Q&A with Dave Dombrowski on the state of the Phillies and how he's approaching the trade deadline

BOSTON — Dave Dombrowski had not been back here, at this venerable ballpark, since Sept. 9, 2019. That was the day the Red Sox fired him. It was a bitter time. But, whenever Dombrowski stepped onto the Fenway Park grass this week, a collection of Boston officials gathered to reconnect. Dombrowski returned as the architect of a Phillies team that, so far, owns the best record in the National League. That will put anyone in a good mood.

His team, still adjusting after its trip across the Atlantic Ocean, is missing its shortstop, catcher and left fielder. The Phillies looked sluggish in a series loss to the Red Sox. A 9-3 loss Thursday night represented the most lopsided defeat they had suffered since April 23. They were due for one.

The view from Dombrowski’s seat is still promising. Before Thursday’s loss that dropped the Phillies to 46-22, the veteran executive touched on a variety of subjects in an interview with The Athletic. Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.

What has most surprised you about how this season has unfolded?

I thought we had a good club. But I can’t tell you that you ever expect to jump off and play at a pace of 110 wins. And it’s not the whole season, but you never really expect that. I thought we had good starting pitching. But I can’t say that I thought it would ever perform to this (level). I really thought it was good — that it would give us a chance to win on a regular basis. Our bullpen, the back end, has really been on lockdown.

If you’d say that we would lose Trea Turner for the amount of time that we have … he was really playing well. I think he’s one of the better players in baseball. And we just continued to perform at that level. That also is one that I’d say, “Wow.” I can’t say that I would have predicted that.

What do you think has made the organization successful in identifying depth and role players?

It’s a combination of individuals that contribute to that. We’re aggressive in pursuing it. It’s a focus that we put on. Between (general manager) Sam (Fuld) and (assistant general manager) Ani (Kilambi) and (pro scouting director) Mike Ondo and (manager of player procurement) Chris Cashman, (director of baseball operations) Corinne Landrey, (assistant general manager) Preston Mattingly — I mean, we really put our focus on trying to do that and identify the right players. We really have done a good job.

And it’s tough because a lot of guys don’t want to sign with us (on minor-league deals) because our big-league club has been good over the last couple of years. So you really have to dig and take advantage of opportunities that come around. Our people have done a really good job.

In addition, we have very good coaching staffs. When we sign somebody — let’s say from the pitching perspective and you give them to (pitching coaches) Caleb (Cotham) and (Brian Kaplan) — you can get the most out of them. You can make an adjustment with somebody. You can help somebody. From the offensive perspective, when you start talking about having Kevin Long and then Luke Murton at the minor-league level, all the sudden they can maybe make an adjustment to help somebody.

Years ago, I always followed (veteran pitching guru) Dave Duncan because Dave Duncan was with us in Chicago. Well, St. Louis would make an acquisition, and all of a sudden they were better with St. Louis. … If you have some people and they work together and identify what you’re trying to accomplish, you can get the most out of players.

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Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and GM Sam Fuld during spring training. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

What keeps you up at night? Where do you think you guys are thinnest?

Well, you always can be better. First and foremost, you want to stay relatively healthy. And we’re nicked up now. We’re getting close to getting Trea back and Brandon (Marsh) back. Then, J.T. (Realmuto). I like our ballclub with that group.

So, it’s pretty tough from a positional player perspective. Because, if you have those three guys back, you have to have a backup catcher. We have (Edmundo) Sosa because he plays shortstop. So now you’re talking about two other guys. With Whit (Merrifield), you have to have six infielders really. He moves all around. He’s not hitting very well at this point. But he’s a very valuable guy and I think I’ll hit better. So, now, you’re talking about one other guy.

How do all those pieces fit? What you have to decide yourself is: What little thing makes you better at a particular time to win a ballgame versus a certain guy? Versus a left-handed pitcher, versus a right-handed pitcher? That is really what you focus on.

Then, the second thing is, you can always have more bullpen depth. When you look at the four guys that we have at the back, they’ve been tremendous. And now Seranthony (Domínguez) is starting to throw better. You have to have a long guy mixed in there. So you’re not really talking about many other guys.

