Dave Dombrowski

Drellich: Dombrowski deserves credit for Sox' hot start no matter how expensive the roster is

Drellich: Dombrowski deserves credit for Sox' hot start no matter how expensive the roster is

BOSTON — In this unmitigated age of tanking, it’s important to recognize teams and executives who not only strive to make the playoffs annually, but actually do so.

Money is a prerequisite for those teams, naturally. The Red Sox are case in point. And what’s the skill in winning with a large pile of money, you wonder?

Well, turn the question around: what’s the skill in tanking? If you can’t win after losing for several years, if you can’t find success after stockpiling talent and shedding contracts, you probably aren’t cut out to be a general manager in any circumstance.

The Red Sox’ 13-2 start is owed to many people, many choices. New manager Alex Cora has the right brew so far. New hitting coach Tim Hyers is the conductor on the launch-angle train. There’s good health and improved chemistry and the LeVangie Advantage. 

You've even witnessed some good luck. Three grand slams to begin this season compared to zero for all of 2017 has something to do with the Baseball Gods.

Yet, no matter how you build your pie chart for April’s bloom, the boss who put the pieces in place, Dave Dombrowski, needs credit. Who hired the manager, after all? Who presides over all of this?

The money discussion is relevant, but just one part of the picture. 

Four years ago, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman misheard a question I asked him. Perhaps I mumbled it. Either way, it leads to a poignant quote.

I was trying to ask if Cashman ever looked at the tanking teams and said to himself, boy, I wish I could do it that way.

Cashman didn’t hear that question — probably because, for so long, he’s heard people say they wish they could do it his way. Meaning, with a ton of money. 

He told me what he would tell those people.

"This is a very fast-moving Ferrari," Cashman said. "And in many cases, those same people who talk that talk would be an insect smashing against the windshield and getting splattered all over the place because they can't believe the amount of velocity that this car is moving at."

(If you're keeping track, the GM of the Yankees suggested some GMs are bugs whose guts would explode everywhere were they in his shoes. Carry on.) 

"You have to manage and deal with expectations, and that's a big thing," Cashman continued. "It's a lot of pressure when you're expected to win on a daily basis. So yeah, it's an easy thing to throw around all the time about, 'I wish I could do it that way.' We have the ability because of our market. If something's broke, you go out and fix it. And we're lucky for that; I'm thankful for that. But it doesn't come without heavy lifting.”

Dombrowski’s driving a pretty fast car too.

His Red Sox are carrying the highest payroll in baseball. He had high-priced teams in his time in Detroit as well.

Cora’s success is still Dombrowski’s. After the clubhouse issues that arose a year ago, Dombrowski chose not to make major changes to the roster aside from adding J.D. Martinez. He appears to have read the situation, and solution, correctly.

Dombrowski has not spent every dollar he’s been allotted with the greatest efficiency. But Dombrowski also hasn’t made any major gaffes. He didn’t sign Pablo Sandoval, or Rusney Castillo. He inherited them. (The jury is out on David Price’s $217 million deal.)

Dombrowski arrived in Boston with a mandate to get the Sox back into contention. The day he was introduced, he harped on adding pitching. He came through, with moves that hurt the farm system but also carried serious upside — not only in terms of performance, but flexibility.

Look at Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale, whom Dombrowski acquired on team-friendly contracts. Dombrowski may not be a wizard at creating roster flexibility, but adding some stars on below-market contracts goes a long way. Those acquisitions allow for others. Even the new clean-up hitter, Martinez, was a relative bargain.

A lot can change. Dombrowski built a good bullpen a year ago, but this year’s is likely going to need a midseason upgrade. The holes don’t disappear because the Sox are off to a scorching start. But the success shouldn’t either. 

Dombrowski’s spent a lot of money. He hasn’t spent it perfectly. The Sox don't appear as well positioned as the Yankees in the long run. But if you look at the team's 13-2 record and look past the president of baseball operations, you’re forgetting how fast that Ferrari can go — and that not every GM is equipped to drive it in the first place.
 

