Dave Dombrowski’s decision to hire Tony La Russa creates another moment when you can wonder if Dombrowski is really leading the Sox beyond the crowd and ahead of the pack.
New viewpoints are good. But La Russa’s not joining an organization lacking in baseball experience. His boss has tons. The question, as it has been ever since Ben Cherington was let go, is whether Dombrowski is focused enough on innovation and pushing the organization forward.
La Russa might be a fine addition to the brain trust, and there’s nothing wrong with expanding the brain trust. But does he move the needle? Not every front-office addition must. But some should.
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Let’s assume La Russa will stay in his lane when it comes to first-time manager Alex Cora. Just because La Russa has managed before does not necessarily mean La Russa will be an overbearing presence. If Cora and La Russa approach their time together with open minds and respect, the Red Sox — and Cora specifically — should gain.
La Russa’s time running the Diamondbacks as chief baseball officer, from 2014-16 did not go well. That’s why it lasted only three years. He, like Dombrowski does now, made virtually every trip with the club.
But that’s not part of the new job description for La Russa, and it wasn’t part of his most recent job description, either. Former Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen took over baseball ops for Arizona ahead of the 2017 season, with former Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo in the dugout. La Russa moved into an advisory role with Arizona at that point, and he indeed knew where the boundary was with Lovullo, beyond just lip service.
“I thought last year was very smart, Mike Hazen and the guys up there, the idea was to be sure — and I think it’s the way to do it here, too — to be sure that Alex and his major league coaches are clearly in charge of the major league situation,” La Russa said on a conference call Thursday. “They’re the people who are going to be there every day creating relationships with their players. So any of us that are on the periphery, you’re there to help without getting in the way. That’s what it was last year with Torey.
“Torey, I have a great relationship with Torey. We would talk whenever there was something he wanted to ask, but I rarely went in the clubhouse. Most of the time, Torey and the coaches said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come down more.’ You don’t want players confused about who’s making decisions and who’s talking strategy. So I think you just stay out of the way and you contribute when you’re asked, or you suggest something and you know it will be considered. But you don’t get in the way.”
So give La Russa the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Cora. And if that proves a mistake, it’s on Dombrowski to quickly rectify the situation.
La Russa’s job title — vice president, special assistant to Dombrowski — sounds all-encompassing. He’ll do some work on the farm system, talking to instructors, players. He’s a presence.
There’s potential value there. But what the Sox need to avoid is homogenous thinking, and it’s hard to tell how well they’re doing that.
When Cherington brought on Eddie Bane (who’s still with the organization) ahead of the 2013 season, Cherington had a feeling the Sox needed varied perspectives. Is that the case again?
The different perspectives probably exist in-house, truth be told.
The Sox have a terrific scouting group and front-office backbone in place. Zack Scott leads the analytics department, which is expected to grow further this offseason, with Cora's input. Gus Quattlebaum’s pro scouts remain integral, and for that Dombrowski should be praised. Dombrowski is known to directly reach out to his scouts for their opinions.
But it all comes back to a question of who, and what, Dombrowski relies on in his final decision-making process. You can have all the information in your hands, subjective and objective, but how do you then combine it all, and pick out what matters most? One baseball source noted Dombrowski is using new-age thinking more than people realize. It’s also a fact that the Sox have green-lighted expansion of their analytics department under Dombrowski.
Nonetheless, the optics do jump out.
Hazen and Amiel Sawdaye, part of the Theo Epstein tree, leave the Red Sox to go run the show in Arizona, supplanting La Russa and his operation. Arizona has a huge turnaround season in ‘17 (which is owed in part to the foundation La Russa left, if we’re being fair). La Russa, in turn, comes to the Sox.
There was no stopping Hazen and Sawdaye from spreading their wings. But again, optics.
Because the Astros won the World Series, analytics will be a constant buzzword this winter, even more than normal. It’s too simplistic to boil down forward-thinking organizations to just that word. But, as it turns out, La Russa’s Diamondbacks really weren’t using much in the way of analytics. Hazen and Sawdaye and Lovullo helped change that.
And the Astros are the other side of the optics here: La Russa and Astros GM Jeff Luhnow worked together in St. Louis, with Luhnow arriving in 2003 and working his way up as an outsider in an insider’s game. Luhnow and former Cardinals boss Walt Jocketty clashed. La Russa sat in camp Jocketty. Jocketty left and Luhnow stayed, for a time.
Both Luhnow and La Russa left after the 2011 season, with Luhnow exiting because he had a chance to go run the Astros.
Dombrowski and La Russa have known each other forever, because they’ve been in the game forever. Experience is a tremendous asset. So too are people who challenge viewpoints created by experience, and it's uncertain that Dombrowski relies on those people enough.