In October, as Dave Dombrowski’s name surfaced in conjunction with front-office openings in Philadelphia and Anaheim, two people who know the longtime executive said he was more interested in working for the Phillies than the Angels.
There was, however, a non-negotiable caveat: Dombrowski wanted full autonomy, which meant reporting only to managing partner John Middleton.
Six weeks later, Middleton is set to make that happen.
Dombrowski has agreed to terms of a contract to become the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, a source said Thursday night, confirming a report in The Athletic that the sides were in serious talks. The 64-year-old architect of three World Series teams in three cities – including the champion Florida Marlins in 1997 and Boston Red Sox in 2018 – spent the last few months working for a group that is trying to land a major-league team in Nashville and sounded content to stay there.
Now, though, with Middleton seeking a change in leadership after the Phillies’ five-year rebuilding project under team president Andy MacPhail and former general manager Matt Klentak didn’t yield a single postseason appearance -- and after Minnesota Twins GM Thad Levine and Los Angeles Dodgers senior vice president Josh Byrnes withdrew from consideration for the job -- Dombrowski is on the verge of being coaxed back to run a front office that has lacked direction since Klentak got demoted 70 days ago.
It’s not known what Dombrowski’s arrival would mean for MacPhail. Middleton is said to have been irate last weekend by a report that rival teams were told that pitcher Zack Wheeler is available in a trade.
MacPhail intends to retire when his contract lapses after next season and has said he would step aside if Middleton wanted to move forward with a new head of baseball-operations.
“I certainly don’t want to be an impediment,” MacPhail said on Oct. 30. “If John thinks he can land a big fish by moving me aside and getting somebody to become the president, I would happily do that.”
Dombrowski certainly qualifies as a big fish, even if his roster-building style doesn’t clearly align with the state of the Phillies, whose playoff drought grew to nine years this season despite their carrying the fifth-highest payroll in baseball.
In 42 years as a major-league executive, Dombrowski has built a reputation as a wheeler-dealer with an attraction to superstars. He made free-agent splashes (Al Leiter, Kevin Brown, Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, David Price, J.D. Martinez) and caused tidal waves with trades (Mark Langston, Moises Alou, Gary Sheffield, Derrek Lee-for-Brown, Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera, a three-way deal for Max Scherzer, Ian Kinsler-for-Fielder, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Sale).
Mostly, though, Dombrowski did the bidding of the late Mike Ilitch in Detroit and John Henry in Boston, owners who were driven to win and directed him to spare little expense (in money and prospect capital) to achieve that goal.
There isn’t much denying Middleton’s commitment. He famously told WIP-FM in 2017 that the Phillies are “going to get that trophy back somehow or I’m going to die trying.” Then, over the next three winters, he spent nearly $700 million on free agents, including $330 million for Bryce Harper.
But the coronavirus pandemic hit the Phillies after they added 100 jobs on the baseball side and 30 on the business side from 2016 to 2019, according to MacPhail, and had a player payroll that pushed the $208 million luxury-tax threshold this year. Last month, Middleton eliminated 80 jobs, a sign that the payroll might be rolled back, too.
Given that environment, it seems doubtful that Dombrowski would be able to sign a big-ticket free agent, including perhaps even catcher J.T. Realmuto, in his first offseason at the wheel, as he did when he gave Price $217 million to go to Boston.
And the Phillies’ farm system lacks the elite-level prospects to pull off a blockbuster trade, such as when Dombrowski acquired Sale from the Chicago White Sox for Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. If anything, Middleton lamented the Phillies’ ability under MacPhail and Klentak to incorporate inexpensive homegrown talent with the free-agent additions.
“Matt had a pretty successful track record with free agents,” Middleton said on Oct. 3. “We just haven’t been able to bring up the people internally to support them. You can’t build a championship around free agents, and we just didn’t have the internal players coming up to really field the competitive team that we needed.”
The Phillies need creativity to improve a top-heavy roster that has little depth down below, which was precisely what Dombrowski left behind when the Red Sox fired him late in the 2019 season, albeit after having won the World Series 11 months earlier. The Phillies aren’t rebuilding again, but they’re more than a couple of superstars away from seeing October for the first time since 2011.
Say this much: With Dombrowski, there won’t be any doubting who’s in charge. He’s an unquestioned alpha-male executive, as hands-on as it gets. He makes almost every road trip (few general managers do anymore) and didn’t see the need to appoint a general manager to work under him during his last three years with the Red Sox.
For 70 days, the Phillies conducted a stealth search for their next head of baseball operations that left agents and even a few rival teams questioning their direction. They are on the verge of hiring a leader whose decision-making will make it abundantly clear.