When Dave Dombrowski sat down to lunch with then-free agent J.T. Realmuto on Dec. 23 in Norman, Okla., he brought along a message from Philadelphia.
The Phillies, according to managing partner John Middleton, were ready to spend big money again.
“John had said to me, ‘This isn’t the one move we’re going to just make,’” Dombrowski recalled Friday by phone from spring training in Clearwater, Fla. “He said, ‘You can tell J.T. that, hey, we want to do other things, too.’”
If there was a pivot point in the Phillies’ offseason, when they went from having a front office in flux to defining an organizational objective for 2021, that might have been it.
Most people, including star right fielder Bryce Harper, point to Dec. 11, when the Phillies hired Dombrowski to run baseball operations. Teams don’t typically bring in a two-time World Series-winning executive — and pay him $20 million over four years — “unless it’s a win-now kind of move,” as Harper put it this week.
Before taking the job, Dombrowski felt confident that ownership — Middleton and cousins Jim and Pete Buck — was serious about winning, a commitment underscored by the nearly $700 million that they spent on free agents from 2017 to 2020. But he admitted Friday that “there were no promises” that the Phillies would maintain a payroll that came within about $400,000 of the $207 million luxury-tax threshold in 2020, especially after citing revenue losses of more than $145 million during the pandemic-shortened, fan-less season.
In his introductory news conference, Dombrowski projected organizational conservatism. He expressed his opinion that the Phillies possess a talented roster that is nevertheless more than one player from being a World Series contender. He stressed the importance of clinging to top prospects rather than trading them for short-term gains.
But Dombrowski also has a knack for talking owners into being aggressive. In Boston, for instance, he persuaded John Henry to fork over $217 million over seven years for David Price after the Red Sox owner had previously eschewed long-term, nine-figure contracts for free-agent pitchers.
And after a few days on the job with the Phillies, he outlined for Middleton his belief that the team could snap a nine-year playoff drought by re-signing Realmuto and strengthening the margins of the roster.
“We thought we could have a competitive club, and once we started talking about it and how we thought it would work, [the owners] were very open-minded to us being aggressive in trying to do the things we wanted to do,” Dombrowski said. “I can’t say it was like, OK, 100%, this is what we’re going to do at this particular time. But I think that’s when I started to see exactly where we were going to go from a dollar perspective.”
Dombrowski began getting a clearer picture of the budget during the holidays. And in a four-week span that began on Jan. 14, the Phillies signed six free agents — reliever Archie Bradley, Realmuto, starting pitchers Matt Moore and Chase Anderson, shortstop Didi Gregorius, and utilityman Brad Miller — to major-league contracts totaling $160 million.
It was all part of a head-spinning 69 days from when Dombrowski took over through the opening of spring training.
Not only did rival front-office leaders have a head start on Dombrowski in building their rosters. With the Phillies’ offices at Citizens Bank Park closed because of the pandemic, he worked out of his home in Nashville, Tenn., and met with the scouts (professional, amateur, and international), trainers, quantitative analysts, baseball-operations staff, coaches, and other personnel through Zoom meetings and one-on-one phone calls that he said could last an hour or more. Many of his conversations with manager Joe Girardi ran even longer.
Good thing for unlimited cellphone plans.
“It was a sprint,” Dombrowski said. “There was so much to do in such a short time period. There were a lot of times I was on the phone at 11 o’clock at night after starting up early in the morning, and to the credit of a lot of individuals, they did the same thing. It was interesting, it was enjoyable, it was fun, it was fast-paced.”
Indeed, 12- to 15-hour days were the norm — and not only for Dombrowski. He credited general manager Sam Fuld, four assistant GMs (Jorge Velandia, Ned Rice, Bryan Minniti and Scott Proefrock), and many others for putting in the hours to bring him up to speed quickly and move on pursuing players.
The Phillies traded for hard-throwing relievers José Alvarado and Sam Coonrod. They capitalized on a late-developing free-agent market that left roughly 250 players without teams after the holidays. Dombrowski delegated some contract talks and led others himself. The result: The Phillies added nine players to the 40-man roster and more than a half-dozen other major-league veterans as nonroster invitees to spring training.
“The way Dombrowski works,” Harper said, “I don’t even know if he’s done yet.”
Dombrowski’s probably done. For now, at least.
The Phillies’ luxury-tax payroll is pushing $200 million, and they want to have flexibility beneath the $210 million tax threshold for in-season moves. But a few dozen free agents, including center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and pitcher Jake Odorizzi, are unsigned, so Dombrowski said his staff will “keep a pulse of what’s going on” in case asking prices fall as the season draws near.
Ownership, it seems, expects as much.
“I don’t necessarily anticipate things happening,” Dombrowski said. “But you’re also in a spot where you’ve got to keep an open mind because we have ownership that also wants to be aggressive. That allows you to have those types of open-ended conversations.”