The Rebirth of the Red Sox
The 2004 Red Sox hold an obvious place in New England hearts for ending a cursed 86-year drought without a World Series championship. But the true golden years of the Henry era came in 2007 and 2008, when the Red Sox built a balanced team with pitching, defense, speed, power, youth, and experience.
In many ways, the Boston roster looked a lot like it does now.
Leading up to the 2007 season, the Red Sox spent big—nearly a quarter of a billion dollars—to acquire pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, outfielder J. D. Drew, and shortstop Julio Lugo, a trio that was, at the very best, moderately successful in Boston. At the same time, the Red Sox were bringing a core of young minor league players to the majors, including Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, and Clay Buchholz. The team’s veterans included the two prolific sluggers around whom their first championship was built: David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
The 2007 and 2008 Rex Sox teams struck that balance as well as any in recent history, winning 191 regular-season games—more than any team during that span other than the Los Angeles Angels, who won 194. Simply put, those Red Sox teams had it all, winning the World Series in 2007 and reaching Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2008, where, amusingly enough, they were eliminated by an upstart Tampa Bay Rays team and a budding left-handed ace named David Price.
In 2015, the Red Sox showed signs of life late in the season. During a 56-game stretch that began at the end of July and extended through September, they won 34 games, a .607 winning percentage that would equate to a whopping 98 wins over the course of a full season—enough to win their division. Even though the Red Sox had long since lost any hope of making the playoffs, the continued development of young players like shortstop Bogaerts, outfielder Betts, catcher Swihart, outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., and pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez was impossible to ignore. As for veterans, Ortiz would still be around for one more season in 2016, alongside Pedroia. What the Red Sox lacked was stability at the front and back of the pitching staff—an ace and a closer, quite simply—along with a few smaller complementary pieces. So when Lucchino announced he was leaving the Red Sox last year, it opened the door for Dombrowski and a new philosophy of signing star players in their prime for top dollar.
For all the turnover the Red Sox have experienced on the field in recent years—shedding players such as Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Shane Victorino, and Mike Napoli—the biggest change has come internally. For a decade, the high-powered organization has operated like a family business, with owner Henry acting as Dad and Lucchino in the role of Mom, peering over the shoulders of their children. From Epstein to Ben Cherington to Mike Hazen, general managers have been young and promoted from within.
Enter Dombrowski. He worked for Henry when Henry briefly owned the Florida Marlins in the early 2000s, but he is older and more established than any of the billionaire owner’s previous dealmakers, having helped the Detroit Tigers go from one of the lowest payrolls in baseball to cracking the top-five highest payrolls. So when the Red Sox hired Dombrowski in August, the move sent a clear signal to the baseball world that the Red Sox were in a “win now” mode and would spend like a drunken sailor to do it. One major league executive went so far as to suggest that Dombrowski would come to Boston and “do what he always does,” which is to say that he would slowly strip the Red Sox of young talent, buy high-priced free agents, and mortgage the club’s future.
Dombrowski knows these perceptions are out there, but disagrees with the characterization. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s fair or not,” he told me in January. “If you look at my career, you’d see that when I was in Montreal we were very developmentally oriented. We went to Florida and we were also developmentally oriented. We went to Detroit and we were in a win-now mode—that’s where we were as an organization…. The reality is I love young players. To me, the core of young players we have here at the major league level is exceptional.”
In other words, he wants fans to know: I’m not a carpetbagger. I’ve built teams from the inside out and I’ve built them from the outside in. Make your own judgments.
At the beginning of the off-season, Dombrowski identified the team’s needs, and then went out and filled them exactly as he said he would, acquiring an ace (Price), a closer (Kimbrel), and even an extra outfielder (Chris Young), regardless of what he had to pay. And it was a lot: up to $267 million in payroll commitments, plus a handful of prospects dealt primarily for Kimbrel. Devoid of Lucchino’s rhetoric about the Yankees or any of Henry’s high-minded business philosophies, Dombrowski outlined a plan and executed it both swiftly and decisively, the kind of no-spin approach the team had been lacking for years.
Ultimately, the Red Sox added without really subtracting, staying loyal to their player-development operation while simultaneously throwing their considerable weight around as a big-spending fat cat. “To me, we’re an organization that doesn’t put itself in one [category] or the other,” Dombrowski said earlier this winter, nearly the opposite of Lucchino’s sentiments just two years ago. “For us, that’s one of the luxuries we have because we are a large-market club.”
So why did the Red Sox make Price the highest-paid pitcher in history and break Henry’s cardinal rule about players over 30? The answer is clear: The team finished dead last three out of the previous four seasons, they failed to spend big after the 2013 championship to hold onto key players and bring in new ones, and there’s a new sheriff in town. As Henry long ago suggested about the departed Lucchino, Dave Dombrowski now “runs the Red Sox,” and he appears dedicated to achieving balance—both developing players and buying them for record prices. After all, they are the Red Sox. Unlike nearly every other team, they don’t have to choose.