It should be at least a little comforting that Dave Dombrowski feels as though the current state of the Phillies is closer to the situation he inherited in Boston in August 2015 than the ones he previously took over in Montreal, Miami and Detroit during his long and distinguished career.
“I would say there were a lot of similarities because I’ve been very impressed with the (front-office) personnel I’ve talked to in the Phillies organization,” the team’s new president of baseball operations said Tuesday after assigning the role of general manager to Sam Fuld. “There are a lot of quality people as far as knowledge is concerned.”
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It’s nice that Dombrowski’s future co-workers in the front office have made a favorable first impression, but the comparisons between the Red Sox in 2015 and the Phillies in 2020 do not necessarily stop there. Boston, after winning the World Series in 2013, had finished last in the rugged American League East the following two seasons.
They had serious pitching problems that required immediate attention, but they also had signs of hope, thanks to a steady influx of young players. In 2015, the Red Sox had the fifth-worst bullpen ERA in baseball and the seventh-worst starting rotation ERA. But they also scored the fourth-most runs and had the sixth-best OPS.
“There were guys that were stepping in at that point,” Dombrowski said. “It didn’t take a keen eye to see that Mookie Betts was going to be a good player or that Jackie Bradley Jr. was going to be a good player or that Xander Bogaerts was going to be a good player.”
Add in the fact that Betts and Bogaerts were only 22 years old and it was hard to imagine someone inheriting a more attractive last-place club.
“Then we saw young players step in and continue to grow,” Dombrowski said. “You saw a guy like Andrew Benintendi step in and do very well for us. Rafael Devers continued to develop and step in for us. Eduardo Rodriguez on the pitching staff was very important for us. He had some ups and downs in the beginning, but he turned into a quality big-league pitcher.”
When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018 after setting a franchise record with 108 regular-season victories, Betts, Bogaerts, Benintendi, Devers, Bradley Jr. and Rodriguez were all among the team’s top 10 players and they were paid a combined $27.2 million, which is $300,000 less than the Phillies will pay Bryce Harper in each of the next eight seasons.
The Phillies’ situation does not come close to that, but Dombrowski’s first impression of the roster he has inherited is not all doom and gloom either.
“Here, when you’re talking about young guys, you have an Alec Bohm at third base and Spencer Howard stepping into the rotation and being a real strong guy candidate to be a quality guy for us,” Dombrowski said. “We have (Adam) Haseley in center field that has a chance to step in there. We’re really in a spot where we have some young people who are growing, too.”
Like the Red Sox in 2015, the 2020 Phillies were a potent offensive team, finishing tied for fifth in runs scored, tied for third in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS. It’s easy to forget sometimes that Harper will only be 28 this season and he appears to be entering the prime of his career. Re-sign J.T. Realmuto, which I think is more likely than not, and the Phillies will have the makings of an explosive offense again in 2021, especially if Rhys Hoskins continues to display his second-half form.
The Phillies also need players like Haseley and 2019 first-round pick Bryson Stott to step up, which is possible, and they have by no means given up on Scott Kingery.
As Dombrowski was quick to point out during his introductory news conference, the Phillies have the makings of a quality starting rotation even though their bullpen was a historic disaster.
“And then I think it’s really important, too, to step in and sign complementary guys like a Ryan Brasier who pitched in the World Series (in Boston),” Dombrowski said.
Ancillary players are always vital to a team’s success. Brasier was a veteran free-agent reliever Dombrowski signed on the cheap before the 2018 season and he posted a 1.60 ERA during the regular season before also making vital postseason contributions. Hector Velasquez, signed off waivers from Baltimore, also became an integral part of the Boston bullpen in 2018.
Another move that made a major difference for the Red Sox was the mid-2016 acquisition of lefthander Drew Pomeranz and his subsequent transition to the Boston bullpen. Dombrowski gave up Andrew Espinosa, the 19th overall prospect at the time according to Baseball America, to get Pomeranz and it was deal that worked out heavily in the Red Sox favor.
Those are the kinds of astute moves the Phillies need Dombrowski to make.
Of course, it would be a dereliction of duty not to point out that the greatest difference-makers for the Red Sox were the huge free-agent signings of David Price and J.D. Martinez and the blockbuster trades for Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale.
All indications are the Phillies are not in a position to make those kinds of moves right now, but the payroll is roughly $60.5 million lighter as things currently stand after the salary subtractions of Realmuto, David Robertson, Jake Arrieta and Didi Gregorius.
We’ve been led to believe that the payroll will be reduced, but there should still be enough money in the Middleton/Buck vault to make some substantial moves, including re-signing Realmuto. It would be disturbing if the Phillies do not make some sort of free-agent splash this offseason.
“I know John wants to win,” Dombrowski said. “We have flexibility of finances, but when I say that I don’t think it’s an unlimited amount of funds. You always realize there is some type of budget attached to that. We will work within that.”