On Thursday, the Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski as their new President of Baseball Operations.
Despite the title, let me be clear: I would not describe myself as thrilled with this news. I think the feeling would be more accurately described as relief, as if I’d been experiencing debilitating, stinging eye pain, and a couple of eye drops meant, at least, I could blink thickly and look around at the room.
But what followed, rather than very specific gifs congratulating me on no longer having debilitating eye pain, was a barrage from well-meaning people, warning me about Dave Dombrowski. I know that my true annoyance here is with the whole Phillies’ situation, and not with well-meaning friends, acquaintances and Twitter folk. However, it’s particularly difficult to squint at these messages on my phone, since my eyes are still light-sensitive from the stinging pain.
So I am writing this essay, for one and all. Please stop warning me about Dave Dombrowski. I will elucidate the reasons why this irks me.
1. It assumes I do not know about Dave Dombrowski
Some people observe that I am a girl, and yet I like baseball. This can be confusing, I know. In fairness, I do not believe I am an exceptionally intelligent person, and I know I have actual, medical issues with long-term memory. However, I know who Dave Dombrowski is, and what he does.
I am aware that Dombrowski has brought three teams to the World Series, the Red Sox in 2018, the Tigers in 2006 and 2012, and the Marlins in 1997, and I am aware that he has done so, often, by raiding the farm system in order to bring in pieces for a contending team. I understand that part of the reason why the Red Sox moved on from Dombrowski was because they no longer wanted to spend money, and that’s what he does.
I’m also aware that Dombrowski has a reputation for not being particularly into analytics, and this is certainly something that makes me less than thrilled. I’ve feared that the Phillies’ failure to implement analytics will be seen as an indictment on analytics themselves, having tried to catch up to the times by going zero to sixty under Matt Klentak. On the other hand, the Phillies’ approach has not worked. One can hope that the R&D department will survive, because it is 2020, and they can’t scrap it, and perhaps the whole organization will have a more balanced approach. Maybe Dombrowski will bring in a more analytically-savvy GM!
A Not-Terrible Press Conference, For a Change
Of course, in Friday’s press conference, Dombrowski waffled about how soon a GM hiring might happen. But he did seem very aware of his reputation of taking a slash-and-burn agricultural approach to a team’s farm. He emphasized on multiple occasions that he wanted to build the organization for the long term, and only expected to go all-in on a championship team.
I’m agnostic about these claims, though I respect the wisdom to at least say the right thing, given our collective experience with the now-outgoing president Andy MacPhail. (See, amongst countless others, “If we don’t, we don’t” and “Who’s going to want to uproot their family in the middle of a pandemic?” Well, Dave Dombrowski, that’s who.)
But I don’t need to be warned.
2. It assumes the Phillies have a farm system
Every time someone tells me something like “Say goodbye to your farm system!” it hurts. What farm system? I want to wail, head thrown back to the flat, black sky. It reminds me of the Mitch Hedberg joke: don’t wave to someone you don’t know, because what if they don’t have a hand?
The Phillies farm system ranked 23rd of 30 mid-season, and top prospects Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard have since graduated. The farm system is officially “Mick Abel, Bryson Stott and the rest,” and I don’t know how protective I ought to feel about some hypothetical future with two stars and nothing to support them.
Particularly since I have seen plenty of top Phillies prospects come up, have a good half-season, and never reach a consistent level of production again. Aaron Altherr, what happened? Nick Williams? Remember when Maikel Franco was going to save us? Oh God, remember when Scott Kingery was going to save us? By my pact of loyalty to current Phillies players, I continue to hope that Scotty Jetpax is going to turn it around, but the ghost of Domonic Brown looms above his head. Which is very disconcerting given that sweet, poor Domonic Brown is still alive.
3. It assumes that the Phillies were not already depressing AF
I have admitted on both CBS’s Fantasy Baseball Today and the Athletic’s Poscast that I have never felt more depressed about the Phillies organization, or lack thereof, than I had been so far this offseason. Granted, there were some tough times in the late 90s, but I was a young person living in Indiana and wasn’t following the sport to the depth of organizational dysfunction.
Matt Klentak’s reign as GM of the Phillies could be classified as a failure on the basis of very poor drafting (see: Cornelius Randolph, first-round pick in 2015, and Mickey Moniak, first overall pick in 2016) and development (see: point number two, above). The Phillies have not had a record above .500 since 2011. Technically, their window of contention is now, having slogged through the doldrums of a rebuild for the last decade.