The one guy, I know he has the ability. You want him to step up and he would make us a lot better. That’s (Gregory) Soto. He lately hasn’t been able to get guys out quite to the extent that we’d like him to. So, some of it could come from within. But you’re always going to look outside too.

What is your trade deadline philosophy when you have a team like this? You want to be careful to not disrupt the success. But you’re also looking for meaningful additions. How do you approach being in this position?

It’s usually a balance that comes into play. You’re focused on the chemistry that you have and what may make you a little better. And if you do that, get something a little better, how does it change the chemistry? Because somebody has to come off your team. So it’s a balance. What ends up happening normally — almost always — the answers become apparent.

I remember in 1997, our Marlins club was really good. You could see we needed a little bit better lineup — another left-handed hitter. And there was Darren Daulton. Just a little bit better. Second base, Luis Castillo, we liked him. He was a youngster, but he just wasn’t quite getting over the hump. So that became apparent to us. (Dombrowski traded for Craig Counsell at the deadline that year.) Those were the two roles. And it was very close to the trade deadline.

Then I was in Boston with a great club in 2018. All of a sudden, we were a little short versus left-handed pitching. We went out and we got Steve Pearce. We were a little short at second base; Eduardo Núñez wasn’t really a second baseman. And we ended up getting Ian Kinsler at that point.

So those are the little things. But they became apparent closer to the deadline. Even though we had good records, even though we were playing really well, you could continually look. And you just said, “OK, there it is. Right there.”

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“J.T. (Realmuto) is an unusual individual. When you talk about him, you kind of throw the mold away,” Dombrowski said. (Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

What is your initial read on the trade market with seven weeks to the deadline?

I think it’s way, way, way, way, way too early. There’s five or six clubs that identify themselves as sellers. But if they’re selling now, they’re either guys that are not real high on your list, or they’re asking for so much.

I don’t think I can answer that because those clubs first have to answer that. Now, you can go acquire a lot of different people if you want. But then you have to overpay for them. That’s not what your goal is. You want to make sure you try to keep as many of your best people in your system as you possibly can.

It’s hard for me to imagine there’s going to be some stalwart out there that we’re going to say, “Hey, here, we’re going to trade three top prospects.” Just with the type of club we have. I just don’t think that. But, again, you never know who’s out there and all that.

Now, it’s interesting. For example, we lose a guy like J.T. Well, we’ve had three organizations and multiple people from those organizations call us on veteran catchers. Call us. “Hey, do you have interest in this guy?” Well, that’s usually probably not a good sign, that they’re trying to get rid of them. Rather than the opposite way where you’re pursuing them.

We want to take a look at our young guys. If you were saying J.T. is out for the season, then it’s a lot different than saying J.T.’s out for a month. So it gives us a chance to look at (Rafael) Marchán. And I like giving young guys an opportunity to fit in.

Speaking of a younger guy, how do you assess Johan Rojas’ season so far?

I’m not going to go in-depth and publicly analyze our guys. But he’s probably played, in some ways, the way we would have anticipated. I wasn’t expecting much more offense. Let’s say he drove in 50 runs this year, which he still has a chance to do, and hit half a dozen homers and stole 30 bases. Well, I can’t say I would have anticipated much more from an offensive perspective. Early in the season, I didn’t think he played center field like he was capable of playing center field. He’s been better lately.

He needs to do that because we don’t have him on the team for offensive prowess. We have him to make every play out there. And I know he can do it.

In light of Realmuto’s injury, can the team continue to plan on him being someone who catches 120-plus games in 2025 at age 34? Do you have to have conversations about how to better manage him?

It’s just too early to answer that question. J.T. is an unusual individual. When you talk about him, you kind of throw the mold away. But you still have to be cognizant of the number of games he catches. But you look at what Yadier Molina did. He caught a lot of games. There’s not many Molinas in history. He’s a whole different type of guy. J.T. is much more athletic than Molina, who was just a natural catcher. So he did it for a long time. I’ve been around a couple of guys like that. But I think you have to be careful and discuss it. I don’t have that answer right now.



Phillies trade deadline primer: 3 early storylines to watch

(Top photo of Dave Dombrowski: Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire / Associated Press)

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