Welcome to the Dombrowski Era

Red Sox fans have officially entered the Dave Dombrowski era.

Boston acquired closer Craig Kimbrel from the Padres late Friday night in the team’s first major transaction since naming Dombrowski team president in early August. In exchange for Kimbrel, San Diego received four prospects: outfielder Manuel Margot, shortstop Javier Guerra, pitcher Logan Allen and infielder Carlos Asuaje.

I’m no prospect maven, so let’s check in with some people who are. First, ESPN’s Keith Law:

If you’re a Boston Red Sox fan, this is exactly the trade you feared Dave Dombrowski would make when he joined the front office, trading away the jewels of the majors’ best farm system for veterans who are or may be past their peak values. Craig Kimbrel has been one of the best relievers in baseball history, but this is a big overpay for 60 innings of his services a season when he already seems to be starting to decline.

Alright then. How about Dave Cameron of FanGraphs?

But this is a very high price to pay for a reliever. Kimbrel’s awesome, and we may very well be selling elite relievers short on their overall value, but Kimbrel didn’t fix the Padres problems by himself, and the Red Sox will have more work to do this winter, and now have fewer chips with which to do it. For A.J. Preller, this is the kind of move that, if he can repeat a few more times, can undo a lot of the damage that was done last winter, and from my perspective, this marks his first big win as a GM.

Sheesh. Okay. Let’s try to break this down from a few different perspectives.

Perspective #1: Dombrowski will set fire to the farm system and doom the Red Sox.

Boston spent years carefully manicuring their farm system into one of the best in baseball. They’ve already begun to reap the rewards of that work at the big-league level with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Blake Swihart and Eduardo Rodriguez contributing. Ben Cherington had a plan. Some parts of that plan were a little wonky, like giving $183 million dollars to Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The prospect-hoarding part though? That was spot on. Look at what the Cubs are doing. Look at what the Astros are doing. The Red Sox were on that same track, except without the years of intentionally tanking to get there. Well, okay, they did finish in last place three of the past four years. But they weren’t trying to do that, it just sort of happened.

That sort-of happening wasn’t so cool with the Boston brass. They wanted to shake things up. They hired Dombrowski two weeks after he left the Detroit Tigers and essentially pushed Cherington out of a job.

 

Ben Cherington (Matt Damon): I just need more time, John. I know we’re in last place again, but it’s all going to work out. You just have to trust me. The prospects…they’re almost ready.

Camera pans to the man across from Cherington, who swirls the whiskey in his glass slowly, then throws it back.

John Henry (Bruce Davidson): I’m sorry Ben, it’s too late.

A heavy, brown cowboy boot splits the saloon doors. In walks a dark figure.

Dave Dombrowski (Sam Elliot): “Your prospectin’ is done here, Ben. There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Dombrowski lassos Cherington and drags him across the bar floor.

Cherington: “NO! YOU CAN’T DO THIS! LOOK AT MOOKIE!! LOOK AT XANDER!! I DID THAT!! ME!!!”

Dombrowski slings a tied-up Cherington over the backside of a horse, who proceeds to ride him out of town. Dombrowski spits his chaw and admires a job well done.

-Excerpt from my unfinished screenplay, “The Good, The Bad and The Sandoval.”-

  

Dombrowski, as this trade re-affirms, is not a guy who balks at trading top prospects. This is a guy who traded Randy Johnson after ten major league starts. Yeah, that Randy Johnson. Dombrowski is about the here and now, veterans over rookies, proven over unproven. Prospects are currency to acquire the stars of today. If you’re a fan who wanted to see the Red Sox graduate all of their elite prospects and attempt to build a self-sustaining, efficient baseball machine like the Cubs or Astros are attempting to, then you probably don’t like this trade very much.

Plus there’s the matter of the return. We all know Craig Kimbrel is awesome. There isn’t a reliever in baseball that’s been more valuable over the past five years. Even if he’s not quite the Craig Kimbrel from 2011-2012 who struck out 15.7 batters per 9 innings and literally breathed fire, he’s still awesome. But he is a reliever. As Law wrote, this is a guy who will pitch just 60 innings for a 2016 Red Sox team that still has several more holes to fill. The rotation is a jumble of uncertainty. Between Sandoval and Ramirez they have two massive contracts that they’d probably like to unload. A couple of top 100 prospects like Margot and Guerra would have been nice bargaining chips to rectify either of those issues. Now they’ll have to find some other workaround, which includes the possibility of dealing even more of the farm away.

Perspective #2: Take it easy, dummy.

It doesn’t matter if Dombrowski overpaid in prospects, because the Red Sox are swimming in them. Boston is universally rated as having one of, if not the strongest farm system in baseball. Even if all the youngsters were to magically work out (they won’t), they can’t play them all anyway. Margot and Guerra, the two prizes of the deal, are blocked on the major league roster by other former top prospects Betts and Bogaerts. There are even more, like Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi, coming up behind them. 

Dombrowski has a history of emptying his farm system, sure, but he also has a history of building great teams. He laid the groundwork for the 1994 Montreal Expos, who would have likely been favorites to win it all if not for the players’ strike. He won a championship with the 1997 Florida Marlins. He took the Detroit Tigers from a team that lost 119 games in 2003 to the American League pennant just three years later. He built them into an AL Central powerhouse, winning four straight division titles from 2011-2014, making another World Series appearance along the way. Dombrowski’s methods might be a radical departure from the ‘build from within’ ideologies that Cherington and Theo Epstein employed for over a decade, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valid.

It’s important to keep in mind the ultimate goal. Prospects are well and good, but they’re not of much use if you’re not converting them into major league wins. Developing youngsters into quality regulars like Betts and Bogaerts is one way to do that. Trading them for already-established major league talent is another. The latter might not be as efficient, but Dombrowski’s résumé is proof that it’s certainly effective. At some point you have to ask yourself what the endgame is. Are you trying to win a blue ribbon for shiniest farm system? Or are you trying to win a World Series? Craig Kimbrel makes the 2016 Red Sox a team better-equipped to do the latter. 

Perspective #3: The answer is in the middle.

It’s the boring answer, but it’s probably the right one. It’s possible that Dombrowski could have saved these four guys for a more lucrative deal. Maybe they help coax a team into taking Sandoval or Ramirez off their hands. Maybe they help land an ace. Maybe Kimbrel was the best return Boston was going to get, though. Maybe Kimbrel is more lucrative than we’re giving him credit for in the first place. After all, the Royals just won back-to-back pennants and a World Series largely on the back of elite bullpen production. If Dombrowski had a Craig Kimbrel on some of his Tigers teams, maybe he has a few more rings himself.

You can criticize this deal for being inefficient. Just because you have an abundance of assets doesn’t mean you should waste them haphazardly. At the same time, this is a move that Dombrowski was hired to make. The Red Sox tried the conservative, pragmatic approach. It wasn’t working…at least not in the eyes of John Henry and company. Dombrowski was brought in to get Boston back to a World Series as soon as possible. If some prospects’ heads roll in the process, so be it. The 2020 Red Sox might be worse for it. If they win a title or two in the meantime, no one will care.

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