Why Mookie Was Traded

The last time anything was posted in this space, Markus Lynn Betts – better known as Mookie – had never won a major league championship. He was also the starting right fielder for the Boston Red Sox. As of Tuesday, assuming the medicals clear and this cryptic warning proves to be resolved, neither of those things is true.

The trade of Betts was certain to send shockwaves through Boston and beyond simply because of the quality of player he is. As Ben Lindbergh notes, no one as young and good as Betts has ever been traded. In the non-Trout cohort of Major League Players, Betts is probably at the top of the list if we ignore contracts. Unfortunately, however, contracts do matter which is how we ended up where we ended up, which is with the best positional player the Red Sox have had in my lifetime being traded for two quality players, neither of which approaches his ability level.

Even given the caliber of player that Betts is, however, the level of vitriol this trade has unleashed is like nothing I’ve seen before. That’s expected from the Shaughnessy’s of the world whose stock-in-trade is spewing poison, but when typically calm and level-headed columnists such as Chad Finn go scorched earth in this fashion it’s clear the trade hit a nerve. Even writers with no attachment whatsoever to the Red Sox were incensed, from Michael Baumann of The Ringer to Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports.

Like the fans currently calling for the heads of Henry, Bloom and everyone else involved in the Red Sox decision-making process, for most the explanation for this trade is simple: it’s the money. Nothing more, nothing less. The normally mild mannered Finn rebranded the club “Tampa Bay Rays North,” and Calcaterra’s pithy summary was “This trade was born of the Red Sox being unwilling to spend a few million bucks to field a championship caliber team.”

Ambiguous, the returns are not.

There are, to be fair, a few lonely souls out there arguing that the deal while profoundly depressing made baseball sense – Soxprospect’s Chris Hatfield and Ian Cundall, for two, along with whoever it is that mans the invaluable @redsoxstats account. But to Calcaterra, Finn and – sadly – Ken Tremendous, dissenting takes on the deal are signs that one “roots for the financials over the ballplayers” or, worse, “the spreadsheet column that tracks this year’s net profitability for one of many divisions of a billionaire’s company’s portfolio.”

Like the heretics above, however, as much of a tragedy as the deal is, and it’s a tragedy make no mistake, the take here is that it’s also a deal that is a logical response to a set of market conditions. Market conditions that are in some cases at least are not the responsibility of the Boston Red Sox, and yet which they are being held accountable for. Let’s unpack the context here to try and get beneath superficial rage to understand the motivations, the mechanics and ultimately the choice faced by Bloom.

The Player

One of the players headed out in this deal is a very accomplished lefthander who set the major league record for pitcher salaries at the time of his signing, and yet this will never be anything but the Mookie trade. That is a testament to the player’s ability, which is surpassing. On or off the field, there is basically nothing Betts does not do well. He can hit, he can field, he can run the bases. He’s a marketer’s dream, always smiling and seemingly always upbeat. Never a whiff of controversy off the diamond, and in fact ran out to feed the homeless after a playoff game.

There’s nothing not to like about Mookie. His career trajectory is consistent with two other players Red Sox fans are likely to be familiar with, which is notable because both are in the Hall of Fame and one has an argument for being the best hitter that ever lived.

Betts is not, in other words, a player to trade, he’s a player to build around. Why will he not following in the footsteps, then, of the great Red Sox outfielders that preceded him?

Part of the answer is context, and part of it is the player. We’ll come back to the context, but it’s important to acknowledge Betts’ agency in this regard.

It is true that Betts never once said he would not resign with Boston. But it is also true that he rarely – but admittedly not never – expressed an outsized affection for the city. Like most players, when pressed his response was something generic and noncommital like “this is all I’ve known.” This was usually in conjunction with sentiments such as, “it’s a business” – which is, besides being an entirely accurate statement, it’s his absolute right to view it that way. According to Jim Rice, Mookie Betts told him on Tuesday night that “I wanted to stay.” That may be the case, but it seems curious that never once until he was traded did he express his wishes that plainly. Bogaerts did, and was signed shortly thereafter.

None of which should be taken to mean that Betts should have felt compelled to fall over himself saying how much he loved Boston and wanted to stay, let alone accept less than his full value. If his goal was to strictly to maximize his value by reaching free agency, no one has the right to question that.

Unless his private communication with the club was materially different than his public statements, however, his consistent ambiguity must have left the club with questions about whether the player was signable even with a top of market offer. Bloom and Dombrowski before him, therefore, had to allow for the possibility – even as critics of this deal generally have not – that even if the money was there, Betts might depart for climate, geographical or other reasons.

It is interesting to speculate, on that point, whether Betts would have been traded had he promised the club the right of first refusal. Alas, we’ll never know.

The Trade

One of the other criticisms of this trade is the return. And on the surface this makes sense; even two well regarded major league or near major league ready players seems a light return for a player of Betts’ caliber. But, as mentioned above, contracts matter.

First, the player was owed close to thirty million dollars, which immediately narrows the potential destinations to a small handful. The fact that Betts had a single year left limited his market value further. The fact that he had expressed no willingness to sign an extension before hitting free agency limited it yet again. Having the potential albatross of Price’s contract stapled to him brought it down to the return we saw.

In spite of these hindrances, however, Bloom was able to extract multiple years of two Top 100 prospects from the deal while simultaneously granting himself maneuverability this season under the CBT and, with the reset, the ability to spend freely next.

Assume if only for the sake of argument that Mookie Betts had to be traded with David Price: it’s difficult to imagine a materially better return given the limited suitors and nature of the two contracts involved.

The Payroll

As discussed, the conventional wisdom about this deal is that it’s strictly a function of money, and that this is essentially nothing more than a billionaire lining his pockets with more money. Which is, in the strictest sense, true. This deal was certainly motivated by the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT threshold) and the penalties involved – though those extend beyond just the financial as we’ll come back to.

But accusing this ownership group of being cheap is an interesting assertion given that the Red Sox had the highest payroll in the major leagues last year, and the year before that. And for the three years before that, John Henry and co ran the sixth, fifth and third highest payrolls in the game.

Were the Red Sox profitable in spite of those high payrolls? Presumably. But just two seasons ago they outspent the second ranked San Francisco Giants by nearly $30M; last season they outspent the second ranked Chicago Cubs by less than ten million. On a possibly related note, neither club made the postseason.

Surely the Red Sox are unique in their newfound apprehension about going over the threshold, however? Not so much.

The Dodgers avoid it.

As do the Yankees.

If you want to criticize the Red Sox for their budgetary constraints, then, it seems fair to acknowledge that they have historically been more willing to exceed it than larger market counterparts.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Speaking of…

The System

The subtext to all of this discussion is the CBT, so it’s probably useful to take a moment to examine what the CBT actually is and what it means. The CBT is a multi-tiered threshold of escalating penalties which is theoretically a soft cap but is, in practice, treated like more of a hard cap. It gets worse a) for each level of spending you exceed and b) for each year you’re over. We’ve been over the maximum threshold two years in a row; this would be three.

