For teams that stand no chance at sniffing the 2015 MLB playoffs, the biggest news at this point of the year generally involves either prospect promotions or front office shake-ups. For the Boston Red Sox, their farm system has given them enough of the former to keep a somewhat positive grin in place, but the latter has taken grabbed the baseball world by the ear and pulled it back to New England.
Boston hired former Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski to be their VP of Baseball Operations on Tuesday, and in doing so effectively ran their GM, Ben Cherington, right out of town. It caps a whirlwind month for Dombrowski, one in which he traded away David Price from Detroit, got fired by Mike Ilitch despite a phenomenal ten year run of sustained success, and flirted with the likes of the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners before finally landing in one of the best and most visible spots in all of baseball.
But while Boston's rich farm system and deep, deep pockets makes for a near dream scenario for any baseball exec who likes control of franchise-building, there's a pile of work to be done on a misshapen roster, and it comes under the watchful eye of an ownership group that worries not about making sweeping changes when they see fit.
Dombrowski will be tasked with sorting out an awful pitching rotation, one that features the recently extended disaster that has been Rick Porcello, the endless injuries to Clay Bucholz, and a series of talented yet unproven rookies. He'll get to figure out what to do with new Sox Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, both of whom appear to be positionless defensive disasters that can't simply be moved to DH (since 40-year-old-to-be David Ortiz just saw his 2016 option vest.) The 5th worst bullpen in the game (by ERA) will need fixing, and all of this runs parallel to manager John Farrell's chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma during a season in which the team is headed for its 3rd last place finish in 4 seasons.
Boston's also in need of a first baseman, though, and that's the part that becomes interesting for the Cincinnati Reds.
The Red Sox found success over the last decade through a prominent usage of analytics, something that emanates from the very top with owner John Henry's usage of them in all aspects of his business life. But Dombrowski, however, has made his reputation as more of an old-school scout-heavy guy, one with a reputation for big trades and major acquisitions with hesitation and fear not things that dampen his ambition.
So, a win-now club with prospect depth and serious financial wherewithal to accommodate a big trade has paired an analytics-driven owner with an exec with a history of landing big bats, and that pairing now runs a team with a major hole at 1B.
Dombrowski has spearheaded some of the biggest trades in recent memory, the biggest being his acquisition of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins for essentially Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, and Cameron Maybin. Cabrera was signed out of Venezuela by the Marlins in 1999 when Dombrowski was their GM, and the then Tigers GM made getting him back his top priority. Of course, Cabrera and Dombrowski also agreed to multiple extensions totaling over $300 million dollars, showing what pairing a GM who swings major deals with a franchise with near unlimited payroll can accomplish.
And, to top the Cabrera deal off, Dombrowski jumped at signing another battleship bat in Prince Fielder, doting over $200 million for yet another 1B-only player to anchor the offense.
Both are examples of Dombrowski at his best, but there are further examples of his willingness to move pieces that didn't turn out as well on his end (but still signify his fearlessness when it comes to trading away talent). While in charge of the Montreal Expos in 1989, for instance, he swung for the fences in acquiring Mark Langston from the Seattle Mariners while in a playoff push, but that trade included a young lefty named Randy Johnson. With the Marlins in 1993, he traded Trevor Hoffman to the San Diego Padres for a young Gary Sheffield, a major move that led to the 1997 World Series run and eventual fire sale that Dombrowski also was forced to preside over.
One of those fire sale moves came in December of 1998, and it featured World Series hero Edgar Renteria being shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Pablo Ozuna, Armando Almanza, and Braden Looper. While that trade itself doesn't stand out as incredibly significant on Dombrowski's lengthy ledger, it does carry importance as being the first major deal that had Walt Jocketty on the other end, a history that was rekindled with the trade of Alfredo Simon for Jonathon Crawford and Eugenio Suarez last winter.
Which moves the Cincinnati Reds make this offseason will be a surprise to many regardless of which direction they take, since the team hasn't really shown their hand in any real fashion. They've traded away free agents to be in a signal that they weren't a part of the team's future (or future payroll, perhaps more importantly), but they've not yet moved any of the other established stars on the roster to help build for any future sustained success. Jay Bruce and Aroldis Chapman had numerous suitors at last month's trade deadline, yet neither were moved despite the Reds sinking to the bottom of an NL Central that features three teams poised for years of success the Reds can't make even in the most favorable scenarios.
Right now, Joey Votto is on pace for a 7.3 fWAR season, which would be the single most valuable season of his career, and that includes his 2010 MVP exploits. The only 1B who is on pace to eclipse that mark is Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt, and Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart said earlier this week that he wants to make his star a Diamondback for life. If Stewart's intentions are indeed true, that means that the single best 1B that could potentially upgrade the Red Sox at the position is Votto, and the bulk of the guys behind him on the fWAR leaderboard are entrenched guys on teams that intend to be serious contenders in 2016 and 2017, with the one notable exception being Baltimore's Chris Davis, who will be a free agent at year's end.
While there were no inklings that Votto and the $200 million still owed him were on the market at the trade deadline three weeks ago, it's hard not to look at him and the situation in Boston as a near perfect fit. Votto would be moving from a team that seems to bemoan his plate discipline and propensity for walks to one with ownership that ascribes to advanced analytics and won a pair of World Series titles with "The Greek God of Walks" as a fixture in the lineup. Votto would have the Green Monster to dent with opposite field doubles, just the way his idol Ted Williams did for his entire career, and he'd do so with a handful of other $20 million a year players on the same roster in a place where that's the norm, not the scrutinized outlier.
Boston will undoubtedly be addressing their 1B issues this winter, and there's a chance they simply move Sandoval to 1B or sign an Adam Lind type free agent to a 1-year deal. But those aren't the kind of moves Dombrowski has made a living on, nor are they the kind that the Red Sox have opted for since their dynasty was born in 2004. Both have made a habit of swinging for the fences, and while that may mean they just chase Davis on the free agent market, there's no question Dombrowski knows he's got the pieces to make a run at Votto or that John Henry's methodology knows Cincinnati's 1B would be a fit.
While winning is ultimately the most interesting thing to watch in baseball, watching teams make the moves necessary to produce wins is a close second. In both Boston and Cincinnati, it's just about time for the latter to take center stage.