How the greatest Red Sox team in history turned into an embarrassment - Jaime Bonetti Zeller

How the greatest Red Sox team in history turned into an embarrassment

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There are World Series hangovers and there’s whatever is going on in Boston. And now the team have no general manager – and an uncertain future

It hasn’t even been 12 months since the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, but it’s felt like far longer for their suffering fans. Despite bringing back nearly the same lineup – we’ll get into the exceptions in a bit – the Red Sox were eliminated from playoff contention on Friday night, with a 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. The fall of the Sox, who won a franchise-high 108 games last season, was so swift and painful that ownership parted ways with the team’s general manager, Dave Dombrowski, last week. There are World Series hangovers and there’s whatever is going on in Boston.

There’s an argument that parting ways with Dombrowski was the right move in the long run. Dombrowski’s tactics, particularly during his stint with the Detroit Tigers, have been to spend big money on free agents and bundle up high-tier prospects to trade for big-name players. It’s a strategy that can build impressive rosters in the short run but can also saddle teams with bloated payrolls and barren farm systems. It was possible, maybe even likely, that the Sox ownership were seeing signs that his approach was going to start backfiring and decided to make a move earlier rather than later.

His decision to bet big by trading for ace Chris Sale and closer Craig Kimbrel and signing power hitter JD Martinez as a free agent were the moves that put the Red Sox over the top and helped them win the World Series last year. However, Dombrowski’s decisions the next offseason were curious at best. Overwhelmed by a sense of goodwill, he brought back playoff heroes Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce to above-market deals even though their track records didn’t suggest that they were anything other than journeymen.

Meanwhile, the team declined to re-sign Kimbrel and allowed reliever Joe Kelly to walk. In retrospect, both of those moves on their own were defensible: Kimbrel is currently injured and Kelly has been ridiculously hittable with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the Red Sox didn’t replace them, and merely hoped that players on the roster already were good enough to step up. They weren’t.

Those moves on their own, however, aren’t quite enough to explain why things went so badly this season. It’s almost inconceivable that Chris Sale – who has, at times, been the best pitcher in baseball during his career – reverted to a below-average starter after Dombrowski handed him a five-year, $145m contract extension. He went 6-11, his worst season, and his campaign was cut short with an elbow injury.

It wouldn’t have hurt the team so much if it weren’t for the fact that former Cy Young winners David Price and Rick Porcello both had down years at the same time. Eduardo Rodriguez, who is currently chasing a 20-win season, admirably stepped up to become their most reliable starter but it’s not great when your ace-by-default has issues getting past the sixth inning and your team doesn’t really have a functioning bullpen. When your pitching is this unreliable, it doesn’t really matter that your offense features reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts and outstanding shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Meanwhile, the Sox are well over the luxury tax threshold and they might have the worst farm system in baseball.

Now, part of the team’s failures has to do with regression to the mean. In 2018, every move that manager Alex Cora made worked out, every other player had a career year and those who didn’t had a moment to shine during the playoffs. The much-maligned Price probably should have been named World Series MVP. They were due for a course correction and it’s not surprising that the mighty New York Yankees ended up outpacing them. But, few imagined the correction would be so extreme.

Dombrowksi didn’t do much to change the team’s fortunes either. The only major move the Red Sox made before the trade deadline was dealing for Baltimore Orioles starter Andrew Cashner to try to bolster the leaky starting rotation. Cashner has been a below-average starter for the majority of his career despite having an uncharacteristically effective first half for the dreadful Baltimore Orioles. To absolutely nobody’s surprise but the Sox, Cashner immediately regressed when playing for a would-be contender and he was promptly relegated to the bullpen despite the team being desperate for starters.

Even for those who believed that Dombrowski deserved to be fired, there’s no question that ownership went about it the wrong way. They promptly ended his tenure after yet another painful loss to the Yankees, announcing the move by issuing a statement and then letting Cora and the players – all of whom were as stunned as anybody else – answer questions from the media.

Now that the Red Sox season has come to a merciful end, it leaves behind an obvious question: is this the most embarrassing follow-up to a World Series win? Well, no, not when the Marlins franchise still exists. The then-Florida Marlins won the World Series in 1997 and then proceeded to tear apart the team roster in the first of several fire sales, something which permanently hurt their chances of gaining a true fanbase in south Florida. They at least waited an extra year after beating the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, only slashing their payroll in 2005. Rebranding as the Miami Marlins and hiring beloved former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter were not enough to prevent them from sealing their fate as the cheapest and least-loved team in the MLB.

Red Sox owner John Henry can’t claim to be unaware of the Marlins’ checkered history – he was their sole owner from 1999 to 2002. He also knows that the Red Sox – unlike the Marlins – have such a devoted fanbase that they can make cost-cutting moves without fully damaging the worth of his property. All indications are that he will respond to the Red Sox’s disastrous 2019 by reducing payroll. Ownership “parted ways” with Dombrowski partly because they could no longer justify going well over the luxury tax for such meager returns in the standings. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, especially not since the universal trend in MLB is teams sitting on profits and avoiding spending money on the employees actually responsible for winning games for them. According to the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier, either Martinez or even franchise cornerstone Betts is likely gone next year and the next few years could see them making any number of moves to slash payroll.

As perverse as this sounds, the Red Sox response to one of their most embarrassing seasons in recent history will most likely be to actively become worse. It seems counter-intuitive, but it would just be the latest sign that MLB in general isn’t about winning, or putting together an entertaining product, and won’t be until it starts affecting the bottom line (or another work stoppage forces the owners to change paths). If put to task, Red Sox ownership could argue that they deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt considering that the team has won four World Series under their stewardship. It would, however, be laughable of them – of all people – to start complaining that they don’t deserve to be given the “what have you done for me lately?” treatment.

About Jaime Bonetti Zeller

Jaime Bonetti Zeller is an investment professional and entrepreneur with businesses in multiple industries. He is president of Servicios Consulares Eurodom, the local partner in the Caribbean region for VFS Global, a leader global outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments worldwide. Jaime Bonetti Zeller also started the company Sofratesa de Panama inc., an organization in the engineering services industry located in Panama City.