Besides a fifty percent tax on every dollar spent above the threshold and the loss of revenue sharing – this is one side of the money that everyone is complaining about, there are draft penalties. If you exceed the maximum threshold, your draft spot – and more importantly, the budget associated with it – is knocked down 10 spots. Additionally, the draft compensation for departing free agents drops from the first or second round to the fourth. The draft penalties are suboptimal if you’re generally a successful club; if you’re a club facing potential draft sanctions for sign stealing, as the Red Sox are, they’re potentially ruinous.

Ten years ago, none of this would be an issue, because amateur spending wasn’t capped. Which is how Henry’s ownership group invested close to $70M (with the 100% tax on amateur spending) on Yoan Moncada, later the headline piece in the acquisition of Chris Sale. But in 2020, amateur pools both domestically and internationally are capped such that exceeding them is simply not done.

Which in turn means that while the CBT’s most obvious implications involve financial penalties on overages, the ongoing impacts to amateur talent acquisition have the potential to harm the long term health of a club’s talent pipeline.

Given that the club flaunted the old draft systems without hard caps on amateur spending by investing liberally in amateur talent (Rusney Castillo is making $13.5M to play the outfield in Pawtucket, remember), it seems safe to assume that the Red Sox are not in favor of the new system. A system, as described by Calcaterra:

in which the threshold where such decisions allegedly must begin to be made — $208 million this year — has grown at a far slower rate than player salaries have. A system which actively works against teams getting good and staying good. A system which is antithetical to the very ideas of competitive sports and the cultivation of fan loyalty. A system which is designed for the express purpose of suppressing team payrolls, even if it means trading away generational superstars.

Somehow, however, this system that at least encouraged if not outright caused the Betts trade, that the Red Sox as a large market club are likely not in favor of, that was collectively bargained by the clubs and the players, is being held against Boston in singular fashion.

The Roster

It is ironic that one of the primary reasons the Red Sox are being criticized for not spending on Betts is that they spent too liberally on players more willing to sign. Before the trade, the combination of Sale ($30M), Price ($32M) and Eovaldi ($17M) were projected to cost the club nearly $80M. In 2019, they got a tick over 300 innings out of those three pitchers – combined. All of them had ERA’s north of 4, and all had significant injuries (elbow for Eovaldi and Sale, wrist for Price).

For context, to open 2019, there were five clubs whose total 25 man roster made less than $80M, and another within hailing distance at $83M.

This suggests, correctly, that Dombrowski was spending commensurate with his club’s big market status, but without much of a long term plan for fitting Mookie into the picture or regard for the risks involved. Which is certainly on the club for employing him, and likely explains in part why they no longer do so.

But in Dombrowski’s defense, it’s possible that his assumption based on repeated failures to sign the player or even find common ground led him to believe that Betts was unsignable in practical terms. An assumption that the player could not be secured would help explain why he was comfortable locking up Bogaerts, Eovaldi and Sale while cognizant that budgets, at some point, are finite and that he was going to run out of room for a Betts contract.

Regardless of the precise sequence of events, however, the Red Sox had a number of very high price assets monopolizing a large part of their budget. Which might still be workable if the farm system could be tapped for a reliable supply of major league ready players. Unfortunately, however, as is Dombrowski’s modus operandi, that had been systematically converted into major league assets, leaving behind a thin pool of potential prospects years away from playing meaningful roles with the club.

The situation that Bloom inherited then, was a roster in which a mere eight players (Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, Eovaldi, Martinez, Pedroia, Price and Sale) out of a roster of 26 were set to be on the books for $175M, or more than all but four teams (Astros, Cubs, Nationals, Yankees) entire opening day payrolls last season.

Which, again, is poor roster construction on the club’s part, specifically Dombrowski. In this way, it is absolutely fair as Peter Abraham of the Globe did to characterize this as an organizational failure, because that’s exactly what this is.

It is curious given the above facts, however, that the Red Sox are being characterized as merely cheap when a more accurate diagnosis would seem to be be mismanaged.

The League

One argument for keeping Betts goes that the Red Sox could retain him for 2020, making one last run at the World Series with their MVP, accepting the risk he walks away for nothing at the end of the season. As it’s an argument based on contention, this argument necessarily must factor in the league context.

If you’re an optimist, as many in the audience are, you’d probably point to the fact that they still had the core of a roster that won 108 games and blitzed through the postseason en route to their fourth title this decade a mere two seasons ago. The counter to that, unfortunately, is that everyone on that roster is two years older and coming off a season in which they won 84 games, finished third in their division and missed the playoffs.

Worse, the Rays appear poised for sustained success – hence Bloom’s presence – and the Yankees chose this offseason to flex, landing easily the best free agent starter on the market to shore up one of the few weaknesses of their roster (though it’s worth asking whether Paxton’s injury after the fact would change that calculus at all).

Would the Red Sox roster with Betts and Price have a shot at contending? Certainly. But with two of their starting pitchers having been unable to finish out the season due to injury and a third almost wholly ineffective after coming back from his, the outlook was uncertain at best.

Which makes it a poor factor for consideration in regard to any move the magnitude of a trade of a talent like Betts.

The Choice

In case any of this is unclear, this is an awful deal, and a genuine tragedy for Red Sox fans. Nothing would be more satisfying than seeing that talent end his career never having worn another uniform, and nothing will be more painful seeing him in Dodger blue. This is, again, the best position player the Red Sox have had at least since Yastrzemski and arguably since Williams.

Saying it’s a tragedy is a different thing, however, than saying this is the wrong move for the team, and it’s at least mildly surprising that a region so reflexively enamored of Belichick’s absolutely ruthless lack of sentimentality and the results it produces can’t recognize that.

All other considerations aside, Bloom’s choice essentially amounted to:

  • Option A:
    One guaranteed year of Betts, after which he had no guarantee of resigning the player even if he was the high bidder. If the club doesn’t resign him, he gets nothing.

    Three guaranteed years of Price at $32M per. Best case, he’s healthy and adjusts to declining velocity. Worst case, his “special” elbow, wrist or some other ailment costs portions of some or all of those seasons and $96M is now effectively immovable and nearly $100M of dead money.

    The non-trade means the club is over the CBT, so financial and draft penalties apply. It also has limited room to maneuver in-season.

  • Option B:
    Three years of a good young outfielder worth 60-70% of Betts production.

    Five years of a young pitcher with a ceiling of #2/#3 starter and floor of late inning relief pitcher. Or maybe not.

    Financial flexibility for in-season moves and/or negotiating extensions with Devers or Rodriguez.

    2020 CBT reset allows for the signing of high dollar contracts beginning in 2021.

In a perfect world, one where budgets are infinite and money is no object, there is no CBT, no caps on amateur spending, and no one gave a lefthander heading into his thirties the largest contract ever handed to a pitcher, this is a simple decision. That not being the world we live in, this might have been the best the club could do. Much as those howling are loathe to admit it, this isn’t just about the money. It never was.

