Sheehan: Executive Decisions
It was appropriate, really, that the World Series ended with the Dodgers’ Manny Machado down on one knee after flailing helplessly at a Chris Sale slider. The story of the 2018 season is the Red Sox getting all of baseball to bend the knee, doing so more times than almost any champion in baseball history.
The Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, the most of any team since the 2001 Mariners. Boston is just the third team since the strike to win at least two-thirds of its regular season games. They followed that with an 11-3 romp through the playoffs, losing just a single game in each round. They’re just the fourth team in the Wild Card Era to win a championship without dropping more than one game in each round. Their run differential in the playoffs, plus-33, is tied for second in that time among champions, behind only the 2007 Red Sox.
Add it all up, and you get this: The Red Sox won 119 games this year, the second-most of any champion in history. Only the 1998 Yankees, who went 125-50, ever paired more wins with a World Series title. (The 2001 Mariners, with 120 wins and an American League Championship Series loss, look away awkwardly, shuffling their feet and hoping this paragraph ends soon.) With their elimination of the Dodgers, the Red Sox established themselves as the greatest team of this century and earned a place on the list of greatest teams of all time.
What’s remarkable about Boston’s October run is how it showed off their depth. Mookie Betts, the likely AL MVP, hit .210 with one home run in October. Xander Bogaerts, after a breakout season at shortstop, hit .224 with one homer. Chris Sale, who will finish in the top two in AL Cy Young Award balloting, pitched into the sixth inning in only one of his three starts. Closer Craig Kimbrel had a 5.91 ERA. That kind of performance by a team’s core players would normally doom it to irrelevance, but the rest of the Red Sox roster crushed it.
The middle-relief core, considered the club’s single weakest point, was untouchable in October. Joe Kelly had a 0.79 ERA in the playoffs, including six shutout innings in the World Series. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier chipped in with identical 1.04 marks in 8.2 October frames. Jackie Bradley Jr., known more for his glove, hit three playoff homers, every one of them in a huge spot. Brock Holt hit for the cycle in a Division Series game.
As much as anything, though, this run validated Dave Dombrowski’s decisions since stepping in as Red Sox president of baseball operations in 2015. Dombrowski took a lot of criticism, from this writer in particular, for strip-mining a deep farm system to bolster the major league roster. He dealt high-end prospects Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Manuel Margot and Anderson Espinoza for Sale, Kimbrel and Drew Pomeranz. That first group may yet become stars, but I doubt anyone was thinking about them as they danced under the champagne in the Dodger Stadium visitors’ clubhouse.
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This postseason, however, highlighted just how much work Dombrowski did in putting this specific roster together. J.D. Martinez, who received the Hank Aaron Award during the World Series, hit .300/.403/.520 in the postseason. Martinez, who signed a five-year deal after a long offseason negotiation, pushed the Boston payroll up towards $240 million. It was worth it. Martinez filled the hole left by the departure of David Ortiz after the 2016 season. Thanks in part to Martinez and his 43 homers, the Red Sox jumped from 14th in the AL in slugging to first, and from sixth in runs to first.
It was Dombrowski who committed the Red Sox to David Price, signing the lefty to a seven-year deal just a few months after taking over. Price had been perceived as a disappointment in Boston despite two valuable years as a starter. Elbow problems cost him much of 2017, and his poor start in the 2016 ALDS extended his reputation as a pitcher ill-suited for postseason play.
Price allowed seven runs in six innings against the Yankees in the Division Series this year, fanning flames of discontent. Then he locked in with three starts, all six innings or more, in which he allowed two total runs and picked up three wins. Price started and won both the ALCS and Series clinchers, and he beat Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw in doing so.
Dombrowski’s smaller work was all over the World Series. In June, he made a little-noticed deal to add Steve Pearce to the roster, to replace the released Hanley Ramirez. Pearce only went out and won World Series MVP honors with three homers, including two in the clincher. A month after adding Pearce, Dombrowski pulled Nathan Eovaldi away from the Rays. Eovaldi started and won in both rounds of the AL playoffs, then moved to the bullpen for the Series. He threw six incredible innings in the epic 18-inning Game 3, and while pegged with the loss, will be remembered for his effort on only one day of rest.
Perhaps none of this happens if Dombrowski doesn’t decide to fire a manager who had won back-to-back AL East division titles, and replace him with a rookie skipper. Dombrowski let go of John Farrell, manager of the 2013 championship team, and hired Alex Cora. Cora had been the bench coach for the 2017 champion Astros, and he came to the Red Sox having been steeped in both that organization’s data-centric processes and with a reputation as a strong leader who built relationships with players.
No one person builds a championship roster. The 2018 Red Sox are the product of Amiel Sawdaye’s drafts and Ben Cherington’s scouting and John Henry’s money. The end product, though, is very much a Dave Dombrowski team. This title, the second by a team under his charge after the 1997 Marlins, should be the capstone to a Hall of Fame career that also includes two AL pennants with the Tigers. Dave Dombrowski has put together many good teams and some great ones. In the 2018 Red Sox, he has one of the greatest teams in baseball history