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Trust in Dave Dombrowski

Questioning the Doug Fister trade? Doubting the Miguel Cabrera extension? Where Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski is concerned, faith should replace conventional wisdom.

Few cities have as rich a cultural and sporting history as Detroit. From the ’80s Pistons to Bob Seger, Eminem to Miguel Cabrera, the Motor City is a rich tapestry of compelling figures, unbelievable moments, and uniquely American ingenuity.

On April 17, ESPN will premiere 30 for 30: Bad Boys, a documentary about those unforgettable Pistons teams. To celebrate, Grantland will devote an entire week, from April 11 through April 18, to the various stories of this wholly original place.

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One of the most difficult things to do in baseball — right after “squarely hit a round ball with a round bat” — is to achieve a consensus. Baseball men rarely all agree, which is why, more than 40 years after the designated hitter was first instituted, one league uses the DH and one league doesn’t. Pick a topic — bunting, Pete Rose, Bull Durham vs. Major League — and you’ll find people lining up on both sides.

Once in a while, however, everyone will agree. It happened this winter, when every front-office type, journalist, and peanut vendor shared the same reaction at the same time: “The Tigers traded Doug Fister for what?” A few months later, the same choir sang a different chorus: “The Tigers gave Miguel Cabrera how much money?” If you judge a team’s moves by the industry’s reaction, you probably think the Tigers had the worst offseason in baseball.

If, however, you judge a team’s moves by the man who made them, you’ll resist drawing conclusions for now. On one side, we have the informed judgments of an entire industry; on the other, the track record of a single person. The safe answer is to trust in the wisdom of crowds. The right answer might be to trust in the wisdom of Dave Dombrowski.

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Dombrowski has missed out on the 21st-century trend of celebrifying general managers. Michael Lewis didn’t write a book about him. Dombrowski didn’t preside over the end of a century-long curse afflicting a rabid baseball nation. He didn’t stay with the same franchise for two decades and become the symbol of that organization’s perpetual success. Still, there’s a case to be made for ranking him with the likes of Billy Beane or Theo Epstein or John Schuerholz. Dombrowski is one of the most accomplished GMs of the past generation.

Dombrowski has missed out on the acclaim he deserves, in part because his first two stops on the GM track have now been almost completely forgotten. His first opportunity to run a ball club came with the Montreal Expos back in 1988, when he was 31 years old, making him one of the youngest GMs in modern baseball history to that point. In four years at the helm, he built the foundation for the legendary 1994 Expos team that might have won a championship but for the strike. When he left after the 1991 season, the organization was stuffed with talent, including Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Rondell White, Delino DeShields, Wil Cordero, Jeff Fassero, Kirk Rueter, and Mel Rojas.

Dombrowski left the Expos to take on the brand-new challenge of building the expansion Florida Marlins from scratch. The Marlins wouldn’t take the field until 1993, but they won the World Series in their fifth season, becoming the fastest expansion franchise ever to win a title.1 Dombrowski’s talent for player development shone through again: Despite being such a young franchise, the 1997 Marlins fielded homegrown stars at catcher (Charles Johnson) and shortstop (Edgar Renteria), and Cuban defector Livan Hernandez had become an instant sensation as a rookie.

Dombrowski’s knack for major league scouting, which has played such a role in his success in Detroit, manifested in Miami as well. The Marlins picked up a hard thrower with no command named Robb Nen for next to nothing, then molded him into an elite reliever. They got a converted shortstop named Trevor Hoffman in the expansion draft, then traded him for Gary Sheffield. They signed Kevin Brown as a free agent right before he turned into Kevin Brown. They signed Al Leiter, who had just come off the first good season of his career, and he proved it was not a fluke. And so on.

By all rights, after steering the Marlins to a world championship in their fifth season, Dombrowski should have received the recognition he was due as one of the game’s best GMs. But just as the strike tainted his legacy in Montreal, his legacy in Miami came undone through no fault of his own. Following the playoffs, Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga immediately ordered the franchise be stripped to the bone. The defending world champions resembled a Triple-A team in 1998, losing 108 games. It was an embarrassment to baseball, and it began the raze-and-rebuild cycle that makes the Marlins an embarrassment to this day.

Dombrowski wasn’t asked to turn lemons into lemonade; he was given chicken shit and told to fix up a chicken sandwich. And damned if he didn’t pull it off. Brown brought back a rookie named Derrek Lee; Leiter brought back a prospect named A.J. Burnett. The Marlins drafted Josh Beckett and signed a 16-year-old kid out of Venezuela named Miguel Cabrera. In 2003, the Marlins won another championship.

