Dave Dombrowski and Building a Dominant Bullpen

It’s an interesting thing in life when we can look at someone’s behavior and immediately identify its causes based on what we know of their past. Like when an actor tries to do a serious movie because they’ve only been seen as a comedian, or when a guy hits 40 and rushes out to by that ’86 Firebird he’d wanted since he was 11. These things are easy to diagnose, no degree required.

So, too, with Dave Dombrowski’s first offseason in Boston. He’s spent the balance of the last decade, it seems, losing in the playoffs because his bullpen failed him when he needed it most of all. So how do you counteract that? Easy! Get all the best relievers, or a good number of them, anyway. That was easy!

First, there was the Craig Kimbrel deal which did two things. It (a) caused the internet to freak out because Dombrowski dealt a seemingly silly amount of prospects to San Diego, and (b) added Kimbrel to the Red Sox bullpen. Then yesterday he traded Wade Miley for reliever Carson Smith (covered here by Jeff Sullivan). It’s easy to picture Dombrowski sitting down for the first time in his Fenway Park office, visions of David Ortiz’s grand slam flying just beyond the outstretched glove of Torii Hunter flickering in his brain like an old newsreel. He grabs a napkin out of his pocket and jots down the word “bullpen” over and over until he builds up then pops a blister on his finger. “The most dominant, unimpeachable, and impregnable bullpen yet seen on earth will be mine,” he thinks, “just as soon as I find a band-aid. OW! That smarts.”

Looking back on it now, the priorities are pretty clear. The 2014 Red Sox had an unspectacular starting rotation that probably underperformed a bit. Add David Price. The starting lineup is pretty set unless Hanley can be shipped to Timbuktu for some non-dairy creamer. We’re still waiting on the answer to that one. Then there’s the bullpen, one which wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Dombrowski’s Tiger teams. Old closer? Check! Good setup guy who falters down the stretch? Check! Motley collection of relievers straight off the set of a Bad News Bears remake? Check! Dombrowski must have felt right at home immediately. That’s an area ripe for easy improvement.

So Dombrowski is maniacally and compulsively focused on avoiding his bullpen struggles from the past. Except, that’s probably not quite right, when you consider he took over a Red Sox bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball last season. Which is why he set about grabbing Kimbrel at whatever the Padres asked for.

“And Guerra”
“Sure, fine.”
Logan Allen looks good…”
“Take him, he’s yours.”
“Ha ha ha, so we have a deal?”

When the bidding ends because one party assumes the other was kidding you know that’s a lot to give up. But when you’re not only building a team but fighting your own history, sometimes the deal that haunts you is the one you didn’t make. I mean, how good is Javier Guerra anyway? On second thought, maybe don’t answer that. Then Jerry Dipoto can’t resist a left-handed starter who knows how to milk a cow.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: last year Boston’s bullpen struck out 20% of the hitters they faced, which was 27th in baseball, just ahead of the Rockies, Twins (of course), and…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

The Tigers.

Sometimes the punchlines just write themselves. Beyond that, the Red Sox’ entire bullpen was, by WAR, the worst in baseball, valued at -1.4 wins. In fact, the 2015 Red Sox bullpen was the 11th worst (by WAR) since 2000. That’s impressively awful. So maybe this isn’t Dombrowski compulsively acquiring relievers while twitching in the corner and muttering, “Not a fastball, Benoit, not a fastball” over and over again.

Smith joining Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, and Junichi Tazawa as four shut-down relievers in Boston’s pen is the idea, a sort of Bostoned-up version of the Royals bullpen. Instead of good cheap relievers, we have some of that and two $10-plus million relievers in Uehara and Kimbrel. It’s the advantage of the big money Red Sox. You don’t have to decorate your living room with art purchased from the local coffee shop. You can also afford a… well, I don’t know any modern artists but let’s pretend I did and I wrote a name here. See? Point proven!

Adding Smith also helps Boston’s problem against right-handed hitters, a deficiency the bullpen featured last season at least in part due to Uehara’s season ending in early August. Now, with Smith and Kimbrel and a for-the-moment healthy Uehara, that problem would seem to be solved.

At this point, if you’re Dave Dombrowski you maybe have to ask your assistant to pinch you. Kimbrel, Uehara, Smith, and Tazawa is pretty solid. One can concoct scenarios where that group fails to work out. These are relievers we’re talking about after all. Things boom-boom on relievers all the time. Uehara will be 41 years old next season. Tazawa had a big drop off in pretty much everything at the end of the season. Smith’s velocity fell in September. Kimbrel is coming off a down year, though it’s a down year for Kimbrel so still top-of-the-league good. Even so, at this point, the Red Sox have presumably improved on last season’s mess, at least on paper, which is where games are played between now and April.

Psychoanalyzing Dombrowski in this instance isn’t difficult, but it’s probably also wrong. Or at least not entirely correct. The Red Sox bullpen was bad last season, but unlike Dombrowski’s Tigers teams, this Red Sox roster had both the minor league talent and depth to make a trade for a reliever of Kimbrel’s talents. Then the signing of David Price improved the starting rotation’s depth to the point where dealing a starter for Smith was possible. So as fun as it might be to poke fun at Dombrowski compulsively adding relievers like a kid on a 10 minute shopping spree, the truth is he probably would have done this with the Tigers had he possessed the players to do so.

That’s not to say you don’t learn from past mistakes, or current trends. Tiger failures and Royal successes are opportunities for learning. As a result of all that, the Red Sox bullpen should be improved next season, likely significantly, and Dave Dombrowski has likely taken all of that into account. So no, he isn’t adding relievers solely because David Ortiz homered off of Joaquin Benoit two years ago. At least not solely.

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8 years ago

That was a splitter I threw to Papi, not a fastball..

8 years ago
Reply to  Benoit

Papi actually called it a changeup. I’ll believe the guy who sat on it, and then clobbered it.

Dombrowski's Ghost
8 years ago
Reply to  Benoit

Definitely a change-up. Benoit throws the Vulcan variety.