In the cult TV comedy Arrested Development, heir to the real estate fortune Michael Bluth, played by usual-straight man Jason Bateman, delivered one of his best deadpan moments in the second episode of the show, when brother Gob Bluth, played as ridiculously as usual by Will Arnett, deposited a dead dove in the refrigerator, the fallout from a failed hidden dove illusion. Upon seeing the dove in the fridge, Bateman witnesses exactly what one would expect:
In the scenario we are about to discuss, one can easily imagine who is who in this situation. When Dave Dombrowski was hired as president of baseball operations in August of 2015, he was certainly that dove. The club was coming off a couple of disappointing seasons after another stunning 2013 championship, and they were looking to reset.
The previous top executive in Ben Cherington set them up incredibly well farm system-wise, as Baseball Prosepctus ranked them sixth in baseball to start 2015. Yet Cherington had saddled the team with puzzling—we’ll get to big spending, later—deals in Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Rusney Castillo, and while Cherington put a strong emphasis on value, growth, and sustainability—something the Red Sox have said was an issue later on, which we’ll get to—they decided to go to the dove.
Dombrowski was not brought in for what Cherington was brought in for, surely. While the latter could not be trusted to dish out large deals, Dombrowski certainly could be after dealing with some of the biggest American League stars in Detroit, and he has always shown an adept skill at big, blockbuster trades, the kind you want to have with a sixth-overall farm system.
On that he delivered, crafting some of the most important moves the team has made in years to deliver not only another World Series win, but one of the best teams—period—in decades. Chris Sale rolled into town due to Yoan Moncada, Craig Kimbrel due to Manuel Margot, and he signed JD Martinez to a team-friendly deal. Alex Cora was brought in as manager, where he will remain for the foreseeable future.
Part of Dombrowski is that package deal, though, because he is going to use all of the financial resources made available to him; the Illitch’s even gave him more than he bargained for in Detroit, and many rightfully questioned the timing of a Miguel Cabrera extension. Some have grafted that criticism on to the Sale extension, which will go all the way until either 2022 or 2024, and he has already shown cracks; not only was he shaky late last year, but he had the worst year by ERA- of his career this season.
It’s even more simple than that, really. Dombrowski was the dead dove in the fridge, and John Henry opened it up and was seemingly surprised (maybe he wasn’t) by what he saw inside. FanGraphs currently lists Boston as 30th in farm system rankings. The team has eclipsed the luxury tax in some capacity for two straight years, and they intend to stay below it in 2020 by moving either JD Martinez or Mookie Betts, or both.
To that I say, again: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?! The Red Sox, by Forbes, are the third most valuable team in baseball at $3.2 billion. They gained a half billion in valuation just after their World Series win, and their valuation has climbed $2.67 billion since they broke the curse. Nothing could be further from the truth that they can’t afford Betts or Sale or Nathan Eovaldi or any or all of them, because they gained more equity than a small nation state over the last calendar year.
The fact is that as baseball becomes more and more decoupled from the actual winning of games, as revenue just becomes merely an abstraction and becomes more about a being a large multi-national corporation that operates on low operating expenses, wide margins, and decent and consistent outcomes, so too follow the results per executives.
Winning is not enough today simply becomes teams don’t particularly care about going for it all anymore. It’s more about an abstract, fiduciary responsibility to the fiscal health of a ball club, like a board school child having to keep every item in order before a draconian inspection: bed tucked in (farm system has a high ranking), pencils straight (low payroll), and pants are pressed (few long-term deals).
Why this happened at this point in the season, though, is still incredibly puzzling. Maybe Evan Drellich at The Athletic is right that it was about organizational fit as his old school style became alienated from the growing analytical side. That really only circles back to the original question of why they chose early September and not just a few weeks from now, and that’s because the cold operating procedure of baseball in 2019 comes down to: kill the past, austerity is a-comin’.