One last thing worth noting. Assume that the trade proceeds, and that the Red Sox reset their CBT threshold. Let’s further assume that Betts’ stance remains consistent following the trade and that he intends to hit the open market rather than re-signing prematurely with the Dodgers. There is, at that point, nothing stopping the Red Sox from using their 2020 reset to bring back the best free agent on the market…one Markus Lynn Betts. It’s a long shot, and smart money is on the Dodgers, but a useful reminder nevertheless that judging trades at the time they’re made is a fool’s errand.

Whatever happens from here on out, however, there is one thing that everyone – regardless of where they stand with respect to this deal – can agree on: Mookie is an absolute joy to watch, a credit to whatever team he plays for and a player and person that will be sorely missed.

Ave atque value, Mookie.

The Glass Half Full

flu

Six games into the season, we’re in third place, a game and a half in back of Baltimore and half a game behind Tampa. Two teams that were, notably, picked by most to finish in the bottom half of the division.

The team picked by most to win the American League East, your Boston Red Sox, is hovering at .500, thanks to two comeback wins. In the six games they’ve played, they’ve scored 22 runs. Of the 57 innings they’ve been on the field, they’ve scored runs in nine of them. Only five clubs have scored fewer runs than the Red Sox, and only five have hit for less power.

In case you’re fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, that’s bad. But it’s too early to despair. Remember that things have not exactly gone according to plan so far this season. Consider the following:

  • Last year’s $217M free agent pitcher (Price) has yet to make a start and just threw off a mound today for the first time due to elbow problems.
  • Last year’s major addition to the bullpen via trade (Smith) threw three games for the Red Sox in 2016, had Tommy John surgery and isn’t projected to be back until June.
  • This year’s major addition to the bullpen via trade (Thornburg) injured his shoulder in spring training and is only just now beginning to throw.
  • The expected platoon partner at third base (Rutledge) injured his hamstring days before breaking camp.
  • Two players (Bogaerts and Barnes) have missed time on bereavement leave. The former missed an additional game because his return flight from leave was cancelled and a charter couldn’t be arranged in time.
  • Five active players (Betts, Kelly, MorelandRamirez, Ross Jr.) have missed games due to the flu, one did not miss a game but threw up in the middle of one (Benintendi), and two currently on the DL (Rutledge and Thornburg) have also taken ill.
  • The flu has gotten so bad that the play-by-play announcer (O’Brien) had to leave in the middle of the game, and the Red Sox decided to fumigate the clubhouse.
  • Our centerfielder (Bradley Jr), off to a Gold Glove caliber start, was just put on the DL with a knee sprain.
  • Tomorrow’s starting pitcher (Pomeranz), who had a stem cell injection in his elbow in the offseason, suffered triceps tendinitis and pitched poorly in spring training, started the season on the DL and is making his first start tomorrow and no one knows what to expect.
  • Our replacement for any injured starter is a 32 year old pitcher (Kendrick) who didn’t play in the majors last season. Also, he gave up 10 runs in 6 IP tonight.

Now while it’s true that issues like the flu can reasonably be expected to pass, there are multiple injury situations that could derail the Red Sox season. Most projection systems have already marked down their odds accordingly, in fact. Also, our depth is terrible.

But if you were told before the season about the above, you’d take 3-3, right? Exactly.

Why I Hate the Chris Sale Trade

wasteland

Dave Dombrowski was hired by the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, August 18th of 2015, thirteen days after being fired by the Detroit Tigers. The General Manager in Boston at the time, Ben Cherington, a former Theo Epstein lieutenant and disciple, resigned later that night.

Even while en route to their third last place finish in four years, there was substantial trepidation amongst Red Sox fans about the hire. Not surprisingly for someone who’s been in the game since 1978, Dombrowski’s reputation preceded him. “Dealin’ Dave” was known for having no reservations about moving the kind of minor league talent that the Epstein and Cherington regimes fiercely protected.

The immediate question in the wake of Dombrowski’s appointment was what it meant: would the Red Sox remain committed to player development and home grown talent, or would the system be strip-mined and sold off for veterans? The retention of Mike Hazen as Dombrowski’s GM seemed at the time like an olive branch, a sign that the front office tradition that won Boston three world championships in a decade – one of which came at the expense of Dombrowski’s Tigers – would be respected.

Fifteen months later, Hazen is gone, and with him the last vestiges of the front office Theo Epstein created. As Peter Gammons says, “The organization is far different than the one [Theo] created; more than a dozen, many of them key people, have left the organization since Dave Dombrowski took over.” An organization that once prided itself on its ability to draft and develop talent was no more, as was originally feared.

All of which explains how it’s possible to be crushed that the Boston Red Sox acquired a player the caliber of Chris Sale. The following is a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

  • The Deal is Defensible:
    As many writers have noted, the deal is not without its merits. Absent context, even so-called “prospect hoarders” would be forced to admit that it can be defended. Most obviously, the deal was completed without affecting the major league roster. Once, Sale would have been traded for nothing less than a Betts, Bogaerts, or at worst, Bradley. Instead, all three remain with the club. It’s also fair to note that even the best prospects in the deal – Kopech (who’s comped to Syndergaard) and Moncada (who’s comped to Cano) – do not come without question marks. Basabe and Diaz, for their part, are even further away and thus riskier. Evaluating the deal on its own merits, you might not take a single player – even one as good as Sale – for multiple high upside prospects (one of whom is regarded as the best prospect in baseball) because you’re concentrating your risk. But you might, because:
  • Sale is Good:
    Excellent, in fact. By fWAR, he was the seventh best pitcher in the league last year, ahead of names like Kluber, Bumgarner, Tanaka, Price, Hendricks and Lester. If you go back to 2012, in fact, his first season as a starter, there are three pitchers who’ve been more valuable: Kershaw, Scherzer and (by a tick) Price. By virtually any metric, Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball. And he’s not the only star.
  • The Roster is Good:
    Sale isn’t the only good Red Sox starting pitcher, as you might have heard. The reigning American League Cy Young winner, in fact, could be the number three starter for the club – and the final two spots are likely to be filled by pitchers who either have been an All Star (Buchholz, Pomeranz, Wright) or have that kind of ability (Rodriguez). And while the offense has an enormous hole to fill with the departure of Ortiz and is unlikely to lead the league in runs again – let alone by a hundred – it is capable and with the exception of third base and arguably DH has no obvious holes. Nor is this a typical Dombrowski club with incredible starting pitching but a porous bullpen: if Carson Smith makes it back by midseason, the Red Sox could throw five guys late in the game who hit the high 90’s in Barnes, Kelly, Kimbrel, Smith and Thornburg. Even the depth is reasonable, with three potential catchers, Brock Holt and Marco Hernandez and players like Sam Travis waiting in the wings at Pawtucket. And not only is the lineup good.
  • The Core Players Are Young:
    In Betts, Bogaerts and Bradley, the Red Sox have an enviable trio of talented and young players. Bradley’s the elder statesman at 26, while Betts and Bogaerts are 24. As is Blake Swihart. Andrew Benintendi, meanwhile, who presumably will start in left field, is 22. That is the kind of core that every team in baseball that’s not the Cubs would envy and take in a second. And even after all the trades, the farm system isn’t quite tapped out.
  • Not All the Remaining Prospects Are Bad:
    While the Red Sox minor league system is in the worst shape it’s been in in over a decade, and has effectively no depth, there are two players left over with potentially high ceilings in Jason Groome and Rafael Devers. Neither are exactly knocking on the door to the major league club, but they remain a top two that are at least the equal of most other systems in the game.

