The Boston Red Sox have been up for adventure in recent years, consequences be damned.
Red Sox owner John Henry has been free-spending and impatient. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was aggressively short-sighted — right up until the team fired him after Sunday night’s game.
Their frenetic style yielded big successes but epic failure, too, a stark contrast to the sustained Cardinals competence under Bill DeWitt Jr.’s ownership.
If overeager Cardinal fans had their way, their team would operate more like the Boston Red Sox.
But if Henry gets his way, his Red Sox will start emulating the Cardinals’ more reasoned approach. This is where Our National Pastime has been headed for some time now.
Dombrowki’s “all in” approach yielded three straight American League East titles and the 2018 World Championship. He mortgaged the future by trading prospects inherited from predecessor Ben Cherington for proven talent.
He gave out one gigantic contract after another. He appeased an anxious fan base and kept Boston’s overheated sports media on the bandwagon.
Rather than work collaboratively with executives above him and the baseball operations staff around him, Dombrowski went his own old-school way with the counsel of advisers Frank Wren and Tony La Russa.
He ignored the warning sirens triggered by the analytics staff. The concerns of the player development staff didn’t interest him either.
Henry appreciated the ‘18 World Championship but blanched at the rising costs and the declining performance of his team. So when the Red Sox faltered this season despite its $235 million payroll, he decided to find somebody else to oversee the looming rebuild.
In most markets, firing Dombrowski after one downturn would seem odd, just as squeezing out Cherington a few years after the 2013 World Championship would have been weird.
But upheaval is the norm for the Red Sox. After the franchise cut ties with manager Terry Francona in 2011, general manager Theo Epstein quit with a year left on his contract to take charge of the Chicago Cubs.
Unlike DeWitt, Henry hasn’t valued operational continuity. He is willing to clean house every few years if need be.
Unlike DeWitt, Henry hasn’t been afraid to tank and rebuild. The Red Sox finished in the division basement with losing records in 2012, 2014 and 2015 while trading away veterans for prospects. Meanwhile the Cardinals are enjoying their 12th consecutive winning season.
Unlike DeWitt, Henry has been willing to dig deep into his vault to outspend mistakes. The more lucrative Boston market affords him that luxury, but Henry says he is willing to incur operating losses if it’s worth it.
This season fell well short of being worth it.
“It’s not a luxury tax issue, it’s a question of how much money do we want to lose,” Henry told reporters back in June. “We’re already over budget and we were substantially over our budget last year and this year. We’re not going to be looking to add a lot of payroll. And it’s hard to imagine fielding a better team. If we play up to our capabilities we’ll be fine. That’s the question: Will we? We’re halfway through and we haven’t.”
And they still haven’t. Through Tuesday’s games the Red Sox were in third place, 18½ games behind the division-leading New York Yankees. They were also nine games out of the second wild-card berth in the AL.
So whoever replaces Dombrowski will have plenty to do.
Remember when the Red Sox outbid the Cardinals by giving free agent David Price a $217 million contract? Price helped bring Boston another parade, but now he has a balky elbow and $96 million left on the final three years of his contract.
Chris Sale is shelved by an elbow injury that doesn’t require surgery (yet) and his five-year, $145 million contract extension kicks in next season. Unsteady Nathan Eovaldi has three years left on his four-year, $68 million contract.
Those three pitchers will eat almost $80 million in annual payroll during each of the next three seasons. That will make it tougher to lock in outfielder Mookie Betts, who seems determined to explore free agency after the 2020 season.
And what happens if slugger J.D. Martinez opts out of his contract after this season and tests free agency again?
The Red Sox farm system is widely ranked in baseball’s bottom tier. They have a strong nucleus of position players, but their pitching staff is a hot mess.
Many fans would be OK will that predicament (for the moment, anyway) since they still relish their World Series championship parade photos.
But apparently Henry is ready for some Cardinals-like stability. Insiders note that the Red Sox are likely to hire a younger person to oversee the baseball operation.
As Sports Illustrated baseball reporter Tom Verducci noted, Dombrowski’s replacement will be “fluent in the business-speak and multi-layered decision-making processes of the modern game.”
That sounds boring. But like it or not — and many fans do not — the Cardinal Way is the way most franchises choose to follow these days.