NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The prospects keep flying out the revolving door. But Dave Dombrowski doesn’t care.
He didn’t come to Boston to pile up names on Keith Law’s Top 50 prospects list. He didn’t come to Boston to help his good friends in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, finish first in the International League.
He came to Boston to spray champagne and ride the duck boats, as confetti floats out of the New England sky. And if that means paying a price that the other baseball decision-makers of his era are too cautious to pay, then guess what?
Dave Dombrowski doesn’t care.
And so, on the day he gave up four more good-to-great young players to add Chris Sale to a star-studded Red Sox rotation, he justified that cost in eight simple words: “We feel it’s a chance to win now.”
Win now. If his wife doesn’t give him a win now T-shirt for Christmas, she’s missing the easiest gift-buying opening of all time. Win now. It’s now, more than ever, what Dombrowski is all about.
“This is what Dave Dombrowski was brought there for,” one rival AL executive said Tuesday, as he and his peers around baseball did their best to digest this whopper of a deal. “He was brought in there to take a good team with a good system and push them over the edge. And that’s what he’s done. This is a really good team.”
Wow. No kidding. And how good are they?
“Put it this way,” the same executive said with a laugh. “I think a lot of teams in the American League just went into ‘sell’ mode now that they see the Red Sox are in ‘go-for-it’ mode.”
Hey, did someone just say “go for it?” Those would be the president of baseball operations’ magic words, you understand, because nobody goes for it like Dave Dombrowski. At least not in the times we live in.
Just in one day in December, he traded for Sale, made a deal for an impact reliever (Tyler Thornburg) and signed a free-agent first baseman/DH (Mitch Moreland). So if you sometimes look at Dombrowski and feel like he’s a team-builder out of another era, you’re not the only one.
“He’s not afraid,” said a fellow we know as “Trader Jack” McKeon, now a special assistant to the owner in Miami but once a GM who used to dominate the winter meetings of the 1980s the way Dombrowski does now. “If you want to make deals, you’ve got to gamble. You’ve got to have a plan. When I came into San Diego, I had a plan to go get Joe Carter. Everyone said, ‘You can’t get him.’ I said, ‘The hell I can’t get him.’ One thing I learned from Charlie Finley — if you need a piece, sometimes you’ve got to overpay. And that’s what this guy is willing to do.”
But that’s not what most GMs are willing to do here in the 21st century. They study. They analyze. They crunch the numbers. They crunch them again. And then they weigh whether their “equity” equals the “equity” coming back, according to the latest spreadsheets.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s still refreshing to see a guy like Dombrowski who is still willing to charge into the nearest Neiman Marcus, plop down his credit card and say, “This is what I want. Just tell me where to sign.”
“What Dave has clearly shown over the years,” said the AL exec quoted earlier, “is that when he has the match [on a deal] and the match clearly makes his team better, he’s not afraid of the players he has to give up. He’s going to make that deal.
“Everyone in this day and age is so tied up with the value of the player. But Dave doesn’t look at it like everyone else. If it makes his team better, he doesn’t let stuff like ‘who’s got one more year of control’ affect him. He doesn’t let the minutiae affect him, is what I’m saying. He’s not going to let the little things stand in the way.”
Maybe you’re thinking right now that’s how you run your fantasy team. But recognize this. It’s not how most GMs run their real-life baseball teams. So when someone comes along like this, he is opening up himself to a level of second-guessing — by fans, by prospect junkies, by social-media geniuses everywhere — that not everyone is willing to live with.
But have we mentioned lately that Dave Dombrowski doesn’t care?
“It’s a huge deal to make,” one NL executive said Tuesday. “That town will be fired up. And their depth of starting pitching now is incredible. But to keep blowing through prospects the way they have, with the way trades are evaluated now by everyone in the world, there will be blowback. In the short term, they’re really, really good. But in three or four years, when they have to reach for young players to replenish, they’re not going to be there. So there is a cost.”
“I think there’s some credence to that old saying, ‘Flags fly forever,’ So I give Dave a lot of credit. He’s not afraid of what somebody might say three, four, five years from now. To win a championship, this is just the gamble you take. If you end up on the top of the heap, you don’t have to worry about what you gave up. And if you don’t, you have to wear it. But Dave is never afraid to wear it.”
Rival AL executive
So if this fearless casting for the biggest fish in the pond doesn’t bring another parade or three for Dombrowski and his team, he is going to hear about that cost. But what has made this guy one of the best executives of his time? He doesn’t hear that noise. He isn’t intimidated by that blowback.
What was his mission? His mission was to win now. So what’s the problem here?
“In baseball, four years down the road is an eternity in many ways,” Dombrowski said Tuesday. “So you need to take advantage of that opportunity. Nothing’s guaranteed in life. If you make these moves, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win. But I think you just keep taking a chance. You keep going for it as much as you possibly can. And hopefully, it works for you some day.”
He rolled these same dice in Detroit and never did win a World Series. But it tells you all you need to know about him, that what happened to him at his last stop clearly hasn’t scarred him at all. And it’s rare to find that strength of purpose in his line of work.
“I think there’s some credence to that old saying, ‘Flags fly forever,'” the AL exec said. “So I give Dave a lot of credit. He’s not afraid of what somebody might say three, four, five years from now. To win a championship, this is just the gamble you take. If you end up on the top of the heap, you don’t have to worry about what you gave up. And if you don’t, you have to wear it. But Dave is never afraid to wear it.”
In his latest blockbuster, Dombrowski gave up two potential stars in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, plus two other intriguing young players in Luis Basabe and Victor Diaz. He has unloaded a slew of the top 20 prospects he inherited 15 months ago.
But think of it this way. What does he have to show for it? Probably the best rotation in the American League. That’s what.
Sale ranks first among all active American League pitchers in career WHIP (1.01). His new top-of-the-rotation co-star, David Price, ranks second (1.14). They’re also 1-2 in Fielding Independent Pitching. And they rank first and third, respectively, in career ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
So that’ll work. And we should probably add that their, ahem, No. 3 starter, Rick Porcello, just won the Cy Young Award.
But you should also think of what Dombrowski did this way: He controls Sale and Porcello for the next three years, Price for the next six years and most of his best young position players for the next three to five years. So where were all of his hot prospects going to play anyhow?
“They didn’t have room for all those guys,” one assistant GM said. “And that’s what gets lost here. Not all those prospects are going to actually play on your club. … People forget that young major leaguers are more valuable than prospects. And the Red Sox have more of those good young major leaguers than just about anyone. And you don’t have to wonder about them, because they’re already in the big leagues.”
So as happy as the Chicago White Sox might be with their haul — a package every scout and executive I surveyed liked better than Washington’s offer for Sale, by the way — just remember this:
Dave Dombrowski doesn’t care.
“To win,” said Trader Jack McKeon, “you’ve gotta wheel and deal.”
And on Tuesday, one of the great wheelers and dealers of his time struck again.