The Bad

  • Tick, Tick, Tick:
    One of the things that everyone seems to agree on is that the price for Sale came down. From “a Betts/Bogaerts/Bradley to start the conversation,” the White Sox ended up settling for a package that included no players from the major league roster. The question no one seems to be asking is: why did the price come down? One potential, frightening answer: injury risk.Gammons: “A source close to Jerry Reinsdorf, the most loyal of owners, says he is concerned about Sale’s long-term shoulder wear given his delivery and the extreme effort.”

    Olney: “According to sources, the White Sox are pushed by a concern in some corners of the Chicago organization that it’s inevitable the All-Star left-hander with the contortionist pitching mechanics will eventually break down.”

    Presumably the White Sox know more about him than anyone else, and they lowered the price to acquire him. And then there are the numbers.

  • Warning Signs?:
    Sales’ FIP in 2016 was 3.46, the worst of his career. The last time he had a FIP above 3, in fact, was 2013. He also struck out batters at the lowest rate since his debut in 2012. The rumor early in the season was that he was trying to pitch more to contact, but as Keith Law notes he lost a mile and a half of velocity. There’s nothing in his numbers that screams red flag, but neither is the trajectory and more importantly, the dip in velocity, encouraging.
  • The Odds:
    To read some of the initial reactions to the trade, you’d think that trading for Sale guaranteed a World Series berth, if not title. But the math of the postseason is remorseless. Even a club as talented as last year’s Cubs, who were arguably the best defensive team in history and fronted by a similar trio of Cy Young types had something close to a 25% chance of winning the World Series. They won, of course, much to the delight of Cubs fans everywhere, but they were also down three to one to an Indians team short two of its best starters and if not for the rain delay in Game 7, who knows how that series turns out. None of which is to say that you don’t go for it when you can, but given the long odds of even the best teams reaching the series let alone winning it, it’s important to always keep the long view in mind. As Dombrowski should know well from his time in Detroit: it’s not that often that a team opens a series almost no hitting the opposing club the first three games and loses.
  • The Context:
    Even for the Red Sox fans most devoted to prospects, if the Chris Sale trade was Dombrowski’s first trip to the well, he’d be universally hailed.Unfortunately, in fifteen months Dombrowksi has traded seventeen prospects. The following is Sox Prospect’s Top 20 on July 1, 2015, a month and a half before Dombrowski took the reigns.

    1 Eduardo Rodriguez
    2 Yoan Moncada (TRADED)
    3 Rafael Devers
    4 Manuel Margot (TRADED)
    5 Brian Johnson
    6 Henry Owens
    7 Andrew Benintendi
    8 Michael Kopech (TRADED)
    9 Javier Guerra (TRADED)
    10 Deven Marrero
    11 Anderson Espinoza (TRADED)
    12 Trey Ball
    13 Michael Chavis
    14 Pat Light (TRADED)
    15 Sam Travis
    16 Travis Shaw (TRADED)
    17 Ty Buttrey
    18 Mauricio Dubon (TRADED)
    19 Teddy Stankiewicz
    20 Wendell Rijo (TRADED)

    As you can see, he has traded almost half the high end prospect inventory he inherited, and with obvious exceptions such as Devers, many of those that are left likely haven’t been traded because their value cratered (Johnson, Owens, Marrero, etc) or was always minimal (Ball).

    Many will protest, saying that fans become too attached to prospects that haven’t proven anything yet, and that Sale is an elite pitcher. My response to that is that so was Cole Hamels when the Phillies asked for a minor leaguer called Mookie Betts in return for the lefthander’s services. Personally, I’m glad we kept Mookie.

    The net is that Dombrowski has taken a scythe to one of the most fertile farm systems in the game, and in less than two years has left behind a wasteland. Which is a problem because:

  • Contracts Are Coming Up Sooner Than You Think:
    Most of the trade reactions you’ll read are focused on the 2017 season, which is understandable because the prospects seem bright, even if the winner of the offseason has historically faired poorly. Thanks to Dombrowski, the outlook in the short term is excellent. But what if we look further out? What does the Red Sox roster look like? The answer, if you’re a Red Sox fan at least, is troubling.Two seasons from now, Price can opt out, Hanley’s status depends on games played and Kimbrel and Pomeranz are free agents.

    The year after that, Bogaerts, Bradley, Porcello, Sale and Thornburg are on the market.

    The year following? Betts, Rodriguez and Smith.

    In four years, then, we could lose four top starters, our closer and setup men, two of three outfielders, and our starting shortstop. This is less alarming if either a) the competitive balance threshold went way up so you could spend with impunity, or b) you have a wave of young players coming up behind them, because you can either swap the departing players for younger replacements, or retain the ones you want and fill in the gaps with young, low cost alternatives. Well, the CBT isn’t going way up, and Boston doesn’t have that wave of young players anymore. Our two best starting pitching prospects in years – Kopech and Espinoza -are gone. One potential superstar position player in Moncada has departed, as have a host of potential starters or utility men in Asuaje, Basabe, Dubon, Guerra and Margot. Even if next year’s draft is incredible – and with all of the front office departures it’s worth asking whether it will be – the impact won’t be felt for years. The well is dry, and the club will have to pay that price eventually.

The Ugly

  • Restocking the System:
    As the hemorrhaging from the minor league system continued, the front office has responded by expressing confidence in its ability to restock the farm. This is a confidence which, at best, seems misplaced – and not just because Dombrowski clubs have rarely drafted with any notable success.For many years, there were opportunities for wealthy clubs like the Red Sox to leverage their financial resources to maximum effect in the draft or international markets. These opportunities have since been eliminated.

    First, MLB closed the loophole with the draft, by imposing restrictions on spending so that clubs like the Red Sox couldn’t scoop up elite talent in later rounds simply by being willing to field angry calls from the commissioner’s office. And as of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, the last remaining asymmetric opportunity for amateur spending was removed when MLB established a hard cap on international signings.

    In other words, where the Red Sox could once simply outspend other major league clubs on the amateur markets, the reality is today that if anything, high payroll teams are disadvantaged relative to their small market competitors.

    Gone are the days when the Red Sox could acquire a talent like Moncada simply by being willing to spend what the market bore: $60M+, in his case. In short, it’s hard to think of a worse time for the Red Sox to have completely depleted their minor league system.

