First, the Tigers all but threw the proverbial towel in on 2015 when they unloaded three otherwise key parts at the non-waiver trade deadline. Then, they showed they weren’t kidding by letting general manager Dave Dombrowski go just months before his current contract would expire.
“They basically told me they decided to change direction of leadership in the organization,” Dombrowski told the Detroit Free Press a day later. ”It’s kind of like an end of an era. You never like to see it end.” But he said he saw it end when his assistant GM Al Avila showed up at the ballpark Tuesday and looked as though something just wasn’t right.
Dombrowski had merely built a team that owned the American League Central until this season’s deflation. “[T]hat’s not how team owner Mike Ilitch sees him,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Michael Rosenberg. “Ilitch just thinks: I let you spend all that money, and you never won a World Series? Buh-bye.”
So Ilitch decided to replace Dombrowski with . . . Avila, who is capable enough but who has also spent practically his entire baseball life hitched to Dombrowski’s boat. “They did not decide to go in a different direction,” Rosenberg continues. “The Tigers are moving in the exact same direction, with largely the same management team. They just got rid of the guy at the top.”
A guy whom Ilitch brought aboard with no place to put him at first because he already had Randy Smith—he who took over the remnant of the Alan Trammel-Jack Morris-Sparky Anderson Tigers and ran it below ground. Ilitch named Dombrowski the Tigers’ president, and Dombrowski took the title seriously enough to dump Smith six games into 2002.
So what’s Dombrowski’s overall report card, really?
* Maybe his smartest move was the way in which he culled future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez in 2004, right after Rodriguez had helped the Marlins to a World Series title. When the Tigers needed it the most Rodriguez helped re-legitimise them. And Dombrowski crafted a package that included one of the first contract clauses enabling a team to void an entire season due to injury. For his part, Rodriguez’s presence meant established star players wouldn’t be loath to come to Detroit and the Tigers might have a better chance of attracting promising youth.
* Dombrowski didn’t look too dumb, either, when he lured Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers as free agents, drafter Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson, traded for Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco, and hired Jim Leyland—his favourite manager, all the way back to their days in Pittsburgh and Miami—and got himself into a World Series in 2006 for those efforts.
* Maybe his dumbest move was bringing aboard closer Troy Percival, two years and $12 million, whose tenure with the Angels had expired with young Francisco Rodriguez as Percival’s heir apparent. It didn’t look dumb at the time Dombrowski signed the four-time All-Star—whose deep back bend celebrating after the final out to win the 2002 World Series is an image Angel fans will never forget—but Percival ended up struggling (5.00+ ERA) in his first Detroit season (2004) before suffering an arm injury that kept him from throwing a pitch ever again in a Tiger uniform.
* Maybe Dombrowski’s second-smartest move was plucking Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins (along with ill-fated Dontrelle Willis) in December 2007, for six young players (including Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller), a deal in which he landed one of baseball’s greatest hitters for, essentially, chump change. (Though nobody really knew at the time that Maybin and especially Miller would prove more than useful down the road apiece.) The Tigers probably wouldn’t have won at least two of their division titles without Cabrera.
* Maybe his second-worst move was sending Doug Fister to the Nationals two years ago for what proved to be three spare parts that haven’t gotten anywhere near even the minimum value Fister provides. Signing Joe Nathan to close at the end of 2013 wasn’t that brilliant, either; Nathan might have nailed 35 saves in 2014 but his earned run average was more inflated than a Goodyear blimp and the already-messy Tiger bullpen suffered a huge blow when Nathan suffered a season-ending injury this year—after appearing in one game.
* Bagging Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson in the seven-player, three-team deal in 2009 was genius, especially since Scherzer and Jackson ended up giving the Tigers a lot more value than the other players involved gave their new teams in the long run. So why didn’t big-spending Ilitch want to spend enough to keep Scherzer in Detroit rather than let him walk, ultimately, to the Nats, where he’s helping to keep them in a delicious National League East race?
Dombrowski never really could or did build a consistent Tiger bullpen. You could, theoretically, lay a lot of the blame for the Tigers’ failure to win a World Series under his watch to that fact. After they got swept out of the 2012 World Series the Tigers did nothing to improve that shaky pen and watched Jose Valverde get a second chance to close, implode almost promptly, and go down to Toledo. Otherwise?
* Phil Coke looked deceptively deadly in October 2012 until the World Series exposed his wounding flaw—the big lefthander was the guy righthanded hitters couldn’t wait to see. Suited best to situational relief, Coke went from hero to mess almost overnight. No closing option there.
* The Tigers were desperate enough that men better suited as setup men got the closing role by default at one time or another. Do names like Drew Smyly, Joaquin Benoit, and Al Albuquerque sound familiar?
* In 2013, the Tigers flirted with ideas about bringing aboard either Tim Lincecum (who’d manhandled them in relief in the ’12 Series), Jonathan Papelbon (mired with the Phillies), or Huston Street (then with the Padres but in due course to be an Angel), but pulled none of those triggers.
It wasn’t Dombrowski’s fault that all the years of successful overwork would finally start catching up to Verlander, of course, but Dombrowski has also left behind about $480 million worth of long-term ties to Verlander, Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, and Ian Kinsler. That may have been one reason why he was willing to part with Fister and even Scherzer, not to mention unloading David Price to the Blue Jays and Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets last week.
And there’s also that little matter of helping the Rangers pay Prince Fielder, whom Dombrowski signed as a free agent but who was forced to be traded when, sadly, his marital troubles traced in considerable enough part to a suspected affair between the now-former Mrs. Fielder and a still-unnamed teammate of the time.
Dombrowski does, however, leave the Tigers in promising enough shape for 2016 and beyond. He got five good looking pitching prospects for Price and Cespedes, not to mention a promising shortstop in JaCoby Jones, whom Dombrowski picked out of the Pirates’ organisation in a trade for Joakim Soria. One of the pitchers, Daniel Norris, looked terrific in his Tiger debut; another, Matt Boyd, is expected to impress against the Royals today.
And Dombrowski may not be out of work for all that long. Bill Stoneman, once a longtime Angels GM, is doing the job in the interim following the putsch of Jerry Dipoto, but the Angels might have eyes for Dombrowski come season’s end. In Toronto, Paul Beeston (president/CEO) and Alex Anthopoulos (GM) are in the final years of their contracts, and it’s not impossible that the Blue Jays might like Dombrowski’s track record in their front office for 2016 and beyond.
But one of the most bristlingly successful eras of Detroit baseball is over, flaws and all. It’s hard not to mourn, even if you aren’t a Tiger fan.