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On the day the Winter Meetings would have ended, baseball enjoyed its first free-agent bombshell.
Who had one of Steve Cohen’s direct rivals delivering the haymaker via hiring a front-office person?
Granted, the Phillies’ landing of Dave Dombrowski as their president of baseball operations, as first reported by The Athletic, doesn’t remove any options from the Mets’ Hot Stove board. Though it’s not known for certain that Sandy Alderson didn’t reach out to Dombrowski in the Mets’ search for a president of baseball operations (a search that has been downgraded to one for a general manager), Dombrowski’s ridiculous résumé makes him a “report directly to the owner” type of executive. Which doesn’t match how the Mets will structure their hierarchy under Cohen and Alderson.
What Dombrowski’s stunning arrival in Philadelphia does, however, is aggravate Cohen’s mission to bring the World Series trophy to Queens in the next 3-5 years. Because you won’t find a longer, better baseball ops track record in the industry. And because the Phillies found themselves in the odd position of having an owner willing to spend what it takes to win (if not during these tough economic times, then big-picture) and a manager in Joe Girardi who knows how to win with a void in their front office, after they reassigned previous GM Matt Klentak.
Void filled, authoritatively. And just like that, the Mets face another fully loaded foe alongside the two-time defending NL East winners in the Braves and the last full-season champs in the Nationals as well as Derek Jeter’s Marlins, who are coming off their first playoff appearance in 17 years.
Dombrowski, whom the Red Sox fired in September 2019 (less than a year after he led them to the 2018 title), had repeatedly proclaimed his intention to work with the city of Nashville to land either an expansion franchise or a relocated team. His willingness to abandon that plan for the Phillies prompts a short-term question, one that will impact Cohen and the Mets: Will this open back up the Phillies’ spigot?
Owner John Middleton, after spending to bring aboard nine-figured free agents Zack Wheeler last year and Bryce Harper two years ago (not to mention many eight-figured deals in free agency and trades), has sent signals throughout the industry that he intends to cut payroll, with free agents J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius likely cast overboard.
Every team aches after having been hammered by the COVID-reduced 2020 season, which of course featured no paying fans in the regular season. Yet you don’t hire Dombrowski, 64, at this juncture of his career to rebuild or even for too dramatic of a backtrack. Agents crossed their fingers Thursday, as the news broke about Dombrowski (who is fearless when it comes to huge financial commitments), that Middleton would let his new peacock fly.
If Dombrowski must operate with some fiscal constraints, however, and without a strong farm system to use as trade chips, he still poses a threat to the Mets. We’re talking about the executive who signed the released J.D. Martinez to play for the Tigers in 2014 (then paid big bucks for him to join the Bosox in 2018), and who built his latest success, the ’18 Sawx, with under-the-radar pickups like Ryan Brasier, Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce and Hector Velazquez.
The Phillies, remember, easily would have qualified for the playoffs if not for a relief corps so historically awful that Girardi, who put on a bullpen-management clinic for a decade in The Bronx, couldn’t solve it. Though losing Realmuto and Gregorius would hurt, especially if the Mets wound up with Realmuto instead of the more likely James McCann, Dombrowski has displayed a knack for solving these sorts of problems — a knack that will enshrine him in Cooperstown someday — and a decent foundation in Harper, Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Alec Bohm.
So like the rest of the NL East, the Phils won’t be laying down. No one said having the game’s richest owner would suddenly turn baseball into a cakewalk, right?