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.

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