  • The Brain Drain:
    Longer term, the most damage from the Dombrowski era may come from the loss of executive talent. As mentioned above, the Red Sox have already lost a number of key executives – executives who in many cases played critical roles in one or more world championships – in the Dombrowski era. And given the reports that Dombrowski’s inner circle is considerably smaller than his predecessors’, it stands to reason that the Red Sox – in spite of being the Red Sox – may not be able to attract or retain the front office talent that they once did. Which is a significant problem, one that compounds the devastation of our minor league system. As we’ve seen in recent years, so much of the game is now being driven by creativity, from talent identification and acquisition to defensive positioning, but the Red Sox do not appear to be the premier destination they once were.

The Net

During his tenure in Detroit, Dombrowski worked for an owner in his seventies who was desperate to win a world series, desperate enough to mortgage the future in an effort to win in the present. Despite assembling powerful lineups and rotations full of hard throwing Cy Young candidates, the current Red Sox president was never able to give his owner that title. His successor Al Avila, meanwhile, will be the one that pays for Dombrowski’s decisions, and is currently attempting to sell anything that’s not nailed down.

As the ownership group that empowered Theo Epstein all those years ago to build the player development machine Dombrowski has now, finally, dismantled, it’s ironic that John Henry and Co’s willingness to pound the nail in that coffin might have come from watching two men they ran out of town face off in the world series, cementing their Hall of Fame credentials in the process. It took a while, but the best Manager and General Manager the Red Sox ever had may yet have the last laugh.

In the meantime, enjoy 2017.

 

Ave Atque Vale, Anderson Espinoza

Never again Mr. Onion

Certainly since, but also well before, the Red Sox signed David Price to an immense contract, fans have been reminded that the club has not been able to draft and develop starting pitching. The current rotation features zero products of our system, unless you want to count Eduardo Rodriguez who was drafted by the Orioles and spent a year plus on our farm. Buchholz, the last notable starting pitcher developed by the Red Sox has not been able to find himself and sadly, for me anyway, appears likely to be elswhere after August 1st.

Against this backdrop, then, it was surprising – even given the reputation that preceded “Trader” Dave Dombrowski – that our best pitching prospect was sent to San Diego in a deal for Drew Pomeranz. If you’re desperate to develop pitching, wouldn’t it make more sense to deal from your surplus of positional prospects? Or if those won’t secure the return you’re looking for or are too valuable to deal, to aim lower than Pomeranz and instead target an Ervin Santana?

Clearly the club believes in Pomeranz, that the recent changes in his pitch usage and the addition of a cutter are sustainable changes that bump him to a higher level than he achieved with Oakland. But if the priority is to win now, and the trade of Espinoza makes clear that that is in fact the priority, wouldn’t it make more sense to deal for a better bet to provide innings both down the stretch and into October? Let’s say Pomeranz pitches well for another month, then tires. At that point, wouldn’t it have made more sense to see what you could get for Espinoza in the offseason, when the market liquidity is higher and more pitchers are available? Or if the immediate priority isn’t this season, wouldn’t we prefer someone controllable for more than two more seasons?

About Espinoza, it’s fair to note both that he’s 18 and that pitching prospects are inherently more risky due to the fact that the human body wasn’t designed to throw a ball ninety plus miles an hour. But it’s also worth noting that unlike US players that were overworked in college, the bulk of Espinoza’s baseball career has been spent with the Red Sox, who have carefully and diligently monitored his usage. It’s also silly to compare Espinoza to the likes of Bowden, Kelly or Ranaudo: none were the caliber of pitching prospect that the player we traded was. None were close, even.

To some extent, the trade of Espinoza is a tragic what if scenario. What if, for example, Buchholz had pitched as he can? What if all of Elias, Johnson and Owens hadn’t either been unavailable or pitched poorly? What if, ironically, we hadn’t had to trade for the other principal starting pitching candidate – what if Dave Dombrowski had taken Rich Hill’s performance last year down the stretch seriously and signed him?

We don’t know what would have happened in those timelines, of course. What we do know is in this one, the Red Sox have traded a player Pedro Martinez called the “one guy we cannot trade” – a player who has been, famously, compared to Pedro. We also know the answer to another what if: what if a player like Sale were to become available? Espinoza is no longer available to headline such a deal.

It’s not necessarily that even a player like Espinoza should be off the table: everyone is available for the right return. But my reaction – both immediate and upon consideration – was closer to these opinions solicited by Alex Speier:

Even so, the idea of using Espinoza as the anchor of a package for a starter caught a number of evaluators by surprise. One NL evaluator suggested that he wouldn’t have dealt Espinoza unless it was for “a more impactful arm,” citing Chris Sale and Jose Fernandez as the caliber of pitchers he’d want if parting ways with arguably the top pitching prospect in the low minors. An AL evaluator was stunned by what he viewed as “an incredibly high price” for a pitcher in Pomeranz with so many unknowns.

If the Red Sox used Espinoza in a deal for Sale, which would obviously require an even further depletion of the system, it would be understandable. Dealing Espinoza instead for a pitcher like Pomeranz who comes with questions about his walk rate, the innings he can provide and his susceptibility to injury, suggests that Dombrowski’s impression of Espinoza is lower than just about every evaluator who has seen him.

And maybe that’s right. As Buster Olney quoted an evaluator this morning, “When was the last time Dave Dombrowski traded a really good player?” Which is reasonable, as it’s been a while. But this is also the General Manager who traded away Randy Johnson, Trevor Hoffman, Kevin Brown and Johan Santana.

Maybe Espinoza becomes the pitcher many are convinced he can be. Maybe not. But you can’t really argue that this is anything but a setback for the Red Sox’ systemic inability to develop starting pitching. And for the people arguing that he’s simply replaced by Groome in the system, no. You’re inarguably more likely to develop an ace out of the Espinoza, Groome and Kopech trio than you are out of just Groome and Kopech – particularly since the latter may throw harder than Espinoza but hasn’t shown the same promise with his other offerings.

Baseball is all about maximizing your returns. In this case, it’s not clear that the Red Sox did that. They bought high on Pomeranz while selling low, given his superficially mediocre numbers this season and the in season timing of the trade, on Espinoza. This single transaction was, in fact, what many of us had been afraid of when Dombrowski was hired.

Hopefully Pomeranz is lights out for his two and a half years here. In the meantime, we’ll have to ponder the biggest whaf if of them all: what if Anderson Espinoza turns out to be a legitimate ace?

The Great Red Sox Panic of 2016

On Monday, April 8th, 2002 Dave Dombrowski fired Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner after an 0-6 start. If the hope was to change the clubs fortunes, the move failed: his replacement Luis Pujols went a staggering 55-100. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dombrowski tied the quickest hook for a manager since 1900 – the other unfortunate being Cal Ripken Sr in 1988.

In case there was any doubt, it has become clear over the past few days that John Farrell is aware of this history.

2015 was a difficult year for the current Red Sox manager. The team entered the season with great expectations following a second last place finish in three years, but after a mediocre start (12-10) in April the wheels came off in May (10-19). By the trading deadline, it was all over but the crying, and what few movable parts there were were shown the door for negligible return.

As bad as the on the field situation was, Farrell’s health off the field was the real concern. Shortly after undergoing hernia surgery on August 11, it was discovered that he had stage 1 lymphoma. He would not return that season.

