With the Red Sox preparing for a search for a new head of their baseball operations department, the most obvious question is “Who?” Yet perhaps the more important question, the one that comes before the Red Sox can decide on the person to put in charge of their baseball decisions, is “What?”
Former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington once took stock of the nature of the position by noting a fundamental misunderstanding about the responsibility of leading a baseball operations department.
“It’s not 30 GM jobs. It’s 30 different jobs, period. They are just different jobs. Every one of them is different,” said Cherington. “The job is to be effective within that environment, within that job, with everything that comes along. Even that job can change a little bit over time, depending on who’s in it. My résumé when I took the job looks a lot different than Dave Dombrowski’s when he takes the job. Just by virtue of that, the job is going to be different. [Theo Epstein’s] job changed over time because when he started, his résumé looked a lot different than when he finished. Even though his title didn’t change, his job changed a lot over time. So the job is different. Every job is different.”
Now the Red Sox have a chance to redefine what they consider the job of the head of their baseball operation, and how they want it to differ from the one that the team asked Dombrowski to perform starting in late 2015. The way that the job is framed — and how the Red Sox view their own organization — will determine who emerges as an ideal fit.
Here are some of the questions the Red Sox face as they assemble their list of candidates to replace Dombrowski:
■ What are the payroll constraints?
The Red Sox have a significant strategic decision to make regarding how much they plan to spend on payroll in the coming years, and whether they plan to get under the luxury tax threshold in the next year or two. That decision, in turn, will frame the strengths they seek in a new head of baseball operations.
Obviously, the team wants someone with a well-rounded skill set, but the question of payroll looms as enormous given how it will shape the roster expectations and requirements of a new head of the department.
■ What kind of decision-making structure does the team want?
To secure Dombrowski’s services in 2015, the team had to entrust the president of baseball operations with immense and unquestioned authority in its baseball decisions. In his introductory news conference, Dombrowski said that incoming team president Sam Kennedy would not have a seat at the table in baseball discussions about the team. He often presented ownership with binary choices that were to be accepted or rejected.
For instance, he recommended the team make the trade for Chris Sale in 2016. Though principal owner John Henry (owner of the Globe) leaned against the trade, he accepted the recommendation. In at least one instance — a proposed deal to add Carlos Beltran — the owners vetoed the pursuit of a deal. And in yet another instance — the signing of Steve Pearce this offseason — Dombrowski proceeded aggressively with little input before an agreement was reached.
Barring an effort to reel in an established “star” executive such as Epstein, Billy Beane, Jeff Luhnow, or Andrew Friedman, the Red Sox seem likely to seek a more collaborative model between ownership and their next head of baseball operations. The Sox spent the last four years with a strong roster foundation that allowed them to place a heavy emphasis on immediate needs that were pursued by Dombrowski in straightforward (and, for three years, effective) fashion. Their need for more long-range thinking suggests an area where ownership-level input is likely to increase.
■ Have the Red Sox fallen behind in the “MVP Machine” era?
In their book by that title, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik offer a window into how technology, analytics, and evolving training methods — and their integration into every aspect of a baseball operation, from scouting and player development to roster management — are altering the game from the ground up.
The Dodgers, Astros, Rays, and Yankees have emerged as organizations that consistently have elevated players’ performances beyond their perceived ceilings, allowing them to benefit from star-caliber performances by players acquired for pennies on the dollar while also cultivating incredible depth. The Red Sox now must ask themselves whether they possess the same analytical and technological resources — and are using them as effectively — as their competitors.
There are examples of the Red Sox taking an integrated approach to analytics, scouting, and development that have paid considerable dividends in recent years, including the emergence of Nate Eovaldi (after the Sox landed him from the Rays) as a star last October and Josh Taylor (acquired in a trade for Deven Marrero) as a late-innings contributor. In the draft, the team has found a number of undervalued talents in later-round picks, to the point where it’s become common for the club to land big-league talent (or players with trade currency) on day two of the draft (rounds 3 through 10).
Still, the search for a new leader of baseball operations represents an unusual opportunity for a team to get outside feedback in an insular industry, with a significant decision looming about whether to seek continuity or change in how the Red Sox are run.
Cherington succeeded Epstein without a search. Dombrowski replaced Cherington without a search. Dombrowski, once appointed, left intact the Red Sox baseball operations department, a reflection of the fact that the Red Sox had a more advanced baseball ops department than the Tigers.
The Red Sox continued to modernize their departments under Dombrowski, and they’ve had a significant build-up of their analytics infrastructure in recent seasons under assistant GM Zack Scott. But save for the input of manager Alex Cora, who offered insight at the field level as to where the Sox were in comparison to the Astros, the opportunities for external feedback were rare. Now, however, the team has a chance to take stock of whether it’s up to speed with the rest of the league in how it scouts, analyzes, and develops players.
Several evaluators around the game view the Red Sox as lagging behind the best current industry practices. Some of those evaluators believe that the team needs a new voice from the outside to modernize, perhaps overseeing the transition with one of the team’s current leaders (Scott, assistant GMs Eddie Romero or Brian O’Halloran, or senior VP Raquel Ferreira). Others believe that the Sox have created the framework for a fully loaded baseball operation and merely need a different decision-maker than Dombrowski to bring out its full potential, perhaps even one of the Gang of Four currently in charge of the department.
The Sox face a critical self-examination of where they are as an organization before they can determine who they need to guide their baseball operation.