The Red Sox’ Future Can Be Seen in Detroit

I hate to be a buzzkill this week, after the Boston Red Sox clinched their third straight American League East division title. They are having a great season so far–105 wins and counting–and Alex Cora has energized the team, transforming a good team into a great one in his first year as manager. There is still a long way to go, but the ride has been fun so far. But I just cannot shake the creeping thought in the back of my head regarding what happens to Dave Dombrowski teams as time passes.

Five years ago, the Red Sox caught lightning in a bottle with a veteran roster. At the time, it was John Farrell in his first year as manager refocusing a team that had lost its way, and then-GM turned the franchise around with a series of short-term, low risk acquisitions. Shane Victorino. David Ross. Mike Napoli. Jonny Gomes. Perhaps the best move was to sign Koji Uehara, the Red Sox closer who by far gave me the most confidence in my 20 year baseball watching life. All those guys were added to bolster an underachieving roster that already had David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, and John Lackey. I started this blog in 2013, and I wrote quite a bit about that Red Sox team if you scroll back far enough in the archives. I’m not sure who well a lot of my writing from that time in my life has held up, but I’m not particularly hopeful about it.

That was a simpler time. It was before the two losing seasons that followed, before the Red Sox low-balled Jon Lester in contract extension talks, before the team that won the third Boston World Series title this century was dismantled at the following trade deadline, before Cherington got too timid to trade any prospects and the post-Lester rotation was a model of mediocrity. It was all before the 2016 World Series that the Red Sox did not reach despite winning the division and getting back to the postseason, but Red Sox alumni made up most of the key contributors on both sides of the thrilling seven-game bout between the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs. In that simpler time, there was a dramatic American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers, and the paths the two teams took in the years that followed, while different, are undeniably connected.

While the Red Sox went into 2013 with relatively low expectations–just to be respectable again, to compete while gradually integrating the next generation of young players like Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr.–the Tigers were all the way in win-now mode. Detroit had reached the World Series the previous season, only to get swept by the even-year voodoo of the San Francisco Giants (Full disclosure: the Red Sox have always been my favorite team, but ever since I learned when I was eight or nine that my late grandfather rooted for the Giants, not the Dodgers, growing up in Brooklyn, the Giants have been my National League team. The 21st Century been berry, berry good to me.), and they were the team to beat in the American League going into the year. They had Miguel Cabrera at the height of his offensive prowess, and Justin Verlander was the American League’s best pitcher. 2013 was the year that Max Scherzer became the steadily dominant Max Scherzer that we take for granted today.

The 2013 Detroit Tigers were loaded, but they had one fatal flaw. In the ALCS, the Red Sox could not get anything going against starting pitchers Verlander, Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. But when the starters came out, the bullpen was vulnerable. David Ortiz surpassed Jo Jo White as Boston’s most clutch athlete that October (and cemented his legacy as Boston’s most important athlete with his “This is our f*ckin’ city” moment that April), but he did it by hitting a grand slam off Joaquin Benoit, after Scherzer pitched seven innings, had a no-hitter going for five and two-thirds, and struck out 13 batters. That was Game 2, before the Ortiz slam, it looked like the Sox were going to get swept, but then Rick Porcello blew the game for the Tigers in the following inning, and the Red Sox won the series in six games. Looking back on it, weak bullpens seem to be the vulnerable exhaust port in the Death Star-esque planet-destroying juggernauts that are Dave Dombrowski teams.

After the 2014 season the Red Sox traded Yoenis Cespedes (whom they acquired when they traded Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes to the Oakland Athletics) to the Tigers for pitcher Rick Porcello. In the middle of the 2015 season, when it became clear Detroit was looking at a long rebuild ahead of them, the team and GM Dave Dombrowski parted ways. In Detroit, Dombrowski was replaced with his former assistant GM Al Avila. Avila has had a tough road to manage in trying to turn the Tigers’ aging roster into something good, and that is still a work in progress, but I have found it amusing that he let his son, catcher Alex Avila, walk in free agency after the 2015 season, then signed him two years later for the 2017 season, only to trade him to the Cubs at the trade deadline. I don’t know this for sure, but I can only assume that Doc Rivers read an article on Al Avila, said “wait, you’re allowed to trade your own son?” and then traded Austin Rivers to the Washington Wizards this summer.

Not long after leaving the Tigers, Dombrowski was hired by the Red Sox. Less than a year after Dombrowski and Cherington traded a Home Run Derby winner for a future Cy Young Award winner, Dombrowski was going to be Cherington’s boss. Naturally, Cherington decided to leave the organization at the end of the season. While Cherington oversaw an era in which the Red Sox were not willing to pay a premium for starting pitching, Dombrowski signed David Price in his first offseason, and traded for closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres. A year later, when he got the Red Sox were good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to win even one game against Terry Francona’s eventual American League Champion Indians, Dombrowksi sent a package of prospects–which included Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech–to the Chicago White Sox for southpaw ace Chris Sale. While the addition of Sale in 2017 amounted to nothing more than one win better than 2016 in their ALDS exit at the hands of the eventual World Series Champion Houston Astros, the Red Sox are in a great spot now after replacing Farrell in the dugout with Cora. But the 2018 Tigers are a cautionary tale of what the Red Sox might become.

Dave Dombrowski is a long-tenured and accomplished baseball man. He was hired by John Henry in Boston because they already had a working relationship when Henry owned the Florida Marlins and Dombrowski was the GM he inherited, having won led the team to their first World Series title in 1997. Dombrowski’s signature move has been to strip-mine the farm system to acquire Major League ready talent. He traded away a young pitcher named Randy Johnson when he was GM of the Expos. He traded away Andrew Miller, who would eventually reinvent the role of relief pitchers, to acquire Miguel Cabrera as GM of the Tigers. Needless to say, Boston’s once precious farm system has not been the priority since Dombrowski took over.

The Red Sox are in a good place because they are young, but their greatest talents will have to get paid soon enough. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are home-grown keepers. Chris Sale is going to command a bigger contract than the one they would not give to Jon Lester four years ago. The Tigers paid top dollar for Verlander and Cabrera because they had to, and there was nobody worthy of replacing them in the pipeline. Before Dombrowski left the Tigers, they moved on from Max Scherzer because the operation got too expensive.

The Tigers are currently 62-92 on the 2018 season, good for third place in the American League Central, which says more about how bad the White Sox and Royals have been. In 2017, they traded J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks (who signed with the Red Sox in the offseason) and Justin Verlander to the Astros. The hope now is that Miguel Cabrera might be healthy and productive long enough to trade him to a contender as well, one of these years. When you are constantly trading prospects to win in the short term, it takes a long time to rebuild when the win-now mentality ceases to sustain itself.

Dombrowski won a World Series in Florida, and in his 13 years in Detroit, he won two pennants, but never delivered a title for the Motor City. Maybe he has learned from his shortcomings with the Tigers, and maybe the Red Sox manage to lock down Betts and Sale for years to come, but the 2018 bullpen is shaky. They have won more games this season than they have in any season in my grandmother’s lifetime, but the thought of Joe Kelly or Steven Wright (the knuckleballer, not the comedian, but what’s the difference, am I right?) on the mound for a high-leverage situation against the Astros, Indians, A’s or Yankees is already making me nervous.

The Red Sox need to be able to take advantage of this season because they could be the Tigers sooner than we realize. I hate to be like this when things are going so well, but Red Sox fandom isn’t inherently optimistic.

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