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Jared Banner and the making of a front-office prospect

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Jared Banner and the making of a front-office prospect

BOSTON — On a bright Sunday morning in the fall of 2010, Ray Fagnant told Jared Banner to meet him at the McDonald’s off I-290 in Auburn. Only one of them placed an order.

“We’re scouts, man,” Fagnant told Banner. “This is how we eat breakfast. If you want to scout, get used to a lot of meals at McDonald’s.”

Fagnant has combed the Northeast for the Red Sox for more than a quarter century. He watched former Sox GM Ben Cherington pitch for Amherst in 1993. A dozen or so years later, he saw Banner as an outfielder for the same school.

“Live-body kid,” Fagnant noted at the time. 

A state-champion wrestler in high school, Banner wanted to keep it that way. He may not be a full-fledged health nut, but fast food had never been his thing. Neither, to that point, had scouting. 

When they met at Mickey D’s, Banner was just a low-level front office staffer, hired full-time after a 2007 internship. He had been exposed only to the farm system, to player development, and needed to see more.

Today, the 32-year-old is an ascending executive who's moved through an array of front-office roles. As vice president for player personnel, Banner oversees the scouting of professional players in international leagues: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, others. He helped procure Hector Velazquez from Mexico, for example.

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But long before Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski asked Banner to interview Alex Cora alongside the rest of the braintrust in the fall, long before trips abroad to watch Shohei Ohtani, Theo Epstein and co. needed to know whether Banner could effectively evaluate, well, anyone at all.

This is baseball’s other farm system at work, the front-office feeder. 

There were a lot of local prospects to watch ahead of the 2011 draft, so Banner was assigned to help in Fagnant’s usual territory. The two met that morning to go see Tyler Beede, the Lawrence Academy product who was twice drafted in the first round and is now on the cusp of the big leagues with the Giants. 

“Everyone knew about him,” Banner said. “It was more a matter of getting to know him, getting to know his family, watching him compete, trying to decide how I felt about him. Managing both my workload in the office vs. what I needed to do as an area scout. And then managing my role in the draft room, and not overly pushing players that I wanted to sign just because they were in my area. That was a bit of a balancing act. And trying to stay neutral and doing whatever’s best for the organization.”

An in-house visit with a player is standard scouting practice. The Beede residence was Banner’s first.

“A big turning point for him is when he first really went out on his own scouting, when he got out of the office,” Epstein said. “There was a question of whether he’d be self motivated enough to really do a thorough, thorough job and go the extra mile — and he quickly showed that he would be.”

Beede was a big arm and a known pitcher. He was, as scouts say, “famous.” But that didn’t mean all pertinent information was universally known.

“There were some nuances with his background, some complexities involved, and [Banner] didn’t blow those off,” Epstein said. “He dug in deep, and got to know the kid extremely well, presented a balanced picture. I remember being impressed by it.”

That Epstein recalls such detail from nearly a decade ago is representative of the culture he and his group helped implement in Boston, a dynamic that has seen some carryover today under Dombrowski. The Sox president of baseball operations retained most of the people he inherited from Cherington in 2015.

Just as front offices identify up-and-coming players, they have to do the same with their own decision-makers.

“You just have to crank it out and have a major-league work ethic,” Epstein said of what he seeks in prospects. “And then I think an important one, too, is investment in the group instead of personal ambition. I think a lot of first-, second-year employees in baseball ops, if they too much focus on themselves and their careers and where they’re going, and not enough on the people around them and the success of the group, they tend to get weeded out. 

“Jared was certainly qualified in all those areas. Great passion for the game. He worked his ass off. He proved himself on a couple of occasions, that he wanted what was best for the team on the field, the organization, winning.”

The Red Sox have produced a lot of prominent executives this century, some well known, others further behind the scenes. There is a next generation coming, led by Banner, molded from the same blueprint.

***

Banner is from Brooklyn, but that didn’t make a transition to Boston difficult. He grew up a Mets fan, so he always hated the Yankees. 

A psychology major, Banner did not arrive at college knowing what he wanted to do. He played baseball at Amherst, but knew he wouldn’t go much further on the field. He was always pushing himself, though, even before he knew exactly what road he was pushing himself along.