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Dombrowski wasn’t there to celebrate, having wisely elected to get off that roller coaster after the 2001 season2 to work for an owner in Detroit who actually seemed committed to building, and maintaining, a winner. The problem was that while Mike Ilitch gave Dombrowski the resources the GM needed, the job Dombrowski faced in Detroit made starting an expansion team from scratch look like child’s play.

The Tigers had endured eight losing seasons in a row, and they were getting worse. Despite high draft picks every year, their farm system ranked just 18th out of 30 on Baseball America’s list; it didn’t help that the Tigers had wasted a no. 1 overall pick on Matt Anderson in 1997 and a no. 3 overall pick on Eric Munson in 1999. The Tigers lost 106 games in 2002, then bottomed out in 2003, losing an American League–record 119 games.

Losing that many games is so outside the bounds of our normal baseball experience that it’s hard to appreciate just how horrible it is. Here’s one way to put it in perspective: 119 losses is as far from 100 losses as 100 losses is from a .500 record. The 2003 Tigers were twice as bad as a 100-loss team.

Three years later, they won the AL pennant.

A comprehensive review of how the Tigers turned a historic loser into the best team in the league in three years is outside the scope of this article. But suffice it to say, it was unprecedented. Since the beginning of the live ball era in 1920, here are the most-improved franchises within a three-year span:

 

Nearly as impressive as the turnaround Dombrowski engineered is that the Tigers have managed to sustain it. Detroit has posted just one losing season since 2006, and after missing the playoffs from 2007 to 2010 — including losing a heartbreaking Game 163 to the Minnesota Twins in 2009 — the Tigers have won the last three AL Central crowns and the 2012 pennant, and are the prohibitive favorites to win their division again this year.

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Getty Images

Dombrowski has won three pennants and a world championship, and his fingerprints were also all over the 2003 champions and 1994’s best team. His success alone should have earned him the benefit of the doubt when he made the moves he made this offseason. But what’s interesting about the Tigers’ accomplishments over the past decade, and the reason we should be doubly cautious before panning his moves, is that the Tigers are not built from within. Their success is not the product of signing and developing amateur talent; rather, their success is the product of identifying professional talent better than anyone else, and using that talent to rip off other teams in the process.

Take a look at the Tigers’ Opening Day roster. Justin Verlander, selected with the last of the top-five draft picks the Tigers had at the beginning of the century, is one of the best pitchers in baseball, but he’s also one of only nine players on the roster whom the organization originally signed. Four of those nine are backups: reserve outfielder Tyler Collins, utility player Don Kelly,3 backup catcher Bryan Holaday, and middle reliever Luke Putkonen. Two of the Tigers’ best homegrown players were top amateur prospects who dropped in the draft because of signability: The Tigers used their financial muscle to sign Rick Porcello to a $7 million major league contract and top prospect Nick Castellanos to a $3.5 million signing bonus. That leaves just two core players the Tigers didn’t lavish with the equivalent of top-10 pick money when Detroit originally signed them: Drew Smyly and Alex Avila. And in Avila’s case, they better damn well not have missed out on him: Avila’s father, Al, is the Tigers’ assistant GM.

The Tigers, truthfully, do not draft that well. They have yet to develop any star talent from Latin America under Dombrowski, but they win anyway because they have a knack for acquiring major league players at exactly the right time and getting rid of them at exactly the right time. It’s something to think about when considering why the Tigers traded away Fister.

Actually, here’s what to think about when considering why the Tigers traded away Fister: how they got him in the first place. At the 2011 trade deadline, the Tigers sent four players to the Mariners for Fister, who to that point was a finesse right-hander whose command enabled him to survive despite below-average stuff. Fister was never a top prospect — his career ERA in the minors was 4.34 — and in two-plus seasons with the Mariners, he had struck out just 13.8 percent of the batters he’d faced, a rate that leaves almost no margin for error. His ERA with the Mariners was 3.81 thanks to Safeco Field, but it was an open question whether he’d be anything more than a no. 5 starter once he left his spacious home park.

The Fister who got off the plane in Detroit was different from the one who got on the plane in Seattle. In 11 appearances the rest of that season, Fister posted a 1.79 ERA, with a remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 57-to-5, and he remained an above-average starting pitcher over the next two seasons. His strikeout rate as a Tiger was 19.3 percent, a full 40 percent higher than it was in Seattle, and his command didn’t suffer a bit. Inning for inning, Fister was roughly twice as valuable a Tiger as he was a Mariner in terms of bWAR.

And what about the four players the Tigers sent to Seattle? The best prospect in the deal, Francisco Martinez, was a third baseman who was hitting .282/.319/.405 in Double-A at the time of the trade, and was just 20 years old; he projected as a future everyday hitter in the majors. Two years later, his stock had fallen so far that the Mariners designated him for assignment, and the Tigers got him back for nothing. The extent of the Mariners’ return for Fister was Charlie Furbush and Casper Wells, a nice left-handed reliever and a useful fourth outfielder, but together not remotely worth the services of a really good no. 3 starter.

