NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Imagine you're sitting across a table from Dave Dombrowski -- the man who traded for Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Prince Fielder and Craig Kimbrel, the man who signed Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Victor Martinez and David Price -- and he's telling you he doesn't expect to orchestrate a blockbuster for the Boston Red Sox this winter.
Do you buy it?
Forgive most of the baseball industry for being skeptical. The idea of Dombrowski only making moves on the margins, such as Tuesday morning’s swap with the Milwaukee Brewers for eighth-inning reliever Tyler Thornburg, is as unthinkable as Donald Trump resisting the urge to tweet. No move is ever too big or too bold for Dealer Dave. Few executives across the game relish the art of the deal as much as the Red Sox's president of baseball operations, who rarely settles for making changes on the margins of his roster.
But the rules of engagement are changing. Dombrowski picked up a 133-page "memorandum of understanding" of baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, which outlines stiffer penalties for teams that dare exceed the luxury-tax threshold, as the Red Sox have done for the past two seasons. And although the tax limit will rise from $189 million to $195 million, the Sox are loath to go over again and pay the price of losing a draft pick.
"You would always like to be under the [luxury tax] if you could," Dombrowski said Monday from his 19th-floor suite at the Gaylord National Harbor Hotel. "Nobody likes to bear penalties. There's a reason they call it penalties."
And so, with the Red Sox's commitments for 2017 already coming in at about $188 million, as calculated for luxury-tax purposes, Dombrowski said they "weren't engaged" in talks to sign veteran outfielders Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday, who agreed over the weekend to modest one-year deals with the Houston Astros and New York Yankees.
Dombrowski said he isn't under a mandate from principal owner John Henry to stay under $195 million, although that's clearly the preference. The Sox's priority, according to multiple league sources, is acquiring bullpen help, never a Dombrowski strength with the Detroit Tigers. Specifically, the Sox are looking for an eighth-inning reliever either through a trade or free agency and "haven't closed the door" on re-signing Koji Uehara or Brad Ziegler, according to Dombrowski.
If the Red Sox acquire a designated hitter to replace retired franchise icon David Ortiz, Dombrowski indicated they might resort to bottom-feeding from a deep free-agent market. There's even a chance, Dombrowski said, that they won't add another hitter, but rather rely on their internal options, including a Hanley Ramirez-like revival from Pablo Sandoval, who missed most of 2016 after having shoulder surgery.
"As I look at the lineup for next year," manager John Farrell said, "one of the keys for us is going to be Panda."
Said Dombrowski: "Panda's been down in Fort Myers. He continues to work hard. He's in the condition that we would like him to be in. He's in tremendous shape and getting ready for the season."
That's swell. But it isn't going to make Red Sox fans run out to buy tickets.
And, quite frankly, it doesn't sound much like Dombrowski, either.
The Chicago White Sox are reportedly on the brink trading ace lefty Chris Sale and possibly slugging first baseman Jose Abreu, too. The Tigers might dangle Cy Young Award runner-up Justin Verlander or even Cabrera. Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 42 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays this season, is still available on the free-agent market.
Is Dombrowski, sitting here with a loaded farm system and enough assets to trade for any player in the game, really going to take a pass?
Dombrowski has been known to get creative, bringing a third team into a deal or off-loading players in order to create salary space to add the superstar he covets. But according to multiple sources, the Red Sox aren't even in talks with the New York Mets for lefty-hitting outfielders Jay Bruce or Curtis Granderson, both of whom would be good fits to take Ortiz's spot.
"Just because we made big deals, and I've been involved in big deals in the past, you make deals because you think they are deals that will help your organization, not because they're big deals," Dombrowski said. "We could make a big deal today and then regret making that deal. I don't have a driving force to make a big deal. We're not afraid to make them. I wouldn't want to make a deal just to make a deal."
That's the vibe Dombrowski is sending out at these winter meetings. Believe him or not, Dealer Dave might not come and go without making more than a ripple.