“The way this really got started was I worked for a law firm on Wall Street after my junior year in college, and I hated it,” Banner said. “I still wanted to compete. I wanted to win.”

The connection to Amherst grads such as Neal Huntington, the GM of the Pirates, and Cherington helped Banner get a foot in the door with the Sox. But from there, as is the case for players, his growth was not linear.

“There have been ups and downs to my career in my own head, at least,” Banner said. “I was offered a full-time job when I was 21 years old. There were a lot of things I needed to learn on the job in terms of professionalism, in terms of emotional intelligence. And obviously, I’m still learning as time goes.”

Dombrowski believes Banner can become a general manager someday. So do many others. He has a remarkable sense of self-reliance, a skill honed in dire moments during high-school wrestling matches, and further sharpened on voyages across the Pacific to meet a baseball executive who might not speak English. 

Marcus Cuellar, another member of the player personnel department, is less than a year younger than Banner. Technically, Banner is Cuellar’s boss. They have different backgrounds. Cuellar grew up in California and left a job in the Santa Barbara courts system to get his master’s. He came to baseball as a second career. Such differences melt away in the best front offices, and the two became fast friends.

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Banner has been teaching himself Spanish with Rosetta Stone. Cuellar, bilingual, occasionally provides clarity. 

They roomed together during spring training. Sometimes, Cuellar would return to their Fort Myers apartment and the lights would be out. Banner would be meditating. Cuellar would tiptoe.

Banner practices yoga and reads often. Seemingly, he is always doing something with an eye on doing better, on improving himself and those around him.

“He’s hustling everyday, man,” Cuellar said. “And there’s an urgency to it every day. This isn’t like, ‘I need to get better next week.’ It’s right now: ‘Why aren’t we getting better?’ He’ll call me into his office every once in a while, and really the only question, or the only topic on the docket is … ‘What are we doing today to get better as a department?’ 

“And we’ll just sit there, and sit there for the next 15 minutes until we got something. There have been times we sat there just thinking, not really any words being said.”

The person Banner most often turns to for guidance is Allard Baird, the former Royals general manager who is the Sox’ senior vice president for player personnel. They talk virtually every day, a mentor-mentee relationship that is also a strong friendship.

“During the offseason especially,” Baird said, “when the sun goes down, he may be one of the best dressers I know.”

Banner seeks growth. And has to navigate frustration when he does not always see it.

"I do think he’s deep,” Baird said. “I think there’s a lot of reflection there. Maybe too much reflection at times. But he is a driven person, and I remember when I was that age too, it was all about results. Everything else was a reason, and unacceptable. I think that’s a great approach. But I also think as we get older, we understand, things factor in.”

Cuellar and Baird went to Mexico a couple years ago. They were nearing the U.S. border when Cuellar asked Baird: what has made Banner so successful? The first thing Baird pointed to was competitiveness.

International scouting is its own beast inside of baseball operations. Not only is there a responsibility to assess talent amidst different styles of ball, one has to find and make connections with people in different leagues and lands — the movers and shakers. A dinner with the right person can be just as vital as watching a bullpen session.

The player markets are varied. The supermarkets are unfamiliar.

“You have to really embrace being with people that are different than you, embracing different cultures,” Baird said. “Embracing different ways that they live their daily lives. … When you go to Asia, that is a totally different lifestyle, a totally different way of doing business; much more structured. There are customs that you need to know.

“Yes, you have to be connected, but you really have to embrace it. There has to be some sort of enjoyment out of it.”

Among the more amusing things to happen? Banner, who is black, has been randomly asked for his autograph just while walking around during a few trips to Asia.

***

Baird came to the Sox in 2006. Jared Porter, now an assistant general manager with the Diamondbacks, was a baseball ops intern under Epstein in Boston in 2004. He stayed with the Sox for another 11 years.

During that ’04 internship, Porter formed a bond with a renowned baseball lifer, the late Bill Lajoie. Lajoie worked for the Sox for a time before going to the Pirates.

"He called me one time, he’s like, 'You’re working for Allard, right?'" Porter remembered. "'I don’t think you know how lucky you are. There aren’t many people in this game that really care and like to develop younger people.'"

