David Dombrowski left his Music City baseball dream after learning it was going to be a while before the fine people of Nashville awoke to a new ballpark and a new ballclub in the land of the Grand Ole Opry.
Instead, after some strong and lengthy urging from Phillies billionaire managing partner John Middleton, the 64-year-old baseball executive with a couple of World Series rings agreed to take a stab at fixing the Phillies.
Others have tried.
Bryce Harper, the prize of the 2019 free-agent market, and J.T. Realmuto, one of the best acquisitions on the 2019 trade market, gave the Phillies two terrific seasons without the team’s yielding a winning record.
A couple of New York imports – manager Joe Girardi and free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler – stepped up to the plate in 2020 with the degree of difficulty substantially lowered for making the postseason and it resulted in one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.
Now, it’s Dombrowski’s turn, but the optimism that accompanied Harper, Realmuto, Wheeler,and Girardi to Philadelphia is missing.
The Atlanta Braves have established themselves as the team to beat in the National League East, the New York Mets are the team most people believe is about to take a giant leap forward, the Miami Marlins just made the postseason with an array of no-name youngsters, and the Washington Nationals still have a powerful starting rotation and a recent World Series title to fall back on.
So how big a task does Dombrowski have in front of him?
“I consider it a retool and not a rebuild for sure,” he said Friday during his introductory Zoom call with the media. “I think there are too many good players on the club, and the way I look at it 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 I think there are some things that also need to be done.”
Oh, there sure are.
The one thing the Phillies did very well last season was hit the baseball and score runs. They were one of six teams to average more than five runs per game, and the other five, including the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, all made the expanded playoffs.
Dombrowski, however, has not adopted that offense because Realmuto is a free agent, and if he’s not in the middle of the order or at least replaced by a comparable bat, it’s logical to think the Phillies will take a step back offensively. Adding Dombrowski does not really help the Phillies in their pursuit of re-signing Realmuto.
That decision will ultimately belong to Middleton and fellow owners Jim and Pete Buck because of how much money Realmuto will be seeking. Dombrowski admitted as much on his first day.
“Everybody in the organization loves J.T.,” Dombrowski said. “So I think there’s a unanimous feeling they’d like to bring him back … but can you get something like that done, I’m really not sure.”
Dombrowski’s value as a decision maker would be more if Middleton declines to become the highest bidder on Realmuto, because the team that pays the most is almost certainly going to be the landing spot for the catcher. James McCann has emerged as the free-agent consolation prize at catcher and it’s interesting that he was drafted by Dombrowski’s Detroit Tigers in 2011.
The new president of baseball operations must also replace Didi Gregorius at shortstop, which will also impact the high-powered offense the Phillies displayed last season. It still doesn’t seem likely that the Phillies are going to go on spending sprees the way they were the last two offseasons.
The most difficult assignment for Dombrowski will be addressing the dreadful bullpen. It was the primary reason the Phillies could not make a playoff field that included eight of the 15 teams in the National League. It’s crazy to think that if the Phillies had a bullpen that was simply as bad as a Miami pen that posted a 5.50 ERA they probably would have been a playoff team. Instead, they had the second-worst bullpen in baseball history with a 7.06 ERA.
“Well, I guess the good part is that usually if there’s an area that you can fix [because] somebody comes through in the short term it is the bullpen,” Dombrowski said. “We need multiple people out there to try to help us. We have some young arms that are developing that may fit out there. We’ll be in a position where I’m sure we’ll be very aggressive in adding arms and hopefully we’ll be successful in helping it.”
Starting with Oakland closer Liam Hendriks, the free-agent market has some good bullpen arms available, and it’s vital that Dombrowski hits where Matt Klentak and the Phillies missed so often in recent years. David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, and Pat Neshek signed contracts worth $56.6 million over the last three seasons and the Phillies did not get nearly enough on their return.
It’s a low bar, but the new president of baseball operations needs to clear it by a substantial amount. He needs to sign the right top-echelon relievers in free agency and he needs to also land some diamonds in the rough, which was another area in which Klentak came up short.
Dombrowski believes that the role of bullpens has changed, but he still likes having a closer he can trust in the ninth inning, which is why he traded for Craig Kimbrel shortly after he became Boston’s president of baseball operations.
“In general, most good clubs have a guy who closes games,” Dombrowski said. “I still believe in that. I’ve seen managers leverage their best relievers in the seventh and eighth inning and have someone close and I’m not against that. I do think you need more depth than you used to. The negative part is that our bullpen needs a lot of fixing.”
It took only a day for Dombrowski to figure that out. Now if he can figure out how to fix it, the Phillies might win again sooner than expected.