Having staggered to a .439 winning percentage under Farrell, the team’s luck changed shortly after his exit. Buoyed in part by unexpected performances from young players like Bradley or Shaw, not to mention the merciful decision to stop running Hanley Ramirez out in left field, the Red Sox made a run towards finishing .500 by playing .636 ball under interim manager, and former bench coach, Torey Lovullo.

If this had all happened one year earlier, there is no managerial controversy. In 2014, Farrell was fresh off a World Series title and respected throughout the organization, some of his odd tactical decisions notwithstanding. By the time he took his leave of absence last year, however, he was coming off a last place finish and had overseen the club’s steady march towards their second in a row.

Hence the question: who should manage the Boston Red Sox? John Farrell or Torey Lovullo? And if you stick with Farrell, what becomes of Lovullo? The Red Sox answered these questions in early October, announcing that Farrell would return and that Lovullo had been retained as well.

Personally, this was my preferred outcome, because it seemed inappropriate that Farrell not be given the chance to manage again because of his cancer diagnosis. Looking back, however, it may have been kinder to simply fire him.

Throughout this spring, there’s been an undercurrent of desperation. Writers wrote about how the team needed to get off to a fast start, unnamed front office executives were quoted as saying the same, but nothing has confirmed this more than Farrell’s repeated statements that the players performing the best in Spring Training would be the ones receiving playing time when the season opens on Monday – as if Spring Training performances were reliable predictors.

Which is how we find the players expected to be starting at third base (Sandoval) and left field (Castillo) headed for the bench.

For many in Boston, this has been welcome news. Neither Castillo nor Sandoval performed last year – Sandoval was one of the worst regulars in the league, in fact – and three last place finishes in four years means that business as usual isn’t acceptable.

Except that Farrell and the club’s approach so far makes little sense.

The personnel decisions, for example, are clearly the product of panic, not rational planning. Sandoval’s first year was indefensible. Fine. He’s hardly the first big ticket free agent to succumb to the pressure of the contract, however. While populist sentiment is in favor of assigning playing time independent of contract terms, in practice this makes little sense. By putting Sandoval on the bench, you increase rather than decrease the pressure on a player who already struggled with it last year. Which elevates the risk of losing him entirely, at which point you now have seventy plus million of dead money to try and find a home for.

While starting Sandoval and hoping for a return to something closer to his historical performance baselines is the correct decision, sitting him would be understandable if he was blocking a known quantity at third base. He is not. Statistically, in fact, there is greater reason the believe in Sandoval than Shaw, as Paul Swydan covers well.

Even setting the money aside, from a career accomplishments’ standpoint, it would unquestionably be easier to start Sandoval than Shaw. If Sandoval falters, Shaw has his opportunity. If Sandoval bounces back, Shaw can either refine his craft in the minors – where he has not performed particularly well, notably – or serve as the bench bat he was expected to. By starting Shaw, the Red Sox are placing their faith in one good month in the majors and a handful of spring training at bats. If they’re wrong, and Shaw is not a major league regular, their backup option is a mentally fragile third baseman that they just publicly benched.

How does that make sense, exactly?

The decision to start Holt in left field over Castillo, meanwhile, is more defensible but just as puzzling. First, making Holt a near regular contradicts the club’s previous assertion that he performs better when not asked to play every day. Second, it flies in the face of their plan the entire offseason, which was to finally give Castillo an extended opportunity to see if he can make the most of it. Third, they made this decision, apparently, on a few week’s of Spring Training at bats. And lastly, if you’re that desperate to win games early that you need to start Holt over Castillo, why keep the latter on the major league roster? He’s certainly not going to improve by not playing as a fifth outfielder.

Worse than any particular personnel decision, however, is the tone that has been set around the club. As a cerebral game, baseball is not one that is played best under tension, or fear. It’s not good for the individual player’s performance, and it can lead to a poor decision-making which overvalues the present at the expense of the future.

The Red Sox appear fixated on coming out of the gate at a sprint. In a sport that is more of a marathon, however, this approach seems questionable at best. The club has, as Tim Britton writes, completely overhauled its philosophy this offseason. It’s understandable and to be expected that some change accompanies the last place finishes. But the last time the Red Sox over-rotated this far, we went from Tito Francona to Bobby Valentine.

The only consoling thought amidst the current panic, in fact, is that if things do begin to go south, we’re more likely to end up with Lovullo than another season of Bobby V.

Spring Training Thoughts on Five Players

The Boston Red Sox

Travis Shaw

The way the talk radio folks and writers are clamoring for Travis Shaw to start over one of Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval – over the winter it was the former, after Sandoval’s showing in camp he’s now the target – you’d think he was the second coming, a can’t miss prospect. The problem is that as a prospect, he’s mostly missed.

Shaw is about to turn 26, and in basically a full season’s worth of at bats at AAA he’s gotten on base at a .319 clip and slugged under .400. Some have openly wondered why it took so long for him to get playing time at Napoli’s expense last year. The answer is that he was putting up a .249/.318/.356 at Pawtucket. Those aren’t great numbers for a centerfielder. They’re abysmal for a first baseman.

Based in part on his surprising performance at the major league level last year over 65 games – 13 home runs and a workable .327 on base percentage – there’s something of a media campaign to start Shaw somewhere, anywhere. And granted, both Ramirez and Sandoval were so dismal last year it would be hard to be worse. But there are two problems with the Shaw campaign.

First, his minor league track record suggests that last year’s major league numbers are unsustainable. It’s possible to be a better player in the majors than you were in the minors – Trot Nixon was, for the most part. But it’s not common.

Second, just as with Jackie Bradley Jr a few years back, writers who should know better are making the case based on not only Shaw’s spring training at bats, but a tiny sample of them. As Peter Abraham – one of the writers who led the charge for JBJ based on his Ruthian spring training – writes, “A 1.430 OPS demands attention, even if it’s for eight games in spring training.”

Well no, it doesn’t actually. Not only is it spring training, it is eight games. Fortunately, Abraham’s colleague Alex Speier dismantled that argument efficiently, saying: “The recent history of extraordinary Red Sox spring performances suggests that what transpires in March does very little to illuminate what a player might do when the curtain lifts on the season.”

We’d all love to see Shaw succeed, both because we want the Red Sox to have more great players not less and because it’s a nice story. But we need to pump the brakes on the “Free Travis Shaw” campaign.

Hanley Ramirez

Heading into spring training, most of the negative attention of last year’s free agent disasters was on Ramirez. Which made sense to anyone who saw him play in the field. Fans and media alike convinced themselves that based on his implosion in the undemanding position of left field, he was certain to be unplayable at first.

This always seemed unlikely. Most obviously, because he at least had experience playing the infield. But the more important reason, in my view, was the offense factor. Simply put, if Ramirez hit the way he did last April, his defense wouldn’t be the same topic. Instead of asking can he play the position, it would be something closer to “he can’t be as bad as he was in left, right?”

But of course he didn’t hit for the season the way he did in April. Far from it, in fact. In March and April, he got on base at a .341 clip and slugged an eye popping .659. In the second half last year, those numbers fell to .211 and .239.