Some execs will try to slow up-and-comers who can threaten their own status, Lajoie told Porter. But Baird is the opposite.

“I see it being more true: some people are people developers,” Porter said. “It’s a great quality.”

Good thing Baird is still on hand.

There has been good sense exhibited by Dombrowski and ownership to keep Baird, Banner and almost everyone else in the front office in place. Many people have been promoted. Dombrowski could have cleaned house when he replaced Cherington in 2015. Instead, Dombrowski saw positive processes underway and allowed them to continue, and has since contributed to some individuals’ growth himself. 

Banner not only was part of the managerial interviews in the fall, when Dombrowski wanted a younger, different perspective. Banner also participated in the arbitration process the last two offseasons.

“I didn’t know many individuals in the front office, and the people that I knew, I knew only in a limited fashion,” Dombrowski said of his arrival in Boston. “Rolan [Hemond] always told me a long time ago that if you go into a new organization … there are normally some really good people in the organization. And a lot of times, people make a mistake, and they let a bunch of people go for the sake of change. And all of a sudden, they let go some really good people that could have helped.

“I think they’re very good baseball people. … Why change?”

Behind the scenes, the team identifies some young employees as “rising stars." That effort is not a formal program, CEO Sam Kennedy said, and is not restricted only to baseball ops. People identified as such are never told, but, Banner indeed made the cut.

The Sox have office conversations about hiring interns: if you can’t see a person rising, if you can’t envision them becoming a GM, why would you hire them?

***

Everyone who was around at the time, roughly a decade ago, remembers the Kent Hrbek story. How Banner was in Epstein’s suite at Fenway Park when Hrbek came up, and how Banner clearly didn’t know who Hrbek was.

“He fessed up,” Epstein said. “He said, ‘No idea.’ Then he started getting ripped for that. Then we started asking about some prominent players and figures of the 1980s. Like ‘God, do you know who Ronald Reagan was?’

“So we determined that the only appropriate punishment would be for him to present an oral report on the 1980s, heavy emphasis on baseball. It would be not only discipline, but a good growth experience. The entire suite. We gave him a day to prepare.”

There were actually two presentations: first, Banner had to explain who Hrbek was. On another day, he had to give a broader explanation of the decade he was born in.

Kennedy remembers Banner walking in with an easel. It’s not easy when you're in your mid-20s and get called out by the most successful general manager around. But Banner had the room in stitches.

Banner’s grown plenty since then, moving from the amateur side to a management role in player personnel. The basics of scouting have given way to rumination about the nature of leadership.

“This part of my career since has more been about leadership,” Banner said. “That’s the thing I’ve taken from Allard the most.”

Cuellar feels Banner has taken him under his wing, a product of a culture where growth of peers is prioritized, regardless of rank.

A few blocks from Fenway Park is a smaller park, one much less recognized, called Clemente Field.

Porter, Epstein, Cherington, Amiel Sawdaye, Mike Hazen and any of the old band of executives used to go to there. Touch football would become tackle football. They would sprint, they would pull hamstrings. 

“We had a lot of really smart and competitive people who were obsessed with baseball,” Porter said. “When you have a bunch of people like that, I think basketball games and football games and running races, competitive little things like that pop up.”

Last summer, Banner and Cuellar started wandering down Jersey Street to the same spot. They would sprint. Sometimes they’d outright race, other times they’d keep each other’s times. (Banner’s still trying to keep that live body.)

Three times a week, roughly, Banner and Cuellar retraced Epstein’s and Hazen’s paths from years past. Except in this instance, Banner had no idea how closely he was following in his predecessors’ footsteps.

"Is that what Theo just told you?" Banner said when informed of the old regime’s visits to Clemente Field. "I don’t know anything about that. The Fens, that’s where me and Marcus go."

They've got next.

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After foot injury held things up, JD Martinez finally introduced by Red Sox

After foot injury held things up, JD Martinez finally introduced by Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. — A sole medical issue that probably won’t ever impact J.D. Martinez and the Red Sox held up the slugger’s introductory press conference, which went off smoothly Monday morning at JetBlue Park.

