The players have done their job and now it is time for the front office to do its job. The good news for the Phillies is that Dave Dombrowski’s track record at the trade deadline isn’t just good and it isn’t just great.
This is the 32nd time in Dombrowski’s career that he has had final say on deadline deals. The Phillies’ first-year president of baseball operations made his first deal on July 13, 1988, at the age of 31, just eight days after he replaced Bill Stoneman as the Montreal Expos’ general manager. Dombrowski sent catcher Jeff Reed, pitcher Randy St. Claire, and outfielder Herm Winningham to Cincinnati for outfielder Tracy Jones and reliever Pat Pacillo.
It was not a deal that made a major impact for either team, although Reed did have a long career as a backup catcher and was part of the Reds’ World Series title team in 1990.
Dombrowski’s impact as a deal maker, meanwhile, has become the stuff of legend. Many of his great deals were not considered blockbusters at the time, but they worked out heavily in his favor, in several cases leading to the two World Series rings he won with the Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox. Dombrowski was asked recently where he would rank deadline deals among the responsibilities of a major-league general manager.
“It’s an important time period, but I never even really thought of ranking things,” he said. “You have your offseason moves and overseeing other parts of the organization that are also very important, but the deadline is an extremely important time period.”
It’s make-or-break time for teams that believe they are contenders, a position the Phillies have put themselves in by winning four straight series and 10 of 14 games heading into Tuesday night’s game against the New York Yankees.
Even before this recent stretch that has pushed his team to within striking distance of the first-place New York Mets, Dombrowski was confident the Phillies were good enough to make a playoff run.
“We haven’t played that way on a consistent basis, but I think we have the ability to do that,” he said last month. “When you look at us, we have barely had our full club together on a regular basis. When we do, I think we have the ingredients to put together a nice run and be in this thing all the way.”
To understand how adept Dombrowski has been at pushing the right buttons at the deadline, it is best to look at his long career in reverse chronology.
Just three seasons ago, with the Red Sox off to a terrific start but still locked in a battle with the Yankees for first place in the AL East, Dombrowski made what was perceived as a minor deal a month before the trade deadline. It ended up having a major impact. The Boston Globe put the trade on page 3 of its sports section with the headline, “Sox pick up righty bat in Pearce.”
Four months later, Steve Pearce was the World Series MVP after he helped the Red Sox leave the Yankees in the dust during the regular season before beating their biggest rival again in the playoffs. After eliminating Houston in the ALCS, the Red Sox downed the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games during the World Series.
“Steve Pearce was phenomenal,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t know if we win without Steve Pearce. He wasn’t a vocal leader, but he brought leadership with the way he did things on the field.”
The cost for Pearce was minor-league infielder Santiago Espinal, who did make it to the big leagues last year in Toronto and is having a good year this season. That’s better than most of Dombrowski’s trade partners have done over the years.
A little less than a month after Dombrowski acquired Pearce, he added pitcher Nathan Eovaldi in a deal with Tampa Bay. Eovaldi went 3-3 with a 3.33 ERA down the stretch, but proved to be Boston’s most valuable arm in the postseason by going 2-1 with a 1.61 ERA in six games, including four relief appearances. Jalen Beeks, the player Dombrowski gave up for Eovaldi, has been an OK reliever for the Rays.
Go back a year earlier and Dombrowski added infielder Eduardo Nunez in a deal that sent pitchers Shaun Anderson and Gregory Santos to the San Francisco Giants. Nunez hit .321 as Boston’s primary second baseman the remainder of that season and was productive again in that role in 2018. Oh yeah, and he also hit a huge three-run homer in Game 1 of the World Series against the Dodgers. The Red Sox have no regrets about losing either Anderson or Santos.
One of Dombrowski’s favorite deals came in 2012 when he sent catcher Rob Brantly and pitchers Brian Flynn and Jacob Turner to Miami for infielder Omar Infante and pitcher Aníbal Sánchez. The Tigers trailed the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central at the time, but ended up winning the division and going to the World Series for the second time under Dombrowski’s watch.
“Anibal really performed for us,” Dombrowski said. “That deal just helped us a great amount.”
In addition to helping the Tigers win three straight division titles from 2012 to 2014, Sánchez also posted a 2.79 ERA in seven postseason appearances. The deal would have been good for the Tigers even if it did not include Sánchez because Infante improved the team’s woeful second-base situation and hit .300 (15-for-50) during the postseason.
During his long tenure in Detroit, Dombrowski also added pitcher Doug Fister and shortstop Jhonny Peralta at the deadline without giving up much of anything in return.
Dombrowski’s first chance to win a championship came with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and he ranks his deadline deal that sent outfielder Billy McMillon to the Phillies for the late Darren Daulton as one of his best. A few months later, the Marlins won the World Series and Dombrowski credited Daulton’s leadership a major contributing factor.
Blockbuster deals involving Mike Piazza and David Price are also part of Dombrowski’s deadline resume. As Florida’s cost-slashing GM in 1998, he sent Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Gary Sheffiled, Charles Johnson, and Manuel Barrios to the Dodgers for Piazza and Todd Zeile in mid-May. A few days later, Piazza was shipped to the New York Mets for outfield prospect Preston Wilson, who had 104 home runs and an .806 OPS in parts of five seasons with the Marlins.
The most underrated aspect of all those May maneuvers was the acquisition of pitcher Ed Yarnall in the Piazza deal with the Mets. That offseason, Dombrowski traded Yarnall to the Yankees for infield prospect Mike Lowell, who became a cornerstone of the Marlins’ 2003 World Series title team.
Dombrowski has a fascinating history with Price. He first acquired the stud lefty at the deadline in 2014 and Price pitched OK, but the Tigers were swept by Baltimore in a three-game divisional series. A year later, Detroit’s run of four straight division titles was over and Dombrowski was in full sell mode. He sent Price to Toronto, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets, and closer Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh. Less than a week later, Dombrowski was fired, but he had acquired a couple of pitchers — Matthew Boyd and Michael Fullmer — who are still with the Tigers.
Four months after trading Price from the Tigers, Dombrowski was in charge of baseball operations in Boston and he signed the lefty as a free agent for the Red Sox.
Like so many decision makers, Dombrowski has a keen memory of the deals that did not work out. He thought, for example, that he had made two terrific deadline acquisitions in 2009 when he acquired lefty Jarrod Washburn from Seattle and first baseman/DH Aubrey Huff from Baltimore.
“At the time, I was thrilled,” Dombrowski said. “I thought [Washburn] would be a difference maker for us. He had one of the lowest ERAs in the league.”
In 20 starts with the Mariners, Washburn was 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA. In eight starts with the Tigers, he was 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA and Detroit lost a wild 12-inning 163rd game of the season to Minnesota for the division title.
“He ended up having an oblique problem or a side problem and he ended up not being the same pitcher for us,” Dombrowski said.
Huff, meanwhile, hit .189 with two home runs in 40 games with Detroit and wasn’t even active for the one-game showdown with the Twins.
A year later, he finished seventh in the NL MVP voting and helped the San Francisco Giants win the World Series.
“Sometimes you have to be fortunate and really when I say that, it really is about the scouts,” Dombrowski said. “They do the job there. You have to have good scouts. Now it has also developed into the analytical people who can help you. I’m not out there seeing all the individuals work and play. I have a general pulse of a lot of guys, but it’s the scouts who are out there making the recommendations for us.”
Perhaps, but for more than three decades Dave Dombrowski has been making the final call on deadline deals and his track record is probably going to help land him in the Hall of Fame one day. Now, the Phillies need him to work some of that deadline magic for them.