramirez will be the LF going forward. I’d stick with Pablo Sandoval at one corner and address the other corner in the offseason, depending on what’s out there. An outfield of Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo looks awfully good for next year. As long as they can all remember how many outs there are each inning, of course.
  • Dombrowski faces a very delicate, very difficult decision involving John Farrell. Under normal circumstances, when a new president of baseball operations comes in, they will understandably want the opportunity to bring in a manager they know can work with them. If Farrell were currently in the dugout, I’d have little doubt Dombrowski would fire him. Instead, Farrell is undergoing the fight of his life, receiving chemotherapy treatments after lymphoma was discovered during hernia surgery. It’s hard for me to imagine Dombrowski would fire Farrell while undergoing cancer treatment. But, at some point, a decision will need to be made. I would assume that may happen early in the offseason, since it will be a factor in free agent signings and the availability of other candidates. My guess is that if all goes well, Farrell will get a shot to manage the team next year but will be on a short leash. The only way that doesn’t happen is if a candidate becomes available that Dombrowski doesn’t want to see go elsewhere.
  • An exasperating game around here the last few years played by Red Sox fans and observers has been “Who is really running things on Yawkey Way?” With Dombrowski now in charge of baseball operations and Sam Kennedy in charge of business operations, I think we now have a much clearer picture of what’s going to happen. The buck on baseball decisions will stop with Dombrowski. If something goes right, or wrong, he will be pointed to. This is a very, very good thing for the Red Sox going forward.

I’ll wrap this up with some thoughts about Cherington. It’s hard to see him leave. I think I first became aware of Cherington around 2002, when he was one of several whiz kids the Red Sox were elevating to high positions following Henry’s purchase of the team. Cherington was hired as a scout under Dan Duquette. He leaves Boston as one of two general managers since 1918 to win a World Series for the Red Sox.

It’s hard to say Cherington deserved to keep his job, or at least all of his powers, after experiencing what will likely be consecutive last place finishes after winning the ‘13 World Series. For all the great moves he made to put together that team, nearly every move he’s made since has backfired. This is a results-based business, and the results simply weren’t there to justify Cherington continuing on as GM.

I think ultimately, Henry and Tom Werner didn’t trust that Cherington was the right person to turn this team around and find sustainable success. That’s got to really sting Cherington.

As a fan, I always held Cherington in high regard, and still do. He seemed like a truly honest, intelligent and thoughtful guy who worked very hard for over decade to get his chance to run the organization he grew up rooting for in small-town New Hampshire. He succeeded immensely, and then failed miserably.

Now he’s out of the picture. Based on numerous reports, it sounds like Henry and Werner were not entirely forthright with Cherington about their pursuit of Dombrowski and what it would mean for his future in Boston. Henry also claims he told Cherington about the Dombrowski discussions more than a week before Cherington said he was made aware of such talks. I can’t blame Cherington for walking away, especially in that light, after taking so many shots for the club’s failures since 2013.

After seeing things like this happen for so many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Henry and Werner are very good businessmen who’ve been successful in many walks of life…but they’re simply bad with people. Ask Terry Francona. Hell, even ask Lucchino. Look at the statement they released when Farrell left for cancer treatment. What happened to Cherington is probably the least egregious of all these. I’m not saying he deserved to keep his job, but he deserved better than this.

It’s still disappointing as a fan that this is apparently the way the guys who brought us three World Series championships feel they need to treat people and do business. Still, that didn’t keep a quality baseball executive like Dombrowski from coming here, so maybe I’m making too much of this.

I hope Cherington gets another shot soon to run a team.

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RED SOX: Life After Lucchino

On Saturday night, Boston’s media outlets reported the impending departure of Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino from those organizational roles. A transition for longtime COO Sam Kennedy to take over as team president appears set for October, but there’s no immediate clarity on who becomes CEO.

I have a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head about what this all means, so I’ll present them as bullet points starting…now.