Dombrowski and his front office identified a player in Fister who was either poised to break out on his own or who could be coaxed to break out with a little tweaking. Just as important, they identified a player of their own in Martinez whom the industry fancied as a solid prospect but who the Tigers had determined was not going to live up to those expectations. It’s just as important for teams to scout and realistically evaluate their own players as it is for them to scout and evaluate the opponents’. By doing so, the Tigers bought low and sold high, and made out like bandits.

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There is no better example of the Tigers recognizing that their own prospects weren’t going to live up to the hype than the monster trade that reunited Dombrowski with Cabrera after the 2007 season. The Tigers weren’t buying low on Cabrera, who had yet to turn 25 but was already a four-time All-Star and had hit .327/.405/.564 over the previous three years. The Marlins were once again in fire sale mode, but they wanted, and deserved, a huge haul of prospects.

They got six players, including two recent top-10 overall picks in Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin. Miller, who could have gone no. 1 overall in the 2006 draft but fell to Detroit at no. 6, ranked 10th on Baseball America’s best prospects list the following spring. He had an erratic rookie season in 2007, but still looked like a potential ace in the making. Baseball America had ranked Maybin, the no. 10 overall pick in 2005, even higher, naming him the no. 6 prospect in baseball. He made his major league debut in September 2007 after hitting .316/.409/.523 in the minors that season.

So the Tigers got the best young hitter in the game, while the Marlins got two guys who had ranked among the game’s 10 best prospects earlier that year. Once again, however, the Tigers had figured out before the rest of the industry that their own prospects were overrated. Maybin, who’s now with the Padres, is an elite defensive center fielder, but he’s struggled to hit in the majors, posting a .248/.311/.370 career line, and he missed most of last season with an injury. Miller became one of baseball’s biggest busts, posting a 5.89 ERA with the Marlins before they dumped him; he’s trying to rebuild his career as a left-handed specialist with the Red Sox.

Again: The Tigers turned a light-hitting center fielder and a lefty reliever into Miguel Cabrera. They also got Dontrelle Willis in that deal, which backfired when Willis completely lost the strike zone after signing a three-year contract with the Tigers. But even so, the Tigers turned a bunch of back-of-the-roster players into one of the greatest hitters in major league history.

And that might not even be the most lopsided trade the Tigers have made under Dombrowski. Their rebuilding process got kick-started when, after the 2003 season, the Tigers traded Ramon Santiago to the Mariners for Carlos Guillen. Guillen was the Mariners’ starting shortstop, but was known more for his defense than his offense. His career high in batting average was .276; his career high in home runs was nine. In his first year in Detroit, he hit .318 with 20 homers, leading all major league shortstops with a .921 OPS. He would average .308/.377/.493 in his first five years with the Tigers, finishing his Detroit career with 18.7 bWAR.

Santiago, meanwhile, had 47 at-bats with the Mariners over the next two years before he was released … at which point the Tigers picked him back up, and he served as the team’s utility infielder for the next eight years.

Bum Phillips famously said of Don Shula, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.” Well, Dombrowski can trade his’n for your’n and win the trade, then take his’n back and win some more.

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Dombrowski’s success in Detroit hasn’t been limited to trades. On more than one occasion, the Tigers have made a free-agent signing that surprised the industry with its aggressiveness, and then turned out to be a bargain.

After the 2003 season, the Tigers signed Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million contract with one option year. The surprise wasn’t the money or the player — Rodriguez was still considered one of the best catchers in baseball — but that the Tigers, who had just lost 119 games, were spending that kind of money on a free agent instead of investing in their farm system. Jeff Luhnow certainly wouldn’t have approved. Well, Rodriguez hit .298/.328/.449 in five seasons with Detroit, and he was the starting catcher on their 2006 World Series team.

If Rodriguez’s contract surprised the industry, the contract the Tigers gave Magglio Ordonez floored it. Ordonez had missed the last four months of the 2005 season with a knee injury so severe that after the season, he went to Austria for a medical treatment that wasn’t even approved in America. There was considerable doubt around the game as to whether Ordonez would ever be able to play regularly again. The Tigers, undeterred, gave him a five-year, $75 million contract.4 Over those five years, Ordonez hit .320/.382/.495 while averaging 134 games a season; he finished second in the MVP race in 2007.

The Tigers have also masterfully used the tactic of trading for an impending free agent and then using those two months as a close-up evaluation period, facilitating an informed decision on whether to re-sign said player to a long-term contract after the season. In June 2005 they traded the out-of-control (in more ways than one) reliever Ugueth Urbina to Philadelphia for impending free agent Placido Polanco, then signed Polanco to a four-year extension before the season ended. Polanco hit .311/.355/.418 while playing a slick second base in five seasons with Detroit.

