Building a championship contender is nothing new for Dombrowski, but fixing the Phillies required him to do something different.
By the middle of December in 2020, the Phillies were 5½ years into a stagnating rebuild. They had put a cart filled with high-salaried free agents ahead of the twin horses of drafting and development, and the whole endeavor stalled.
As owner John Middleton sought a new architect, what he really needed was a handyman.
Dave Dombrowski had done both. He built a World Series champ from the ground up with the expansion Florida Marlins in 1997 and pennant winners with the Detroit Tigers in 2006 and 2012. But he also inherited the talent-rich Boston Red Sox in 2015 and took them over the top in 2018.
So, Middleton didn’t take no for a final answer before persuading Dombrowski to head the Phillies’ baseball operations. What has followed — a two-season process that has pushed the 140-year-old franchise to within three wins of its eighth National League pennant — has been unlike almost any challenge in the 66-year-old executive’s distinguished career.
“I think every situation’s different,” Dombrowski said Wednesday in San Diego before Game 2 of the NL Championship Series. “I don’t know what’s normal. Usually the only consistency is, when there’s a change, somebody’s not happy with what’s going on, so you have to analyze every situation that you go into. I’ve been in all different type of scenarios.”
Sometimes, the problem is easy to see. In Boston, Dombrowski took over a young core, led by Mookie Betts, but a roster that lacked top-of-the-rotation pitching. His biggest moves, then, were to sign free agent David Price after the 2015 season and trade for Chris Sale a year later.
With the Phillies, the problems were below the surface. The organization sparkled on the outside, with Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Rhys Hoskins forming a star-studded core. But the foundation was rotten from years of neglect or mismanagement. The farm system, for instance, lacked top-end talent and wasn’t in sync with the major-league club.
Fixing the Phillies would require bolstering the infrastructure of what Dombrowski described as a “top-heavy organization.” It involved improving the bottom half of the roster, reorganizing the front office, revamping the minor leagues, and making other changes that could only be detected by popping the hood and taking a thorough look around.
“I came in here with a top-heavy organization, but it’s a lot easier to build around that than it is to get stars,” Dombrowski said. “But I think also you want to strengthen some of your positions and they don’t always have to be stars. So, for example, [Bryson] Stott playing every day in the middle of the infield, I wouldn’t consider him a star at this point. But he makes us better because he’s a good all-around solid player that’s going to keep getting better and better. [Brandon] Marsh is like that in center field. With him and [Matt] Vierling, it’s a nice combination for us.
“So, it’s not only lengthening the bottom of the roster, but it’s also making you better at positions that need to be strengthened, and not always with a star player.”
Deepening the roster wasn’t glamorous work. It didn’t always merit news conferences or grab big headlines. Dombrowski’s first move was a minor trade for reliever José Alvarado, who fell out of favor in Tampa Bay. Two years later, he and Seranthony Domínguez are the Phillies’ most trusted relievers.
There were similar additions along the way, from reliever Andrew Bellatti and backup catcher Garrett Stubbs to infielder Edmundo Sosa before the trade deadline.
But Dombrowski has made meaningful changes off the field, too. He didn’t come in and clean house. That isn’t his style. Rather he spent the first six months of his Phillies tenure getting to know staff members across multiple departments and within the minor leagues. He observed. He took notes.
And then he made sweeping changes.
Dombrowski removed assistant general manager Bryan Minniti, who oversaw player development in addition to both amateur and international scouting. He hired Preston Mattingly to replace farm director Josh Bonifay and empowered him to work with general manager Sam Fuld and assistant GM Jorge Velandia on streamlining minor league instruction.
“That was the first time I really made a lot of changes to an organization in, I don’t know, years,” Dombrowski said. “Maybe ever, really.”
The Phillies also sought to build a culture. In February, they took advantage of the owner-imposed lockout by holding a minor league minicamp at their spring-training facility in Clearwater, Fla. Team officials from various departments were there. The major league coaching staff was, too. Each day, they gathered for afternoon meetings to discuss players and define pitching and hitting philosophies that would be stressed at every level of the organization.
“When you get to watch Dave in action like I have, there’s a reason why he’s the only [executive] in baseball history who’s taken three different franchises to the World Series and why he’s one of five that have won it with two different teams,” Middleton said. “He’s smart, he’s decisive. He has extraordinarily high standards. He looks at everything and says, ‘Does this get me closer to winning the World Series if I do this?’ That’s how he thinks about everything. It’s a big culture change.”
Nobody loves star players more than Dombrowski, so when he saw the chance in March to sign two free-agent sluggers — Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos — he appealed to Middleton to exceed a heightened luxury-tax threshold ($230 million) for the first time in franchise history.
But the Phillies claimed the last NL wild card and made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years because the organization functioned more efficiently.
Even before Dombrowski fired Joe Girardi on June 3 and replaced him with Rob Thomson, whose calm demeanor, disarming humor, and overall even keel helped nurture young players, systemic changes helped enable top prospect Stott to successfully graduate to the big leagues, unlike recent flameouts Scott Kingery, Mickey Moniak, and Adam Haseley. Third baseman Alec Bohm got the coaching and support he needed to thrive.
“Preston Mattingly coming in and setting the tone for what we were trying to do at the minor league level and bringing some of the personnel on that he did really made a significant difference,” Dombrowski said. “On a daily basis, he works with Sam and Jorge. Having that accumulation of information also, that’s really been important to us.
“Because at the same time we’re trying to win here, we’re also trying to improve our system. We’ve got a lot of production from our system this year.”
Not only did it help the Phillies to finally reach the playoffs, but it may make their success more sustainable, even in a division with the relentlessly competitive Atlanta Braves and deep-pocketed New York Mets.
Dombrowski partied hard with the players after the playoff clincher in Houston and subsequent series victories over St. Louis and Atlanta. Each time, he has appeared in the middle of the clubhouse revelry, hat backwards, flip-flops on his feet, a T-shirt and shorts soaked with champagne.
The players say they wouldn’t want it any other way after Dombrowski’s handy work.
”We absolutely love Dave, just the way he acts and the way he is around us,” Harper said. “This is kind of his baby now. This is kind of his team that he’s put forward. He’s made moves with staff, minor league stuff. I think we’re kind of reaping the benefits of that right now.”