If you feared that John Middleton and the Buck cousins had checked out, this was proof that they have not. If, as expected, they are about to hire Dave Dombrowski, a likely future Hall of Famer, as their head of baseball operations, the Phillies’ primary owners made it clear that they want to win and they want to win now.
That, of course, does not mean it is going to happen that way. Sure Dombrowski, 64, has experience and pedigree, not to mention a couple of World Series rings, but it should also be noted that he has also been the GM or head of baseball operations for more losing teams (15) teams than winning ones (13). Three times, in fact, he was in charge of teams that lost more than 100 games, a dubious feat that even the Phillies have avoided since 1961.
Dombrowski, however, was at his best over the last decade with the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox, leading those teams to a combined seven division titles, two World Series appearances and a title during a nine-year span. Given those recent achievements, it is somewhat of a coup that Middleton, the Phillies managing partner who has deservedly been under fire this offseason, was able to convince Dombrowski to join the Phillies.
As recently as last month, Dombrowski was telling people he was committed to Music City Baseball, the group trying to bring an expansion team to Nashville. Middleton does have a reputation for being persistent, as we saw when he fired up his private jet, headed off to Las Vegas and brought back Bryce Harper a couple of years ago. Dombrowski’s services will not cost that much, but the only head of baseball operations who might have cost more is Theo Epstein. Like Epstein, who spurned Middleton and the Phillies, Dombrowski has won a World Series in each league, something only six executives in baseball history have done. It’s a group that also includes former Phillies GM Pat Gillick.
The other thing Dombrowski likely wanted was full control of baseball operations, and that should be no problem for either Middleton or manager Joe Girardi, who is not interested in the offseason duties required to be a general manager.
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It does seem unlikely that the Phillies will hire a general manager to accompany Dombrowski. He did not have one in Detroit or during his final three seasons with Boston when he was in charge of baseball operations.
Middleton, at the early October news conference announcing the end of Matt Klentak’s tenure as GM, outlined what he was looking for in his next baseball operations leader.
“It’s the acquisition and development of talent that is critical, so I’ll be looking for people who can do that,” Middleton said. “That’s where my target is.”
Dombrowski has proved without a doubt he can do that. He was in charge of the Marlins when they signed Miguel Cabrera as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in 1999 and he was in charge of the Tigers when they traded for Cabrera eight years later. He was in charge of the Tigers when they got Curtis Granderson as a third-round draft choice in 2002 and seven years later he used him as a trade chip to acquire Max Scherzer from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He was in charge of the Tigers when they took Justin Verlander with the second overall pick in 2004. James McCann, the most sought-after catcher not named J.T. Realmuto on this year’s free-agent market, was a second-round pick of Detroit’s in 2011. Dombrowski’s final drafts in Detroit included its share of misses, but he moved on and was charged with rejuvenating a Red Sox team that had finished last two straight seasons when Boston owner John Henry hired him to take control of baseball operations late in 2015.
Dombrowski accomplished that mission in 2018 as the Red Sox won 108 regular-season games before going 11-3 in the postseason. Dombrowski’s blockbuster trades for closer Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale and the signing of free-agent designated hitter J.D. Martinez helped get the team over the top.
Surprisingly, Dombrowski’s tenure ended less than a year after the Red Sox celebrated their fourth World Series title in this century. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci did a fascinating story about Dombrowski’s rapid removal by Henry.
“Dave was the kind of guy who didn’t have much a process,” a source told Verducci. “He is very good at making decisions right now based on instincts and advice. John likes a more process-oriented approach. And based on where the team is right now — the next couple of years could be rough — they don’t trust him to make those decisions.”
Read between the lines and that means the Red Sox did not want Dombrowski in charge of their rebuilding team. All that can be said about that right now is that the Red Sox are still rebuilding.
Interestingly, Verducci compared Dombrowski’s dismissal to Girardi’s firing in 2017 after a 10-year run with the Yankees that ended following a seven-game loss to Houston in the American League Championship Series.
Verducci wrote that “based on resume, Girardi had every right to expect to be retained. But if Girardi was the right man for the previous 10 years, Yankees GM Brian Cashman believed he wasn’t the right man for the next five years. Cashman saw a young team in place, and didn’t believe Girardi connected well enough with the younger players.”
That brings us back to Middleton and the Phillies. The presumption this offseason has been that the Phillies took a financial bath during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and are now inclined to cut payroll. It’s hard to believe, however, that Dombrowski would be interested in running the Phillies at age 64 without a strong financial commitment for the very near future.
Whatever Middleton said, he convinced Dombrowski that, all things considered, he’d rather be in Philadelphia, and that’s a definite sign of hope for the Phillies’ 2021 season.