Each year around this time, the Phillies are trying to decide what direction they wish to take when it comes to the completion of the season. Under previous baseball operations hierarchies, those directions vacillated between seeking complimentary pieces to the roster to pumping up the upgrades the team had made in the cupholders in the stadium, trying to justify the lack of spending on actual baseball players.
Things have changed with Dave Dombrowski in charge. Under Dombrowski and Sam Fuld, the team has brought in players in an effort to make the playoffs in each season as opposed to trading away players to “retool” or “rebuild” or whatever buzzword you wish to use, reflective of their status as a big market team with the funds available to make sure the budget stays in good standing. Once John Middleton gave the go-ahead to go over the first luxury tax threshold, not only did that free the baseball operations department to shop in the more expensive free agent aisles, it allowed them to maneuver at the trade deadline in an effort to break the postseason drought rather than dodge the perceived landmines that lie across said threshold.
This year, the situation remains the same. The signings of Trea Turner, Taijuan Walker and Matt Strahm in the offseason signaled that Dombrowski was going to continue to be allowed to spend his way to try and get over that final hurdle that the team stumbled on in 2022, which in turn has led the people to link the team with the more expensive trade targets now that the deadline has come into focus. Due to this lack of fear of spending, we have seen the different narratives taking shape about the team looking into Juan Soto, Shohei Ohtani and Paul Goldschmidt, narratives no doubt written as agents whisper into the writer’s ears in an effort to broaden the market for their clients with a team that isn’t afraid to write a check. It’s possible the team has looked at the players, but the likelihood that it is simply due diligence remains high.
Still, as these ideas are discussed at the national, local and social media levels, there remains an idea that permeates the discussion that has become accepted as truth. The idea we see is that Dombrowski will “sell the farm” to get whatever he needs in order to win right now, the future health of the organization be damned. It’s an idea that you will see creep into any kind of discussion any time the Phillies are linked to a player when it comes to trade talks. The general refrain goes something like, “Well, Dombrowski will trade whatever he has to to get player X,” a refrain that contains a small kernel of truth, but missed the bigger picture.
Does Dombrowski have a history of trading his entire farm system in an effort to win right now? Well, yes and no. The answer is a bit complicated.
A few years ago, I looked at Dombrowski’s more recent tenures as the man in charge of decision making, once in Detroit and once in Boston, and found that he actually doesn’t send out in terms of player WAR as he brings in when making deals with other teams. I looked at every trade he made while in charge of those teams, tallied up the WAR totals coming in and going out and found a large gap between the two. The tl;dr version:
WAR coming in: 250.4
WAR going out: 93.7
WAR coming in: 25.2
WAR going out: 20.3
That was written after the 2020 season, so those totals have likely changed, but not enough that it’s going to override the main takeaway one can glean from these totals.
Dave Dombrowski doesn’t trade top tier talent unless he is getting top tier talent in return.
Being the student of recent baseball history that you are, you are aware that Dombrowski’s trade history in Detroit is defined by his acquisition of Miguel Cabrera just as Cabrera was entering his Hall of Fame peak. Getting a player like that is going to skew the ledger quite a bit. However, take that trade out of the equation and the Tigers still raked in 200 WAR under Dombrowski during his tenure. That’s because he had the acumen to get players not only to star for the team (Cabrera, Max Scherzer), but also those role players that are just solid year in and year out (Placido Polanco, Carlos Guillen). In Boston, that tenure was a little less lopsided in his favor as it was defined by his trading for Chris Sale and little else, but his mandate in Boston was a bit different than it was in Detroit. As I wrote:
The incoming and outgoing WAR are drastically different than when Dombrowski was in Detroit, but there are some notable differences. When he joined Boston, the core of the team was already in place in the form of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi. There wasn’t much more for him to add other than some pieces around the edges that could put them over the top. So, any view of the trades he made have to be viewed through that lens: they got them to a World Series that they won. So it’s very difficult to call any of these trades a loss for Boston. After all, no matter what you hear otherwise, the goal of any organization is to win.
Whatever Dombrowski had to give up was obviously worth it as the team won a World Series during his time there. That the ownership group wanted to focus more on their bottom line at the end rather than keeping that core together cannot really be blamed on Dombrowski.
That is the same mandate he has here in Philadelphia: do what it takes to win the World Series. Anything the team does has to be viewed through the idea that their championship window is open right now while the primes of Harper, Realmuto, Turner, Schwarber, et al. are happening. There has to be one on the future health of the organization in terms of on-field talent, yes, but they did not give these players this amount of money to come up short in negotiations for pieces they view as necessary to winning.
These days, there are all sorts of names being bandied about as potential targets for other teams to consider. Andrew Painter, Mick Abel, Justin Crawford - these are the players teams are looking at in a potential exchange between teams. This is, of course, due to the idea that this is the best the team has to offer. If you want to get something, you have to give up something. Where Dombrowski has excelled is choosing the time to cash in his top prospects and when to hold back. We don’t have information about trades he didn’t make in Detroit and Boston, but we do know about the ones he did make. In acquiring Cabrera in 2007, Dombrowski dealt his top two prospects (Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller), his sixth best prospect (Frankie de la Cruz), and his 18th and 22nd prospects. By any measure, that’s an enormous package to give up....but it was Miguel Cabrera. For a player that changed the franchise as he did, it was well worth it. In trading for Chris Sale, Dombrowski dealt his top prospect (Yoan Moncada), his fifth best prospect (Michael Kopech), his ninth best prospect (Luis Alexander Basabe) and another piece to get a pitcher that helped the team hoist the World Series trophy. The naysayer could say that Dombrowski “gutted the farm” in these deals and it wouldn’t be incorrect. The positive thinker could look at these two deals and recognize Dombrowski’s eye for talent both coming in and going out. After all, of all those prospects involved in the Cabrera and Sale deals, which ones have come back to hurt the teams trading them away?
And that is where the faith in what Dombrowski and Fuld must lie. No one wants to trade those players that the team is developing, particularly those that look like they could be above average major leaguers or more. The term “prospect hugging” may seem derogatory, but it’s also very real among certain factions of the fanbase. Yet those same people also clamor for the team to trade for outside help, particularly at this point on the calendar. What we can see is that Dombrowski, in his past deals, has shown he’s adept at not only finding the right player his team needs to give them that extra win or two, but in knowing which players to deal at the right time. If a player has required a larger amount of prospects to acquire, he hasn’t been afraid to pull the lever on that deal.
It’s fine if we want to say that Dombrowski is active in the trade market. The moniker “Trader Dave” probably doesn’t fit him as well as it does someone like Jerry DiPoto, but he is certainly an active participant. Yet the idea that he leaves his player development system in tatters is just not completely true. He will trade players for those he sees as difference makers. That is something we should all be getting behind.