Which is the real Hanley? Likely neither. He’s not going to slug better than .600 for a season, but it seems equally improbable that he’d be below .300 again. The thing that supports the optimistic view of his offense this year is the injury. On May 4th, Ramirez ran into the left field wall hard. Up until that point, he was putting up a .283/.340/.609 line. From May 9th when he came back through the end of his season, he hit .239/.275/.372.

If his shoulder is healed, and by all accounts it is, I’ll take the skeptics’ bets and say that because he’ll hit, Ramirez will be playable at first. Not good, but good enough to stick around until the DH spot opens up.

Pablo Sandoval

Surprisingly, Sandoval seemed to take a lot less heat this offseason than Ramirez. Maybe it’s because he showed flashes at least that he could play a position on the field, unlike his free agent counterpart, but while he took flak, most seemed to believe that he’d rebound to some extent.

Allow me to take the under. Sandoval will start the season as the third baseman, as he should given his track record and Shaw’s lack of one, but my bet is that he doesn’t survive the season. He didn’t look good when he reported to camp, didn’t tell the media what they wanted to hear, and as a result the writers are smelling blood in the water. For a player coming off a career worst year, this season could not have started worse, and it’s difficult to see how he recovers when literally every miscue, every small slump is going to be scrutinized like the Zapruder tape. Every ground ball that gets through is going to be a referendum on his conditioning, every strikeout a reminder that his offensive numbes had been in decline even before he put the ink to his current contract.

In a fair, just world, Sandoval would be given a mulligan on an undefendable first year and a fresh start to try and prove he’s worth some fraction of the money he’s being paid. The Boston writers are not big believers in a fair, just world however. They’re believers in deadlines, and a camp short on real positional battles and thus stories.

If he lasts through the first half, it will be a surprise, and given the stated urgency it would not be a shock if they didn’t even bother to trade him for another bad contract but simply released him.

Steven Wright

As I write this, there is a battle for the fifth spot in the rotation – the opening unfortunately created when Eduardo Rodriguez caught a spike and – temporarily, apparently? – dislocated his kneecap. Wright’s chances of making the club appear to be excellent, both because he’s pitched reasonably well and because none of the other potential candidates in Elias, Johnson or Owens have particularly. The hope here is that he sticks around, both because he would certainly be lost to waivers as he’s out of options and the return in a trade would probably not equal his value to the club. Knuckleballers have their limitations, obviously, but it’s not that much of a stretch to see Wright playing a role similar to an Adam Warren: capable spot starter and can give you multiple innings out of the bullpen. That has value.

Christian Vazquez

What you think of Christian Vazquez is dependent, in most cases, on what you think of Blake Swihart. If you think the latter will be as advertised with the bat – i.e. the player that draws comps to Buster Posey, the answer is, as Chad Finn said here, obvious.

It’s less obvious to me. Count me as one who puts a premium on catcher defense. No one doubts – the Tommy John surgery notwithstanding – that Vazquez is transcendent defensively. Which is that much more important because our pitching staff is anything but reliable, with a few notable exceptions like recent imports Kimbrel and Price.

The question I would be asking myself if I’m Dombrowski is whether Swihart can become Vazquez to a greater degree than Vazquez can become Swihart. Swihart may be, or become, an elite offensive catcher. Vazquez already is an elite defensive catcher. Can Vazquez offer sixty or seventy percent of Swihart’s offense, then? Conversely, can Swihart do the same for Vazquez’ defense?

I have no idea, but as enormous as it would be to have a standout offensive performer at the catching position, I’m biased towards current performance over future potential – particularly when Vazquez’ defense can be a multiplier that makes the entire pitching staff better.

All of that being said, this is the proverbial good problem to have. If they stick with Swihart and he fulfills his potential, that’s an amazing asset. And this isn’t an issue, in my opinion, that needs to be forced. I’d be fine starting Vazquez in the minors to bring him back from his injury slowly. The only reason to do otherwise, in fact, would have been to trade Hanigan early in spring training to give him time to get know his new staff, but that ship has sailed.

If you had to bet, Swihart should be your horse. In other years, the wild card that is Vazquez’ offense would be less of an issue. With third base, left field and center field, to name but three examples, currently occupied by players who may or may not be able to hit at the major league level, Vazquez may be one risk too many.

On Dave Dombrowski: I Have Some Concerns

When you’re on track for a third last place finish in four years, World Series sandwiched in there or no, it’s not surprising that the popular reaction to the front office’s regime change is positive. For the casual fans that read, say, Dan Shaughnessy, patience and a bigger picture perspective are in short supply, so the reality that last place finishes or no, Ben Cherington is leaving behind a solid foundation is not well understood. Or appreciated, at least. But he has.

Last winter’s major signings are disasters today, no argument. The free agent acquisitions of Pocello, Ramirez and Sandoval were so unsuccessful, in fact, that they are unmovable absent either major financial or prospect sweeteners attached. Sweeteners that make dealing them highly impractical. And as Cherington said, while the responsibility for those signings may not rest entirely with him, as it’s impossible to know where the ideas behind those deals originated and the degree to which ownership was or was not involved, the accountability is, or rather was, Cherington’s alone. Just as Cherington is rightly hailed as the architect of the 2013 World Series win, he is equally the person on the hook for those signings and the third last place finish they contributed to.

But this isn’t the place to debate Cherington’s tenure. Amherst alum or no, I’m more positive on Cherington’s work than most, and I think it’s easily possible to build the case that he didn’t deserve his fate, but even his supporters must acknowledge that the arguments for his removal and replacement are not particularly difficult to marshal.

It’s unfortunate that the process played out the way it did, of course. Under normal circumstances, ownership may have had no responsibility to keep Cherington informed of the process of hiring someone up the chain of command such as Dombrowski. But given both the public support offered for Cherington and more importantly the conversations he reported having with Henry and Werner about the process of improving the front office, Cherington was seemingly well within his rights to expect to be looped in to any such plans. When blindsided about the hire, then, ownership had no right to expect Cherington to do anything other than what he did. Why, for exanple, would ownership give Cherington the go ahead to bring on DiPoto in an advisory capacity one week and then hire Dombrowski the next? As Peter Gammons asks, why was Cherington lied to? Ownership has the right to make whatever decisions they like regarding they fate of their front office, but it’s a shame that they keep bungling the people side of things because they’re uncomfortable with confrontation.

None of which has anything to do with Dombrowski, of course. How they handled communications with Cherington up to and subsequent to their recruitment of Dombrowski has little bearing on whether bringing him on board was the correct decision, or whether Cherington could have righted the ship on his own.

If nothing else, Dombrowski offers value to ownership from a PR perspective. To the legions of frustrated, impatient fans, they can point to this change as a sign that they’re not standing pat, that losing is unacceptable, et cetera, et cetera. What could be more impressive than hiring the man who Jonah Keri calls “one of the best front-office guys in the sport?”