Against this backdrop, Klentak steps down as GM.
But Klentak’s contract and the contract of Andy MacPhail, the Phillies former President of Baseball Operations, were staggered by a year, thus leaving MacPhail as a kind of lame-duck baseball ops prez. Great planning! And to be clear, Klentak remains in the organization, still getting a paycheck despite the Phillies laying off 80 front-office employees the day before Thanksgiving in a pandemic-induced cost-saving measure. In my JT Realmuto Christmas Carol in July article, I clearly should have cast John Middleton as Scrooge, instead, but casting against type compelled me. But: bah, humbug, indeed.
So although the Phillies should be at a point in their competitive cycle where they’re trying to shore up the team’s problems, instead, they were heading into this offseason, swinging blindly in the moonless air.* Rather than snapping up Brad Hand on waivers, they were somehow responsible for the appearance of three widely different figures about how much money the organization had lost. (They clearly did not lose $2 billion, as bafflingly reported by Bill Madden, but whether it was $145 or $168 million is TBD. Who can tell?!)
*Why yes, that is a Byron reference, how discerning of you to notice!
The Lower Depths, Phillies-style
Perhaps the lowest point came when Buster Olney reported that Zack Wheeler, the team’s second highest-paid player by average annual value, was being shopped to other clubs. John Middleton refuted this with such ferocity that there must have been some truth to it, at the time. His rebuttal did calm the collective pulse of Phillies fans, but it’s hard to imagine that the reporting existed without any, shall we say, inciting incident.
When people warn me about Dave Dombrowski, I have to assume that the state of the Phillies organization has not been following them around like a dark little cloud, or the ghost of Domonic Brown, in the way that it has for me. The future of the Phillies did not haunt them, at once inchoate, shrouded and bleak. The fact is, I have been too depressed about the Phillies to write an article about them this offseason, until now. Dombrowski has done that for me. I’m not happy, per se, but I’d describe myself as apprehensively activated, rather than outright depressed.
4. It assumes that the Phillies trying to win now is a bad thing
More than anything, what relieved me about the hiring of Dombrowski was that it gave me a clear indication that Middleton and the Phillies organization have a plan. Or at least, they’re willing to let Dombrowski make a plan for them. And because I know about Dave Dombrowski (see point 1), I have to assume the plan is: try to win, now.
Once the Phillies signed Bryce Harper and traded away Sixto Sanchez for Realmuto, they made a commitment to open their window of contention. I have been on the record as saying that they need to push their chips in, or specifically, John Middleton’s chips. This past offseason, I was upset that Middleton was unwilling to go over the luxury tax in order to bolster the pitching staff, having made so many other deals. Why not chip in another $20 million, luxury tax included, to back up the $200 million that’s already spent? Otherwise, it’s all being thrown away.
Here’s the sad fact that I love to cite: in 2020, the Phillies lost 15 games in which they had the lead. That’s 25% of this season’s games. If they had a league-average bullpen, and not the worst bullpen in three-quarters of a century, they would have been in the playoffs. It was a team worth pushing in the chips. The offense and the starting pitching are not the irredeemable mediocrity that the team’s record reflects. Matt Klentak can be blamed for an organization that has failed to draft or develop much talent. But John Middleton is to blame for the Phillies failing in 2020.
In essence, the problem has been a wishy-washy unwillingness to go the extra mile.
Am I confident that Dombrowski will have access to all the funds he wants? No, particularly for 2021. In the press conference on Friday, Dombrowski said that he “wouldn’t expect” the payroll to be the same amount as last year, which may not mean that the salaries of Jake Arrieta and Didi Gregorius coming off the books will give him even that amount to play with.
When asked specifically about the likelihood of bringing back JT Realmuto, Dombrowski emphasized that “everyone in the organization loves JT” (as if it were possible to have any other response to this god among men). He said there was “some flexibility” to make moves, but concluded: “Can you get something like that done? I’m really not sure.”
On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re planning to make a bigger splash next offseason. It seems penny-wise and pound-foolish not to capitalize on the bargains that will be available this offseason, of course, but everything I have seen indicates to me that the Latin for “Penny-wise and Pound-foolish” is on the Middleton family crest.
5. It assumes that getting a rebuilding GM would be better
This hurts for a number of reasons. Do you not realize that if the Phillies traded Aaron Nola I would be dead? Dead. Deceased. No more. Expired. Pushing up the daisies. Dead.