  • Lucchino’s departure doesn’t come as a surprise. Going as far back as spring training, reports surfaced that his role in the organization was getting diminished and that more of his energies would be focused on the PawSox. He became part-owner of the PawSox this year and took on a bigger role in new stadium efforts there when his partner, Jim Skeffington, died suddenly in the spring. The writing was on the wall here, but I do find the timing, right after a quiet Red Sox trade deadline during the third disappointing season in four years, to be interesting. I’m still not sure what to make of it. It was also the rarely-seen Saturday news dump, which Roger Goodell is probably angry he didn’t think of first.
  • I’m thrilled Kennedy will be team president. A Brookline High School classmate of Theo Epstein, Kennedy is super-sharp, super-bright and learned at the feet of Lucchino for over two decades. Numerous franchises in several sports have tried to lure Kennedy away from Boston (including the Toronto Maple Leafs last year) but he always stayed. I’d have to think this part of Lucchino’s succession had been in the works for a long time. Kennedy won’t have any say in baseball operations matters, unlike what Lucchino’s role had been since arriving in 2002. The Red Sox business interests will be in good hands with Kennedy for hopefully many years to come.
  • So, who then becomes the next Red Sox CEO, or will there even be one? Will the Red Sox go outside the organization to bring in a “head of baseball ops” or “chief baseball officer” type to run the show? Could Ben Cherington be elevated to that role and a new GM gets hired? If owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner decide to go outside for a new CEO/head of baseball ops, where would that leave Cherington? These are all extremely important questions to be ironed out over the next few months.
  • A lot of interesting names will be thrown out there for a new CEO-type for the Red Sox, and I suspect current Tigers CEO/president/GM Dave Dombrowski will be atop many of those lists. His contract is up after this season and it’s unclear if he’ll return to Detroit. He’d be an outstanding choice, as the architect of the 1997 Marlins and the successful run of Tigers teams dating back to 2006. You may hear A’s VP and GM Billy Beane’s name mentioned (after all, he nearly took a Godfather offer from Henry to be Red Sox GM before Epstein was ultimately promoted), but according to Cot’s, he holds a four percent ownership stake in the A’s, so I doubt he leaves that behind to go run a different team.
  • Lucchino’s departure, and the possibility of someone else having a major, final say on baseball decisions, may present an opportunity for the Red Sox to reset some of their baseball ops structure. The results of these last two seasons in particular lend credence to the idea that something just isn’t working there, that while many moves looked solid at the time they were made (including the John Lackey trade to St. Louis, trading Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello, signing Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to market-value deals), the immediate return on most of them has been subpar at best. A new voice may change things a bit.
  • The remainder of my thoughts here will be about Lucchino and the complicated legacy he leaves behind. While it seems he’ll continue to have some role within the Red Sox, running the day-to-day operations of the club won’t be part of that. As he’d already started to scale back his duties, I wonder if it’s been for the best. I’ve criticized Lucchino as much as anyone over these 14 seasons, and he was always better at business than baseball operations, but some things about his tenure are inarguable: the change in Red Sox culture that started when Henry bought the team came about because of Lucchino. He spearheaded improvements to Fenway Park, making it a destination after years of neglect. There is no chance the Red Sox win three World Series, come within one game of getting to two other World Series and appear in the playoffs seven times total without his guidance, direction, ambition, drive and gravitas. Period. End of discussion. The Red Sox are losing that and, depending on who comes in, they could be worse off for it.
  • Conversely, Lucchino is at least partly responsible for many things that went wrong with the Red Sox over the last decade or so. He briefly won a power struggle with Epstein that resulted in the latter’s winter “sabbatical” after the 2005 season. It was an embarrassing episode for the organization but Henry’s affection for Epstein eventually won out and he returned with relative autonomy over baseball ops from 2006 until he left after 2011. During that time Lucchino’s influence seemed fleeting, but his status as president/CEO meant Epstein could only get so far, leading to Epstein’s move to Chicago. That influence crept back in when Cherington was promoted and it was mostly because of Lucchino that Bobby Valentine was hired as manager in 2012, leading to the biggest joke of a season in recent memory (much bigger than the last two years). Likely because of his domineering and sometimes off-putting personality, I think people around here tended to blame Lucchino every time things went wrong and assigned very little of the credit to him when things went right. That comes with the territory in Boston, but again, that’s why his legacy is complicated. While the Red Sox don’t win those three World Series without him, they are also about to come in last place for the third time in recent years. He deserves both blame and credit for it all.
  • I want to get back to Lucchino’s sense of gravitas for a second. When the Red Sox failed to sign Cuban defector Jose Contreras before the 2003 season, despite offering just as much and possibly more than the New York Yankees, Lucchino dropped an all-time quote on the New York Times: ”The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.” That quote sent shock waves around the baseball world and reverberated especially in New England. This was the indication the Red Sox were not willing to take things lying down, that they wanted to beat their rival and bring a World Series title to Boston for the first time since World War I. It was not a quote that typified previous Red Sox regimes and made fans around here realize things would be different. That’s what Lucchino brought to Boston, and in turn, that’s what they’ll be missing when he’s gone.
  • In 2013, in the days between the end of the regular season and the AL Division Series, the Red Sox held an open workout/scrimmage at Fenway Park that fans could attend for free and sit anywhere they chose. It was on a weekday afternoon and I was between jobs, so I went and got myself a great seat in the grandstands directly behind home plate. It’s easy to forget now how awesome 2013 was, especially after the 2011-2012 debacles, because that team was so much fun to watch and they’d essentially been wire-to-wire division champions. So getting to see them do their thing for free that day was quite a treat. Anyway, later in the proceedings, I noticed Lucchino strolling through the walkway between the grandstands and the box seats behind home plate. He was wearing a plaid button-down shirt and jeans and blended in with the crowd so well that I doubt many people realized it was him. After saying hello to a few people, he took a seat by himself in the box seats a few rows in front of me. For the next half-hour or so, he conversed with fans sitting nearby and several came over to sit down near him and ask him questions about the team and the ballpark. I didn’t go up to say anything myself, but if I had I would have told him how much I appreciated the club’s turnaround that season. I just thought it was neat thing for the team’s CEO and president to do that.

No matter what you think of him, things won’t be the same without Larry Lucchino running the Red Sox. What that means for the long-term success of the franchise remains to be seen.