By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Red Sox failed to inspire the last two Octobers. On the Boston sports landscape, that’s perhaps even worse than failing on the field - which they did as well, going a combined 1-6 in speedy exits to the Indians and Astros in 2016-17. Securing the top spot in the AL East for two straight years was nice, particularly following two consecutive basement finishes that hastened the departure of Ben Cherington in favor of Dave Dombrowski.
But on April 1, we were still talking about Malcolm Butler. And May 1. And June 1.
Dombrowski had traded for Craig Kimbrel. He’d signed David Price. Unloaded his best prospects for Chris Sale. It wasn’t good enough, until now.
And I think it’s safe to say I don’t expect much Butler talk this week.
For all the plaudits (rightfully) extended to “Trader Danny” Ainge in this city, it’s only fair that “Dealin’ Dave” be recognized for pushing the Sox to a fourth World Series title in 15 years - Dombrowski’s second as an executive (he was at the helm of the 1997 Marlins) and first with the team. Of course, he started his tenure with a George Constanza-sized wallet, and as a result, the Sox still have the highest payroll in the game.
Kimbrel has collected $37.5 million the last three years. Dombrowski basically paid for Price’s dog, Astro, to construct a walk-in closet for chew toys. His other trades have followed the trend of unloading cheap prospects (Anderson Espinoza) for more proven, cost-controlled talent (Drew Pomeranz) who also happened to be more expensive. When some of those moves failed to pan out (Travis Shaw for Tyler Thornburg), and even when others did (Chris Sale), fans and media questioned the philosophy of cleaning out the cupboard for what amounted to an American League bridesmaid.
Conversely, when Dombrowski chose (or was ordered) to exercise fiscal restraint, he was pounded for that, as well. Some found it offensive when he famously moved the Pontiac Fiero of starting pitchers, Clay Buchholz, for a Punch & Judy minor league second baseman in order to avoid the luxury tax. Mitch Moreland’s initial signing was met with a yawn. His return in 2018 wasn’t exactly cause for with a parade. Nor was that of Eduardo Nunez.
And this July, awash in criticism over the state of the bullpen, and navigating a lingering cloud of doubt from postseasons past, Dombrowski eschewed the big move in favor of targeted acquisitions that filled holes.
To some fans, he might as well have been Dwight Schrute in the “Garage Sale” episode of The Office, coming home from the deadline with a package of “magic legumes.” The team with the highest payroll walked away from July with Nathan Eovaldi, Ian Kinsler, and a pocketful of guys whose baseball cards are worth five cents in the Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. Guys you’d put in your spokes.
And it worked.
In Eovaldi, the Sox inherited a guy on his third elbow ligament with a modest 3-4 record and 4.26 ERA pitching for the Rays. At the time, Dombrowski described Eovaldi as “depth,” an “extra arm” and “a guy who can slip into the bullpen.” Come playoff time, he was all of those things as well as one of the stars of the team.
Sean McAdam suggested at the deadline that the Sox, like many of their counterparts, could be looking to deploy starters out of the bullpen come October. That approach wasn’t able to save John Farrell against Houston last year. But Alex Cora, perhaps taking a cue from those Astros (with whom he spent last season as a coach), mostly conducted a master class in his first postseason at the helm. He turned to Eovaldi six times, twice as a starter, and the righty responded by posting a 1.61 ERA and 0.81 WHIP across 22.1 innings.
He was durable, too. After twirling a Game 3 gem at Minute Maid Park, Eovaldi pitched in relief of the ALCS clincher, held down eighth inning duties for the first two games of the World Series, then spun six brilliant innings of relief in an 18-inning Game 3 marathon.
There have certainly been deadline acquisitions in Red Sox history from whom we expected more. Jake Peavy largely came as advertised, a veteran arm that gave Boston a qualified candidate to log a postseason start or two. Jeff Suppan, on the other hand, did not. But how many people viewed Eovaldi as indispensable back on July 31?
His performance (with respect to Joe Kelly) bolstered a bullpen that had experienced flagging results down the stretch. He had some unheralded company. While Cora turned to Kelly over Ryan Brasier in the World Series, the Sox manager leveraged the Japanese League retread frequently over the opening two rounds, with Brasier making eight appearances in nine games, contributing four holds and not surrendering a run. From his call-up on July 8 to the celebration last night, Brasier logged 42.1 innings for the Sox, posting a 1.49 ERA.
Steve Pearce commenced his Red Sox career batting cleanup against C.C. Sabathia in the Bronx. I nearly drove off the road when Tony Mazz and Big Jim announced that one on The Baseball Reporters back at the end of June. Pearce proceeded to go 2-for-4 with a double in an 8-1 Red Sox loss.
By August, the Sox had climbed into the driver’s seat in the AL East, and after walloping four homers and driving in eight during a four-game sweep of the Bombers at Fenway, including a three-homer game on Aug. 2, it was clear Pearce would not only stick around, but he’d be counted on as a platoon bat while Mitch Moreland (.190/.281/.295 after June 24) calcified in front of our eyes.
Turns out the 35-year-old would get the lion’s share of postseason starts at first base, often hitting out of the three-hole. With three homers and eight RBI against the Dodgers, Pearce can count himself not only as a Red Sox folk hero, but as the World Series MVP.
Not everything panned out in a traditional sense. Kinsler’s impact was muted, as the two-time 30-30 man at the keystone slashed just .235/.280/.307 including the playoffs and committed a crucial error in the 13th inning of Game 3. But he held down second base with Dustin Pedroia nailed to the bench. Brandon Phillips, signed a day before Pearce back in June, was also past his expiration date, but orchestrated a key moment that further solidified the reputation of the Sox as cardiac kids: His only homer of the season, a ninth inning blast to seal a wild comeback win over the Braves in a September interleague affair.
Analysts pegged Nunez as one of the league’s worst hitters during the regular season, and he spent more time on the ground than John Wall during a Celtics-Wizards game. But he, too, played a role in getting to the podium, including a series-clinching defensive play (Pearce stretching on the other end) to vanquish the Yankees. And who can forget Moreland’s pinch hit, three-run blast in the eighth inning of Game 4 at Dodger Stadium, just when we thought a posturing Yasiel Puig had tied up the series?
Could the Sox have claimed a fourth World Series title this century in a different manner? Perhaps. Jon Lester certainly might have contributed to another. And there may be a prospect out there, swapped for Sale or Kimbrel or whomever else, who someday stars for multiple championship teams in another city. But the 2018 Boston Red Sox couldn’t have done it without David Price, without Nathan Eovaldi or Steve Pearce.
And they couldn’t have done it without Dealin’ Dave: Thirty-plus years as a respected big league executive, and now the architect of multiple World Series champions.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.