It feels like much of the baseball world agrees that it’s a bad move for l’esprit de baseball to trade players like Mookie Betts or Fransisco Lindor. But Chaim Bloom, the alternative brought in to replace Dave Dombrowski, did just that, by trading Betts. I understand that trading Zack Wheeler does not equal trading Betts, but dismantling all of the Phillies for parts until Bryce Harper agrees to a trade doesn’t feel like a laudable move. That’s not what we want for a league with competitive balance and exciting ball.
I appreciate that other people can be coldly objective about the Phillies.
They, perhaps, see a team that can’t compete with the heavyweight Braves, the ascendant Marlins, the 2019 champion Nationals, and the Mets, now owned by Daddy Hedgebucks and his Twitter town halls. Maybe there are even Phillies fans who feel this way, who don’t feel emotionally attached to the players on this team, which I always do, in proverbial sickness and health. Maybe these clear-eyed observers don’t have my subjective belief that these players can coalesce into an excellent team, whether or not that team wins a World Series. I told you I was having eye pain, how clearly can I see?
But, if you are such an objective friend, please look into your heart and ask if you’d be willing to deal with another nine years of a rebuild. Especially if you are not a Phillies fan, have not suffered through the last decade, and this is essentially a thought experiment for you.
A rebuild is also daunting when the Phillies have not inspired confidence with drafting and development. “Trust the process” has not worked on the north side of the Philadelphia sports complex.
So isn’t it better to really give it a try, before deciding to pack it in?
6. It assumes the Phillies could have gotten someone “better”
On both MLB Network and the Poscast, I mentioned that the Phillies wish list for their new President, namely, someone with a winning track record who would bring immediate cache, read as a love letter to Theo Epstein.
And to continue my metaphor, the Phillies essentially had a lot of their “DO YOU LIKE US, CIRCLE ONE” notes returned with “NO” circled.
Would I have preferred Josh Byrnes, Vice President of the Dodgers, former GM of the Diamondbacks and part of Epstein’s Red Sox regime? Yes. Might I have preferred Twins GM Thad Levine? Yes. But did these men decide they didn’t want the Phillies’ job? Also yes.
So, here we are. We were not getting any younger, decisions had to be made. Speaking of which:
7. Or that they might have gotten someone younger, and more exciting
Yeah, they weren’t going to do that.
Also on the Poscast, Joe Posnanski asked me if he thought the Phillies might go for J.J. Piccollo, currently assistant GM for the Royals, and Director of Player Development and Scouting.
To be honest, I might have preferred Piccollo, to address the organization’s glaring failures, but the choice would have left me feeling uncertain about the Phillies’ immediate plan. But I said, at the time, that I thought it was unlikely that this was the direction that they were going to go, given their publicly stated goals.
Gabe Kapler : Joe Girardi :: Matt Klentak : ???
The answer is Dave Dombrowski. If it’s not Theo Epstein, it’s Dave Dombrowski. Middleton has shown a penchant for wanting the designer-label item: Dombrowski, Girardi. Bryce Harper.
Is this a little disappointing? Yes. Do I have concerns about the state of this organization in five years? Again, yes. But this kind of decision feels like that one uncle who says he doesn’t understand why everyone has to go around naming their pronouns. There are probably nice things about him. But in the moment, you are not really surprised.
8. It assumes I do not understand the rules of nature
I know that the time will come when I will howl “Dave Dombrowski” and shake my fist at the flat, black sky. But this is how things go, in sports, and in life. The players you love leave in free agency, or slowly wither on an extended contract, or retire when it seems they still had more in the tank, or get injured and do not return. And on the managerial side, everyone who is hired will at some point be fired, or resign, or step down but remain in the organization like some weird, vestigial tail.
This was part of Joe’s point, which I agree with, that we discussed on the Poscast (above). Anyone with a track record of success who is available to be hired has also been fired, at some point.
I just read Conversations with Friends by the Irish novelist Sally Rooney, and there is a moment when two characters who are having an affair confront the fact that there is no good way for it to end. It reminds me of the observation that every relationship ends in a tragedy, unless the two people are fortunate enough to die simultaneously.
This is the life cycle of a President of Baseball Operations. Don’t warn me.
But as for Aaron Nola, he will throw that beautiful changeup forever because LALALALA I’M NOT LISTENING.
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