It would silly to argue that an executive with Dombroski’s pedigree had nothing to add beyond PR cover, of course. From the Expos to the Marlins to the Tigers, Dombrowski has amassed an impressive track record of success. It’s not without blemishes or missteps, of course, but there have been no perfect baseball executives to date, Branch Rickey included. Dombrowski also brings, as did DiPoto when he was brought on, a fresh set of eyes, one that is less personally attached to the individual prospects and – theoretically, at least – more disposed to view them dispassionately as assets to be used for the betterment of the Red Sox organization, whether that’s as players or trade fodder.

All of which makes it sound like the hiring of Dombrowski is a positive development, and it may well be. Personally, however, I have some concerns. The problem isn’t as much Dombrowski versus Cherington, but rather what specifically, organizationally, that means.

Most objections to Dombrowski are relatively superficial. “He can’t build bullpens!” “He’s going to trade away our entire farm system!” These aren’t entirely without substance, of course, but they’re not the real worry. Detroit’s consistent lack of a bullpen obscures the fact that other clubs he’s managed have produced elite relievers: Robb Nen, for example. And while I very much hope that our farm system – which Cherington has built into what is widely regarded as the best in the game – isn’t gutted, there is little argument that we have areas of redundancy from which to deal. As much as I love Manuel Margot, for example, we have three (in my view) young, talented centerfielders are on the major league roster already. We also have an emerging talent two levels behind Margot in Benintendi. So if Dealin’ Dave turns some of these talented but blocked players into young talented players at other positions, well, that’s what the farm system is for. If we drop from #1 to, say, #10 in an effort to acquire young, elite and major league-ready talent, then so be it.

No, my issue is what Dombrowski’s hiring means for the Red Sox organization. There are two ways this can go, in my view. Behind door number one is Frank Wren. Behind door number two is Mike Hazen. The former would be a disaster, in my view, while the latter offers hope that this could actually make the organization stronger. Here’s why.

Frank Wren

According to Ken Rosenthal, a “rival executive” will be shocked if Dombrowski hires anyone other than Wren. Here’s what ESPN’s Keith Law had to say about that idea:

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but why? What’s the problem with Frank Wren?

There are many, but for me it’s not the obvious problems like his free agent errors – if you think Ramirez and Sandoval are bad deals, check out BJ Upton or Dan Uggla. Issues like that could and would be mitigated by having Dombrowski as the final decision maker. No, my issue with Wren is his ability – or rather, lackthereof – with people.

Whatever one thinks of Cherington and his front office at present based on their track record the past four years, the fact is that the Red Sox are an extremely bright, progressive organization. In a podcast with the Globe’s Alex Speier, Law calls the front office “if not the best, one of the best” in baseball. It’s easy to forget now in the wake of another lost season, but this a front office that delivered us three titles in less than a decade. It’s a front office that is sufficiently well regarded so as to be periodically raided for talent by other major league clubs. Hell, the Cubs president and general manager are both products of the Red Sox front office. The front office is also responsible for the drafting and international signings that have left the club as the consensus best farm system in the game.

The very intelligent – and thus, valuable – collection of individuals is very loyal to Cherington, a man whose critics even go out of their way to acknowledge as posessed of exceptional integrity, honesty, and accountability. The same man who was just treated in a less than ideal fashion by ownership.

If the perfect world is one in which the Red Sox complement their existing well regarded front office – one, importantly, that is exceptionally capable in an area where Dombrowski’s successor in Detroit acknowledged the club to be behind, analytics – with his traditional scouting acumen, the nightmare is one in which Dombrowski’s hire leads to a massive exodus of the best and brightest of baseball minds. Minds that it’s taken this Red Sox ownership group over a decade to accumulate.

What then would be the simplest method of setting this nightmare in motion? By introducing into this already unsettled situation a general manager who’s bad with people. Which brings us back to Wren. Here’s what Atlanta writer Mark Bradley said about the Braves’ ex-GM Wren in a piece ostensibly recommending the hire entitled “Frank Wren to Fenway? Why this could actually work.”

Wren wasn’t fired because of wins and losses. He was fired in part because he whiffed egregiously on Dan Uggla’s contract extension and especially on the free-agent signing of B.J. (now Melvin Jr.) Upton, but mostly he was fired because he ran the organization but made almost no allies. Nobody disputed that he was smart and hard-working. He just wasn’t very good with people.

If the best arguments in favor of your hiring include phrases like “made almost no allies” and “just wasn’t very good with people,” let’s just say you have issues. If I’m Red Sox ownership, and I want to preserve any semblance of continuity with the organization that I’ve spent a decade building and is both well regarded externally and has delivered more world championships over the span than any other organization in the game, I make clear to Dombrowski that under no circumstances is Wren to be considered, let alone hired.

If not Wren, though, then who?

Mike Hazen

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some measure of organizational continuity is valued. How does an incoming leader build bridges into this new organization? By elevating one of its own.

In his reaction to the Dombrowski hiring, Peter Gammons floated the idea of Mike Hazen as the new Red Sox GM under Dombrowski. This is a decision that almost certainly won’t happen because it makes too much sense. Among the justifications:

  1. Hazen is ready for a General Manager’s role, having been a candidate for and interviewed for openings such as the Padres
  2. Hazen comes from the heavily analytical Red Sox front office tradition, and thus would mitigate Dombrowski’s weakness in that area
  3. Hazen would be much better for the retention of key Red Sox front office personnel than a candidate like Wren
  4. Hazen’s retention would be a signal, internally and externally, to the front office that Dombrowski’s hiring is not the repudiation of the Red Sox analytical philosophy that it is currently being made out to be
  5. Hazen’s institutional knowledge and experience will be important given Dombrowski’s minimal window to evaluate minor league talent prior to this offseason’s trading opportunities

The only real downside to Hazen’s hiring, unless Hazen has significant professional shortcomings that have not been made public, is that he hasn’t worked with Dombrowski previously. If I’m the Red Sox ownership group, however, I would strongly “encourage” Dombrowski to look beyond that, because the upside to a candidate like Hazen stands in stark contrast to the downside of one like Wren.

The Net

The decision to hire Dombrowski, or at least the way in which the ownership group went about the move, is reminiscent of what I’d argue is the worst decision of their tenure, the dismissal of Tito Francona. In the wake of the disastrous 2011 collapse, ownership essentially assigned Francona the blame for a starting rotation that was so desperate that Kyle Weiland was run out every five days. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and Francona took the fall. In similar fashion, Cherington was effectively held accountable for a perfect storm of mistakes, whether these could have reasonably been foreseen or not.

Whatever mistakes were made in this process, however, do not need to be compounded further by the addition of a candidate like Wren. It is entirely possible for the Red Sox front office to emerge from this transition better and stronger than it was previously, because the addition of an evaluator like Dombrowski to an organization with already elite analytical capabilities is intriguing.

But for this marriage to work, Dombrowski needs to let the existing front office employees know their talents are valued, and the simplest way to do that is by hiring one of their own as his General Manager. If he’s not interested in preservation, but instead wants to work with only those he’s known like Wren, well, let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the future.