It’s not Dave Dombrowski’s fault that he’s trying to run a Major League Baseball team at the very moment that the NFL is threatening to consume the whole of American entertainment. And it is not Dave Dombrowski’s fault that the tip of the spear of this cultural assault is a football team that, besides being the most dominant organization in the most dominant sports league in history, also happens to share his market.
So it stands to reason that it is not Dave Dombrowski’s fault that the gravest threat these days to the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox is not the New York Yankees, the Cleveland Indians, or the Chicago Cubs but the New England Patriots. But it is his reality. And it’s far from clear right now that he and the team he leads are up to handling that challenge.
The Red Sox open their 2017 season Monday, and as they do the team is overflowing with exciting young players. Las Vegas bookmakers have given the Sox the third-best odds of winning the World Series. The team, after winning its division last year, features one of baseball’s finest lineups and starting rotations, plays excellent defense, and has the kind of depth required to stay afloat during the inevitable periods of injuries.
And if all that weren’t enough, the Red Sox are made up of dynamic, fun, high-character stars. Boston, in other words, ought to be buzzing this morning about the start of the season.
Instead, all anybody seems interested in is whether the Patriots, having just won their fifth Super Bowl, will continue their off-season ransacking of the NFL by trading their backup quarterback or frustrated cornerback. There was a time when it could be credibly argued that opening day for the Red Sox was a bigger deal around here than a playoff game for the Patriots.
Things have changed.
We know why this is, of course. We know that some of it is a reflection of the fact that the NFL has curb-stomped the rest of the sports world. Some of it is to do with how Deflategate fed our sense of persecution, and ultimately delivered sweet retribution, all of which only intensified our bond with the Pats. And some of it has to do with the fact that the Red Sox haven’t been an especially easy team to root for over the past several years. Yes, there was the 2013 World Series, but there was also the ugliness of Theo and Francona leaving town, the last place finishes, the lowballing of Jon Lester, and the way that loyal soldier Ben Cherington got the chop.
However it is that we arrived at this new world order, it seems clear that the Red Sox - always hyper sensitive to their positioning in town - are aware of it. The team is determined to win now, sensing, perhaps, that ceding any more market share to the Patriots could have long term consequences. As we’ve detailed previously in this space, Dombrowski has abandoned the team’s prior strategy of building for long term success. He has all but stripped the organization’s minor leagues in order to construct a championship-caliber roster capable of winning right now. That sense of urgency can be important for a club, and Dombrowski has put together a team that has the potential to be one of the very best in baseball.
But the key word there is potential, because as he enters his second full year of running the Red Sox, Dombrowski has started putting together something else - a fairly disturbing track record of acquiring injured pitchers. And it’s hard not to think that his determination to win now is a contributing factor.
Pitchers David Price, Tyler Thornburg, and Drew Pomeranz - each of them expected to be a major contributor to the Red Sox this year - will all start the season on the DL. Price is one of the top pitchers in baseball, and though he had periods of ineffectiveness last year, his first for the Red Sox, he pitched well for the most part. At this point there is no timetable for when he will return.
You can understand why Dombrowski went after Thornburg, the set-up reliever for whom Dombrowski traded during the off-season. He was terrific last year for the Milwaukee Braves, striking out 90 batters in 67 innings, and with the departures of Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler, and Junichi Tazawa, the Red Sox needed a dependable pitcher to work the eighth inning. Unfortunately, Thornburg has a shoulder impingement that appears to be the result of a miscommunication with the Red Sox concerning precisely which shoulder exercises the team wanted him to do. He could miss all of April.
The Pomeranz injury is no surprise at all, given that not long after Dombrowski traded for him last year - sending the team’s top pitching prospect to the San Diego Padres - Major League Baseball determined that the Padres had improperly failed to disclose an injury. The Sox were given the opportunity to nullify the deal but, perhaps because Dombrowski believed that Pomeranz gave the team a chance a team to win in the playoffs (the Sox wound up getting swept in the first round), they chose not to. The Red Sox hope that Pomeranz can come off the DL in time to make his first start on April 9, which is either good news or bad, depending on how you happen to feel about a pitcher who has thus far failed to impress during his time in Boston.
Then there’s Carson Smith, the nasty set-up man Dombrowski traded for during the prior off-season. He was acquired with the hope of pitching the eighth inning during the 2016 season. Unfortunately, he threw a total of two and two-thirds innings before undergoing Tommy John surgery, which is why the Sox wound up having to trade for Thornburg for this season. All may not be lost with Smith, however. The team hopes that he can pitch again by June.
Of course, Dombrowski made another recent pitching acquisition, and that one is so far shaping up to be a home run. Starter Chris Sale is young, dominant, and under team control for three full seasons. In fact, about the only thing scouts don’t like about Sale is his violent whipping delivery. Many of them think he’s a major elbow injury just waiting to happen.
Then again, Sale had a terrific spring training. And along with stars such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley Jr., Craig Kimbrel, and Rick Porcello, he just may be poised to lead the Red Sox to the World Series the team is so desperately craving. Hey, it’s opening day, a time to dream big. If only anyone were paying attention.