PHILADELPHIA -- Dave Dombrowski had no plans to leave Nashville and take a job with the Phillies. He told them "no" a couple times this fall. He had joined a group that wanted to bring big league baseball to Tennessee. He and his wife planned to build a home there.
But then Dombrowski learned early this week that the timeline to bring baseball to Nashville had changed.
John Middleton called Tuesday. Then everything changed.
“It really came down to a very quick situation, and it was really John Middleton reaching out and really trying to make me part of the Phillies' organization,” Dombrowski said Friday, when he was introduced as the Phillies’ new president of baseball operations.
It is a seismic shift for the Phillies. They spent the past couple of months looking for somebody to replace former general manager Matt Klentak, who was reassigned on Oct. 3 after failing to bring them a postseason appearance or winning season in five years. At times, it looked like the Phils might not hire anybody until 2021. They said as much in October. Then this month, Twins general manager Thad Levine and Dodgers vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes removed themselves from consideration for the job. The pair, along with former Marlins executive Michael Hill, were the only known candidates to interview.
But then Middleton got Dombrowski to change his mind.
Dombrowski has a tremendous track record. He won World Series with the Red Sox in 2018 and Marlins in 1997. He led the Tigers to the World Series in 2006 and '12. The Phillies do not seem close to a title, despite their efforts the past five years. In fact, they seem far enough away that Dombrowski was asked if they might begin another rebuild.
“I consider this a retool and not a rebuild, for sure,” Dombrowski said. “I think there are too many good players on the club. We have a star player in right field in Bryce [Harper] and some other good players around him, and any time you have three good starting pitchers like we have at the top of the rotation, you’re in pretty good shape to be competitive."
Dombrowski has a reputation for making bold moves and a win-at-all-costs mentality. But it does not mean the Phillies are going for broke in 2021. The Phils want to win next season, but they also want to build an annual contender, as former general managers Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro Jr. did from '07-11. The Phils still plan to reduce payroll before next season, like many teams in baseball. Dombrowski’s hiring does not change that. But he should give them a fighting chance to win. Perhaps Dombrowski, even with a smaller budget, can find players to complement a roster that includes Harper, Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Rhys Hoskins, Alec Bohm, Zach Eflin, Andrew McCutchen and others.
J.T. Realmuto would help. The Phillies have said publicly that re-signing Realmuto is a priority, although they publicly and privately have expressed pessimism. At one point, Realmuto sought more than $200 million. Negotiations always start somewhere, of course, but the Phillies are not expected to hand their new president a blank check to re-sign the best catcher in baseball.
“Everybody in the organization loves J.T.,” Dombrowski said. “I think there’s a unanimous feeling that we’d like to bring him back. Now, those things are never easy; a lot of us have dealt with free-agent markets in the past. But that feeling is mutual, from John on down through the rest of the staff. There is some flexibility to make moves there, but again, can we get something like that done? I’m really not sure.”
Can they sign Realmuto and add the complementary pieces they need elsewhere to win? That might be the better question. Because Realmuto alone does not make this team a winner. The Phillies are not one player away from winning a World Series, like in 2009, '10 and '11, when Amaro acquired Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence in a flurry of trades. Besides a catcher, the Phillies need a shortstop, center fielder and help in the bullpen and rotation.
“We all want to win, but you also don’t want to just do things that sacrifice your long-term [goals] unless you think you’re a championship-caliber club,” Dombrowski said. “It’s too early for me to answer that question yet, but I don’t think from my conversations with anybody here that anyone thinks we’re only one player away. We have some holes to plug.
“Do we want to win? Yes, but there are some good clubs in our division. We have a lot of nice pieces to win, but we’re going to have to do some other things to make us successful.”
One source with knowledge of the Phillies’ thought process said at the very least Dombrowski can examine their entire operation, fix the processes that need fixing and build a better, more well-rounded, more sustainable organization -- one which blends scouting and analytics. The Phils decided not to renew the contracts of several scouts this fall, but in a round of recent layoffs, they did not touch the analytics department, which president Andy MacPhail acknowledged has been unable to unearth diamond-in-the-rough talents, as some other analytics departments around baseball have.
Dombrowski knows how to identify and acquire talent. It is why Middleton wanted him.