The five-year reign of John Farrell as Red Sox manager is over. On Wednesday morning, Boston announced that the 55-year-old Farrell was done, two days after the Astros knocked his team out of the postseason in the Division Series—the second straight first-round exit for the Red Sox. The firing ends what had been an inconsistent tenure for Farrell, who won the World Series in his first year at Fenway and back-to-back AL East titles, but also oversaw two last-place finishes as well as those consecutive ALDS defeats.
“I think sometimes change can be better, and that’s why we decided to move forward with this change,” said team president Dave Dombrowski in a Wednesday morning press conference.
Poached away from the Blue Jays despite compiling a 73–89 record for Toronto in 2012, Farrell started his Boston career with a bang, taking a team that had lost 93 games under the despised Bobby Valentine and delivering the franchise its third World Series title in nine seasons. But the Red Sox were unable to get back to those heights, losing 91 games in 2014 and 84 in ’15. Even when the team rebounded to finish first in the division in ’16 and ’17, it was unable to do much in the playoffs, falling to the Indians last year in a sweep and the Astros in four games this October.
You would imagine that a championship and three AL East titles in five years would be enough to earn a manager a lifetime of job security, but that was never going to be the case for Farrell under Dombrowski, who inherited the manager when he took over the front office in 2015. Hardly the most patient of executives, it’s likely that Dombrowski would have let Farrell go that offseason to choose his own skipper—except that Farrell was, at the time, undergoing chemotherapy to combat lymphoma. No matter how much you may want your own man, the optics of firing a guy while he’s fighting cancer are as bad as they get. And while Farrell’s 2016 turnaround probably bought him some more time as well, division titles can only take you so far if you can’t deliver more than that, especially in Boston.
Dombrowski declined to address specifically why he fired Farrell but did say this October’s performance was not the reason. “It’s not a snap decision that says, okay, we lost in the postseason,” he told reporters, adding, “You’re always thinking about how to get better in every facet.” Beyond the loss to Houston, it probably didn’t help Farrell’s cause that every member of a young and talented offense regressed this season along with 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. Farrell made the best out of a tough situation by effectively managing his bullpen, but there was plenty of carping from both fans and media about his slow hook with starters. The down year offensively (Boston finished 26th in baseball in home runs a year after ranking ninth) made life that much harder.
Things didn’t seem any happier in the clubhouse. Back in April, the Red Sox got involved in a pointless and embarrassing beanball war with the Orioles after Manny Machado slid hard into Dustin Pedroia—one that Pedroia loudly disavowed as his idea. In June, David Price twice made a scene, first by yelling at a reporter after a game, then by lighting into NESN broadcaster Dennis Eckersley during a team flight over what he perceived to be negative on-air comments about a fellow starter. And in September, the team was punished by MLB after sign-stealing allegations made their way to the league office courtesy the Yankees—a crime that Farrell insisted he had no idea was going on.
Managing a clubhouse is no easy thing, and last year’s retirement of veteran superstar David Ortiz—the heart and soul of the Red Sox for over a decade—robbed Farrell of his best and most important team leader. But for a manager lauded for his communication skills, that level of public strife and unhappiness is shocking to see and ultimately falls on him, and likely contributed to his downfall as much as any perceived tactical failings.
The trick now for Dombrowski will be finding someone who can do better. For whatever Farrell’s mistakes, he had guided his team to the playoffs three times in five years and mostly avoided controversy in arguably the most media-difficult city in the game. But for as tough a job as Boston offers, Dombrowski’s next manager will inherit one of baseball’s best on-field setups. Boston has a wealth of stars under 30, led by Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers; Chris Sale and Price atop the rotation; elite closer Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen; and a $200 million payroll that the front office likely won’t be afraid to expand in free agency after a disappointing season.
The challenges are plenty, though. That manager will have to find a way to unite a seemingly fractious clubhouse; help those young players get back on track offensively; keep Price healthy and ideally reduce the reliance on Sale, who looked gassed in his ALDS Game 1 start. And he’ll have to do all this while handling the pressures of being a win-now club in the AL’s toughest division with the second-place Yankees poised to be even better next year and the Astros and Indians both expected to be excellent once again.
No manager ever gets a long leash in Boston. If Farrell wants proof, he can go talk to Terry Francona, who won two championships for the Red Sox but was still given the boot. According to the Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham, “no level of team success [this season] would have prevented” Farrell being fired (which raises the question of what Dombrowski would have done had his manager won the World Series). But as knee-jerk as this move may seem, Farrell was always going to be under the gun with Dombrowski. That’ll likely be true for Boston’s next manager as well, fairly or unfairly.