At the 2010 deadline, they gave up a minor league reliever who has yet to reach the majors for Jhonny Peralta, then re-signed Peralta to a mutually beneficial three-year contract. In 2012, they traded three young players, including former first-rounder Jacob Turner, for Omar Infante (who had one more year on his contract) and Anibal Sanchez. After the season they gave Sanchez, who was considered an underachiever because his excellent stuff had netted a pedestrian 3.75 career ERA, a five-year, $80 million contract. All Sanchez did last year was lead the AL with a 2.57 ERA.

Between the time Dombrowski was hired after the 2001 season and the end of the 2012 season, the Tigers made a total of 58 trades by my reckoning. I broke down the results of every trade using bWAR to evaluate how the players performed in the five seasons after the deal.5 This is a simplistic method that doesn’t take into account the exact contract status, years to free agency, salary, etc., of each player, but it works well enough to evaluate all those trades in the aggregate.

The takeaway: Dombrowski has crushed his trading partners overall, and he’s done so with amazing consistency. In every season but one, he acquired more talent than he traded away.

 

Overall, the Tigers have won their trades by a factor of more than 2-to-1 since Dombrowski was hired, for a surplus total of 104 wins over 11 years.6 That’s more than nine wins a year. Think about that: The Tigers have won roughly nine additional games every season under Dombrowski by using the trade market. Take away nine wins each year, and the Tigers would have posted a losing record over the last eight years, and would have made the playoffs just once, in 2011.

The only blemish on Dombrowski’s record came in 2007, when he made three bad trades in the span of three months. He traded Jack Hannahan (7.7 bWAR over the next five years) for Jason Perry (-0.5 bWAR) in August, and after the season traded Jair Jurrjens (10.7) and Gorkys Hernandez (-0.6) for Renteria (1.1), then swapped Infante (11.0) for Jacque Jones (-1.9). Incredibly, Dombrowski has made only one other truly bad trade during his entire Detroit tenure. Here’s a list of every significant trade on his ledger in which either side got at least 5 bWAR out of the deal over the five proceeding years:

 

The Tigers won 11 of these 15 trades, and their five best trades were all more lopsided than their worst trade. It’s even debatable whether two of the trades they “lost” should count against them. Cody Ross didn’t hit for another three years after the trade, having been dumped or waived by both the Dodgers and Reds in the interim; Hannahan is a defensive whiz at third base, but has never really hit. That leaves just two trades the Tigers really regret making in 12 years. Other than that, they hit home run after home run, and their surplus figures continue to grow over time. They acquired four of the best players — Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, and Cabrera — on the current roster in these trades.

There isn’t nearly as much Tigers data to analyze when it comes to high-profile free-agent signings, but the data we do have is equally strong. Prior to this offseason, the Tigers under Dombrowski had signed six free agents from other teams to contracts that guaranteed at least $15 million. Five of those contracts have provided an excellent return on investment: Ordonez, Rodriguez, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, and Joaquin Benoit.

The only free-agent signing the Tigers may regret is the nine-year, $214 million contract they gave Prince Fielder — the contract they agreed to eat $30 million of when they traded Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler this offseason. The Tigers will wind up paying $76 million for two years of Fielder, which is an ominous foreshadowing given the eight-year, $248 million extension they just tacked onto Cabrera’s existing contract. As with Fielder’s deal, however, Cabrera’s contract extension is considered less the handiwork of Dombrowski’s greater vision than a case of aging owner Ilitch being willing to dip into his fortune to fund a world championship while he’s still alive to enjoy it.

And if the Fielder and Cabrera deals fail to pan out, what of it? Fielder may not have been worth the money, but he cost the Tigers only dollars, not talent, and Ilitch has plenty of the former. Fielder was still a valuable player in his two years with the Tigers. Cabrera may not be worth anywhere close to $32 million when he’s 40 years old, but as one of the premier hitters of his generation, he’ll still probably be worth something.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual in Detroit, where the Tigers are in first place in the AL Central. Fister began the year on the DL with a strained lat muscle, while Robbie Ray, the prospect at whom the rest of the industry shrugged its shoulders but whom the Tigers saw as the key to the trade, allowed just one unearned run in five innings in his Triple-A debut.

There’s still plenty of time for that trade to go sour. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that when it comes to trades, fans, analysts, and other teams bet against Dave Dombrowski at their own peril. 

Illustration by Gluekit.

Filed Under: MLB, Detroit Week, Detroit Tigers, Dave Dombrowski, Miguel Cabrera, Doug Fister, Prince Fielder, Baseball Trades, General Managers, Rany Jazayerli

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Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli

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