Martinez never thought his contract was in any trouble.

“No, not really, that thought never crossed my mind,” Martinez said when asked if he thought the deal may fell apart. “I kind of knew that it was really, like they said, being thorough, going through everything. Crossing-all-the-t’s and dotting-all-the-i’s-type deal. I never once worried about it.”

At the beginning of the 2017 season, Martinez had a sprained Lisfranc ligament in his right foot.

“And so it healed, went on his way and played,” Martinez’s agent, Scott Boras, said Monday. “Obviously, the X-rays and things showed he had this condition called the Lisfranc condition. It’s healed, back to normal. The question is, what if that has any impact in the long term? And [we] kind of agreed that it’s not much of an issue, but what if it’s an issue in the latter part of the contract?

“From our standpoint, we have opt-outs in the second year, the third year, the fourth year, and we can, we have flexibility. And they have some protection at the back end, that’s all. In case there’s a disabling injury.”

Some revision to Martinez’s originally agreed upon five-year, $110 million deal was made. The dollars have not changed. Martinez has a limited no-trade clause. But, Martinez now has a third opt out — after the fourth year as well. In the original agreement, he could opt out after Year 2 or Year 3. Now, he has the choice after Year 4 in addition.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are protected if Martinez spends a certain amount of time on the disabled list because of a matter related to the prior Lisfranc joint injury. After Year 3 or Year 4, the deal can be converted to a mutual option, rather than just an opt out for Martinez. In essence, the Sox can back out of the deal after Year 3 or 4, based on these conditions, per a source:

A mutual option for Year 4 is triggered if:

1. Martinez suffers a Lisfranc injury related to his prior Lisfranc injury. A three-doctor system will define if the injury is related to prior Lisfranc injury.
2.  Because of that old injury, he has spent 60 days on DL in Year 3 — or 10 days or more in Year 3, plus a total of 120 DL days in Year 2 and Year 3.

A mutual option for Year 5 is triggered if:

J.D. Martinez suffers a Lisfranc injury related to his prior Lisfranc injury. A three-doctor system will define if the injury is related to prior Lisfranc injury.
2.  Because of that old injury, he has spent 60 days on DL in Year 4 — or 10 days or more in Year 4, plus a total of 120 DL days in Year 3 and Year 4.

 

The reality, then, is that these contingencies probably won’t ever come into play. With so many opt-outs, if Martinez performs well with the Red Sox, he’ll likely re-enter the free-agent market. But both sides were smart to make sure they’re protected. And it took a lot of energy to put the protections in place. Martinez went to Boston on Thursday for a doctor’s visit.

Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said that his assistant general manager, Brian O’Halloran, put in endless hours, as did Red Sox doctors, to get the deal finalized.

“Dave and I have known one another a long time and we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better over the last five days,” Scott Boras says.

“And that says a lot,” Dombrowski adds in.

Boras was at a hotel in a shopping center not far from JetBlue Park.

"It’s kind of like I had to set up my law office here in Fort Myers,” Boras said. “Literally, it’s like 18 hours a day of doctors, language. Using our database historically to answer the needs of the team, the needs of the doctors. You’re going through a process of getting the evaluations, listing everybody addressing the evaluations. And again evaluations medically are subjective. And so, you’ve got to really discuss it both with the experts that you have, and the experts that they have, so that you can really define what the concern is. And that definition for what the concern is, is a difficult one medically. Because you’re talking about a healthy athlete. You’re not talking about an injury. You’re talking about something that may or may not happen. 

“You first have to take the attitude that, that’s reasonable. The second attitude you have to take is that you don’t want to be excessive about how this athlete is treated to protect his interests, and also understand the team’s interest. Being a lawyer, you’re doing dealing with the lawyers. In Dave’s case, a baseball executive, you’re outside the medical community. You’re just hearing what the medical community has to say. And then he’s hearing what our medical community has to say, and then you back and forth. 

“I’m dealing with the Boston owners, I’m dealing with Dave, I’m dealing with doctors and then you, once you have the medical part addressed, then you’re able to contractually define it and go through a process that allows for you know what, how to address their concerns in a fair manner.”

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