Friday, August 21, 2015

Dombrowski to the Rescue

Dombrowski (second from right) has his work cut out for him (Reformer)
Just when another listless Red Sox season seemed to be quietly winding down, Boston made major waves off the field by shaking up its front office.

That should come as no surprise, however, because whenever the Red Sox do poorly, heads are bound to roll. In the wake of Boston's 2011 crash, Terry Francona was let go and Theo Epstein jumped ship, even though it was clearly the players who were the issue. When the team finished last the following year, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez were traded and Bobby Valentine was shown the door. In 2013 Boston won the World Series, so everyone got to keep their jobs, but a last place finish in 2014 resulted in much of the title-winning roster getting booted, including four-fifths of the starting rotation and several key role players.

This year brought more of the same. Pitching coach Juan Nieves got canned in May, barely a month into the season. Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino--two of the few remaining World Series champions--were traded. Team president and CEO Larry Lucchino announced he was stepping down at season's end.

But as the Red Sox spent another summer in the AL East basement, one got the sense that neither Ben Cherington, the team's architect, nor John Farrell, the team's skipper, would not return next year. No one could have imagined that they'd both be gone so soon, under such extraordinary circumstances, within a few days of each other.

Farrell, of course, was forced out by lymphoma, which he began chemotherapy for Tuesday. He will not return this season, though he expects to be ready for spring training if his treatment goes well. His job is safe for the time being (firing a cancer patient is one way to alienate your fans), though with two years remaining on his contract he was probably never in serious danger of being fired anyways, especially since he's never caused ownership any headaches (unlike his predecessor, who somehow survived an entire season before getting axed).

And besides, it wasn't Farrell's fault he got stuck with a position-less Hanley Ramirez, an overweight third baseman who swings at balls that hit him, and a truly awful starting rotation. A manager can only work with what he's given, and what he got has amounted to a steaming pile of garbage.

The man who handed him that trash bag was Cherington, who is leaving his post as Boston's general manager after three and a half seasons. With Dave Dombrowski, former GM of the Detroit Tigers, taking over as Boston's president of baseball operations, Cherington is following Lucchino out the door as well.

Gone with him is Boston's slavish devotion to analytics, which many point to as the root of the team's recent failures. The front office's severe misjudgment was most obvious during this past offseason, which has turned out to be a disaster. Analytics may have said a starting rotation of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Joe Kelly would be fine, but any sensible person could see it was doomed from the start. Cherington trusted the same analytics that believed Ramirez could play left field, that said Pablo Sandoval was worth almost $100 million, and that valued Rusney Castillo at another $72.5 million.

Look, analytics are a great tool, and it's better to have them than not, but they can't be used blindly. Just as WAR shouldn't be the end-all, be-all stat for any baseball discussion, analytics shouldn't be the only method teams use for evaluating players. They're a good place to start, but you need to supplement with scouting.

Enter Dombrowski, one of the few remaining "old-school" baseball people. He may seem like a dinosaur to some, but his results on the field speak for themselves. While Dombrowski never won a World Series with the Tigers, he transformed them from one of the worst teams in baseball to a perennial powerhouse. He'll seek to do the same in Boston, aided by baseball's best farm system and a gargantuan payroll.

With Cherington gone, his first order of business is to find a new general manager. The frontrunner appears to be Frank Wren, former general manager of the Atlanta Braves. Like Dombrowski, Wren's a more traditional baseball mind who enjoyed great success with his last team. With him and Dombrowski at the helm Boston would seem to be in good hands.

Like his predecessor, Cherington left behind a huge mess to clean up. Hopefully Dombrowski and his new general manager can get things back in order as quickly as he did.

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