Shaikin: Back at World Series, Dave Dombrowski offers Angels glimpse of what might have been

Philadelphia Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski talks on his phone before a baseball game
Philadelphia Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski talks on his phone before a game against the Marlins on Sept. 15 in Miami. (Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

No one had built World Series teams for three different franchises until Dave Dombrowski did it. Now, on behalf of the Philadelphia Phillies, he has done it for four.

The head of baseball operations usually changes because the baseball is not good.

The baseball might not be good because the team lacks elite talent.

Not here, though. Not when the Phillies hired Dombrowski three years ago.

“When I first came in, our problem was not star players,” Dombrowski told The Times.

That sounds familiar to any fan who follows the team for which Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani play. Dombrowski was a free agent the last time the Angels hired someone to build their team, amid persistent industry speculation that owner Arte Moreno would pursue him.

We know how the story ends: Moreno will close his 20-year stewardship of the Angels without a World Series appearance.

This is not to say that the Angels surely would have been in the World Series had Dombrowski come to Anaheim.

Perry Minasian, whom Moreno hired as general manager, built a third-place team this year and fired his manager in June.

Dombrowski also built a third-place team and fired his manager in June. His team grabbed the last wild-card spot in the National League postseason field and caught fire, winning nine of 11 games to charge into the World Series.

This is to say the Phillies had an owner who trusted a veteran baseball operations leader to tell him which players could turn his team into a winner, and who freely paid a luxury tax in order to acquire them.

It is a lesson that should not be lost on whoever buys the Angels from Moreno: hire the best people you can, then give them the resources they need and stay out of their way.

The Angels reached out to Andrew Friedman before the Dodgers ever did; Friedman passed.

Moreno hired four general managers, all of them first-timers. Moreno never hired anyone as president of baseball operations, the title Dombrowski holds with the Phillies and Friedman holds with the Dodgers.

The Angels declined to say whether they had reached out to Dombrowski. All Dombrowski would say was that, at the time the Angels hired Minasian, he was committed to working on behalf of a potential expansion franchise in Nashville, Tenn.

Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and interim manager Rob Thomson take part in a news conference
Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, right, introduces Rob Thomson as the team's interim manager June 3 in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Dombrowski had told that to the Phillies. The Phillies persisted for weeks, provided Dombrowski with assurance from the commissioner’s office that expansion would not happen any time soon, and got their man.

For a decade, Moreno has run the Angels with a win-now philosophy, not an unreasonable plan with Trout and later Ohtani. Moreno has refused to trade either player, uninterested in rebuilding, respectful of fans who want to see a team playing to win now, not five years from now.

In the summer of 2020, as speculation swirled around Dombrowski and the Angels, an industry source had told The Times that he would be the perfect hire for that kind of philosophy. Dombrowski might spend a lot of money and trade a lot of prospects, but he is as much a win-now executive as Moreno is a win-now owner.

As analytics persuaded teams to be wary of paying older players for what they had done for other teams rather than what they might do for your team, the source thought Dombrowski could swoop.

“He knows how to build a big league roster,” the source said then. “That’s an area he could exploit with an owner that’s willing to spend. They could sign some major league free agents at depressed prices, because the market is going to be flooded with pretty good veteran players.

“If you’re trying to look at a best-case scenario, that’s theirs.”

When Minasian took over the Angels, they had Ohtani and Trout and Anthony Rendon, the latter two coming off a season in which they ranked among the top five position players in the American League.

Ohtani, Trout and Rendon filled the top three spots in the lineup on Opening Day this year, followed by journeyman Matt Duffy, signed last winter to a $1.5-million contract. The Phillies’ cleanup batter on Opening Day: outfielder Nick Castellanos, signed last winter to a $100-million contract.

The Angels’ winter signings also included pitchers Raisel Iglesias, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Lorenzen, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera, for a combined $117 million.

Iglesias ($58 million) accounted for half of that; the Angels traded him to the Atlanta Braves in a salary dump. Syndergaard ($21 million) was traded to the Phillies and is scheduled to start Game 5 of the World Series on Thursday.

The Phillies’ winter additions also included outfielder Kyle Schwarber, for $79 million. Schwarber led the NL with 46 home runs.

Dombrowski inherited outfielder Bryce Harper, catcher J.T. Realmuto and pitchers Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler.

“If you’ve got all-stars and you don’t have enough other people to complement them, well, that doesn’t do you any good,” Dombrowski said. “So, somehow, you have to figure out that equation of balancing that.”

Under Moreno, the Angels spent often but not always well, most notably with the $365 million for Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

“If you’re spending dollars, which is great — you have an advantage if you are able to do that — you’d better spend them on the right players,” Dombrowski said, speaking generally. “You also know they are going to age somewhere in a long-term contract. And how are you going to complement those players, and supplement them?”

“Moneyball” often is mischaracterized as an ode to on-base percentage and analytic wizardry. Yet its primary lesson is as valid today as it was 20 years ago, in the season that inspired “Moneyball:” When everyone else zigs, there is an opportunity to zag.

Moreno spends, but too many owners do not, leaving less competition for the likes of Dombrowski to exploit. And, with too many teams hoarding prospects for fear of mortgaging the future or trading a future star or inflating the payroll with veterans, Dombrowski’s willingness to trade prospects gives him another avenue to exploit in acquiring talent.

Dombrowski’s first job as a general manager: for the Montreal Expos, in 1988.

“People didn’t even know who your prospects were, unless they were a top, top draft choice or a top, top guy,” he said. “Now people know them so much more and, not only do they know them, they know their names. With that, they think that they know the player.”

Dombrowski adheres to a lesson from a man he calls his mentor: Roland Hemond, an executive honored by the Hall of Fame.

“He’d say, ‘Dave, who is writing or reporting on that person? Is it a good scout, that has watched the player play and really knows that person, or is it somebody just writing something that they have read?’ And so that’s really important,” Dombrowski said.

“I think one of your jobs in the front office is to be accurate in your assessment of your own players. We all have a tendency to over-evaluate our own personnel. And the reality is that a lot of the guys don’t live up to those expectations. So it’s up to you to do the best job you can to be able to differentiate between those that are hyped and those that are really good.”

The next great assessments for the Angels will come from the new owner. Ohtani is signed for one more year; the new owner can decide whether to trade him next summer or try to persuade him to stay. Manager Phil Nevin is signed for one year; the new owner can decide whether to retain him beyond then.

Minasian is signed for two more years. Perhaps he can flourish under a new owner, or perhaps a new owner might want someone else to build the team.

No major league team has gone longer without a postseason appearance. That should not happen to a team in the second-largest market in the league. The new owner assuredly will say, “We want to win.” But actions speak louder than words, and the scoreboard speaks loudest of all.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.