Dave Dombrowski got a message Monday morning from Andy MacPhail, the Phillies president, to alert him that John Middleton would soon be calling. Dombrowski, a two-time World Series champion executive, had rebuffed the Phillies – and every other organization that asked – in October when they tried to lure him to their front office.
He had moved to Nashville, Tenn., in September, was building a house, and working to bring a major-league team to town.
But Middleton, the Phillies’ managing partner, wanted one more chance. The Phillies have not reached the postseason since 2011, appeared to be drifting into obscurity this winter, and needed to land a leader to chart their path.
“I got that message on Monday,” Dombrowski said Friday afternoon. “And John and I talked Tuesday morning.”
As luck would have it, Dombrowski had just been notified that any expansion talk would be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Three days later, he was officially hired to be the Phillies’ president of baseball operations. He will leave Nashville and try to lift a Phillies team back to October. Dombrowski’s last three teams – the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Florida Marlins – all reached the World Series under his watch. The expectations in Philadelphia will be the same.
“Over the last handful, half-a-dozen years, you sort of scratch your head and say, ‘Gee, I wonder why they aren’t winning. What’s happening over there?’ ” Dombrowski said. “Because last year, if you’d asked me before the season, ‘Are the Phillies going to make the playoffs,’ you’d say, ‘It looks like they should make the playoffs,’ or ‘They have a heck of a chance to make the playoffs.’ So, they’ve been close, but they just haven’t got it going.”
Dombrowski will report directly to Middleton; MacPhail is expected to assume an advisory role in the last year of his contract. Dombrowski said he is unsure about hiring a general manager, but the expectation is that he will handle the day-to-day responsibilities himself. The baseball decisions will be his to make.
The 64-year-old inherits a roster that features star slugger Bryce Harper and right-handers Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Third baseman Alec Bohm and right-hander Spencer Howard reached the majors last season, and right-hander Zach Eflin and first baseman Rhys Hoskins are solidified major leaguers. But there is heavy lifting to be done.
He needs to determine if the Phillies can afford to keep free-agent catcher J.T. Realmuto while also fixing their other needs. He needs to rebuild a bullpen that finished last season with a 7.06 ERA. He needs to complete the starting rotation, determine who his center fielder and the middle infielders are, and overcome a farm system that is ranked in the bottom third of baseball.
The Phillies, in five seasons under general manager Matt Klentak, failed to have a winning season and finished no better than third place. Klentak was reassigned after the season, and the Phillies did not rush into finding a replacement, instead seeming to operate without a leader.
Dombrowski has a track record of success, but even he knows this will not be an easy fix.
“I don’t think anybody thinks like we’re a player away,” he said. “I mean, we have some holes to plug. How can we do that? I think only time will tell. Trade conversations taking place, free agency out there with an uncertain market. So, do we want to win? Yes.
“There’s some good clubs in the division, as you know. The Braves have a good young club. They won the division a couple years, and they’re good. You see the Mets have made a big move, Washington [was] world champion a couple years ago, the Marlins [are] an improving team.
“But I think we’re in a position where we have a lot of nice pieces to win. We’re going to have to do some other things to make it successful, and it’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Under Klentak’s watch, the Phillies fielded rosters with record payrolls as they signed free agents Harper, Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, and Carlos Santana. The Phillies, for the last few winters, were one of baseball’s biggest spenders.
And that would be a style that fits Dombrowski as he won titles in Boston and Florida by beefing up their rosters with high-priced veterans, often at the cost of trading away prospects. But the Phillies have stressed this offseason that they will be watching their spending after saying they lost $145 million by playing a 60-game schedule without fans in the stands.
Dombrowski seems OK with that.
“There’s flexibility to do things, but I think we’ll look at each and every move in an intelligent fashion, and if something makes sense we’ll react to that,” he said. “But I don’t by any means come in here and think we have an unlimited amount to spend. And I think you have to be careful. ... I know what sometimes people say and expectations are, but I think you make moves to try to win when you think they make sense and you add payroll when they make sense to make a difference. And depending where you are as organizations, those things come at different time periods.”
When Dombrowski declined to discuss the job with the Phillies earlier in the offseason, he was under the impression that he would be pitching a Nashville franchise to Major League Baseball in December 2021. But he was told Monday by the commissioner’s office that financial complications brought on by the pandemic were delaying expansion plans. There would be no proposal next December.
Suddenly, Dombrowski was not as busy in Nashville as he was when the Phillies first called. The message from MacPhail came at the right time. The Phillies found their leader.
“I consider it a retool and not a rebuild, for sure,” Dombrowski said. “I think there are too many good players on the club, and the way I look at it is we have a star player in right field in Bryce and some other good players around him. Any time you have three good starting pitchers like we have at the top of the rotation, you’re in pretty good shape to be competitive. Now, there are other things I think that need to be done.
“We want to win this year. We will do what we can. We have a great manager in Joe Girardi. He has won. I think it’s more important, too, that we build an organization that can be competitive year in and year out, so that will really be the focus in addition to trying to win.
“I don’t look at this as a situation as we are one player away from winning. I think we need to do a few things with this team. And I really don’t want to be sacrificing people that might be part of our future success for short-term gains if it’s not the difference-maker in trying to be a championship club.”