Yes, it would be nicer for Tigers fans if a title had been brought back home, but let’s assess Dombrowski on what he did in his entire tenure, shall we?
He took over in 2002 as team president. At the time Randy Smith was the GM and Phil Garner the manager. Dombrowski fired them early in the season and took over as GM. Those were some bad Tigers teams and they would only get worse — they’d lose 106 games in 2002 and 119 in 2003 and more than 90 each of the next two seasons — but he was building the team from the wreckage that Randy Smith had left. And it was some serious, serious wreckage.
By 2006 the Tigers, with manager Jim Leyland at the helm, were in the World Series. They got there via a number of Dombrowski moves and with the help of players Dombrowski developed. Veterans Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers came to Detroit. Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson were drafted and quickly rose through the system. Within the next few years he’d flip Granderson for Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson, develop Alex Avila, Rick Porcello and, in a move that will be at the top of his career accomplishments no matter what else he does, managed to trade for Miguel Cabrera in his prime. And he gave up very damn little for him. The winning that was teased by that 2006 pennant came to fruition with four straight division titles beginning in 2011, three straight ALCS appearances and another AL Pennant in 2012.
Could the run have been better? Of course. If Dombrowski had done a better job putting a bullpen together there may have been another pennant and perhaps a World Series title in Motown in the past four years. And, yes, one can question some of Dombrowski’s moves such as letting Max Scherzer go, Justin Verlander’s massive extension and trading Doug Fister. Any general manager has missteps, Dombrowski is no different.
But to look at Dombrowski’s tenure with the Tigers demands that one judge it positively. The entire organization was an utter disaster in the early 2000s and now, its slipping in 2015 notwithstanding, it is considered one of the best organizations in baseball. This is no accident. And for that Tigers fans can thank Dave Dombrowski.
Dave Dombrowski out as Tigers General Manager, team president; Al Avila takes over
“I’ve decided to release Dave from his contract in order to afford him the time to pursue other career opportunities.”
Which is another way to say that Dombrowski, whose contract was to expire after this season, was not going to be asked back. Taking over for Dombrowski is longtime assistant Al Avila, who will assume Dombrowski’s title of GM and will be Vice President of Baseball Operations. Avila is the father of Tigers catcher/1B Alex Avila.
Dombrowski helped build this Tigers team into a perennial contender, but with their fortunes souring this season and a recent sell-off of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, it was time to build. And building is not something Dombrowski has done a ton of in recent years.
And now a big job lays ahead for Al Avila. And big shoes to fill.
Tigers in Transition: The two weeks which changed everything
DETROIT — I came to Comerica Park with the idea that I’d write a story about how a team which has won consistently for several years maintains its momentum. I’d talk to some veterans and some coaches and some front office people and ask them the difference between winning when everyone is young and enthusiastic and winning when everyone is older and has been there and done that and now needs to find ways to stay fresh. Teams rise, win, then lose, then fall, and you hear an awful lot about the rise and the fall. You don’t tend to hear, however, all that much about that time in the middle when they’re simply keeping the momentum going. It seemed like something worth writing about.
And, at the time, heading into the July 4th weekend series against the Blue Jays, it was something the Tigers were more than eager to talk about. Particularly about how they have always been good at integrating new players into their core of established veterans and keeping their winning ways going. It’s a team that always shoots for first place and, if anything, makes some little tweaks over the course of the season. Consistency and continuity is the name of the game. Since 2011 they have won four straight AL Central titles, one AL pennant and have made three appearances in the ALCS.
“We know we have a good ballclub but we’re uniquely kind of relaxed. Happy. Good clubhouse, good atmosphere. You don’t let all of the outside noise creep in and let its way into what we have going on here,” starting pitcher Justin Verlander said. “The main thing since we’ve been on this run is the mix of veterans and young guys. We don’t have anyone on this team that’s a prima donna or who won’t say ‘hi’ or won’t talk to the young guys,” Verlander told me. “Everyone is kind of easy to approach or will take someone under their wing or whatever. It’s pretty easy for guys to slide in and quickly figure it out.”
Bench coach Gene Lamont echoed that sentiment, saying that “Dave [Dombrowski] has always brought guys in,” and that there has never been a problem keeping a good winning clubhouse chemistry going. “It’s easy when everyone wants to win and we’ve always had players who want to win,” Lamont said.
Tigers Legend Al Kaline, a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski but present in the Tigers clubhouse far more than your typical special assistant usually is, agrees that the current Tigers are particularly good at seamlessly integrating new pieces to the machine and keeping things running.
“When I was playing, young players weren’t particularly welcomed by the older players. Today the veteran players take these kids under their wing, take ’em out to dinner, buy ’em clothes. Spend time with ’em. Back when I played they pretty much ignored you and figured you didn’t belong here if you were young. Until you won your stripes. It’s harder to play right now but it’s easier to be here.” He singled out Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez as two guys who have helped keep the clubhouse happy and cohesive and who makes sure everyone keeps their head screwed on straight.
But happy is not enough. Winning is the bottom line. Of that Kaline said “We’re a good team. We’re gonna be competitive all year long. I think we can still contend in the Central.”
In late June and the first few days of July it was hard to disagree with Kaline’s sentiment. No, the Tigers were not in first place, but they hovered between four and six games back of the Royals. We’ve seen this sort of thing from them before. In 2014 they were three games back in late August. They were six games back in June of 2012 and still trailed by four and a half as late as July 7, but again won the division. They’ve rarely been a perfect team, but they have the best hitter in baseball and you can never go more than a couple of days without having to face one of their former Cy Young winners. The Tigers have always had another gear.
On the Friday night of my first weekend trip, however, Miguel Cabrera was on first base and then broke for second base on an attempted hit-and-run. He pulled up lame and was eventually diagnosed with a Grade 3 calf strain. He’d be placed on the disabled list the next day and is not expected back until late August at the earliest.
Cabrera’s prognosis was announced on the morning of July 4, before a daytime tilt with the Blue Jays. And, that morning, everyone seemed pretty relaxed. Despite losing Cabrera, the Tigers won the game the night before.
Manager Brad Ausmus was certainly not pleased to lose the man he called “the best hitter on the planet,” but he was pretty zen about it all, saying “We still have a very good offense, with names like Cespedes, and [J.D.] Martinez and [Victor] Martinez. And we’re going to need some contributions from other places as well. It doesn’t have to be one person that steps up. It can be a number of people that step up over the course of this timeframe.”
Justin Verlander has more time in with this club than Ausmus does and he, for one, was not panicking.
“You can either look at it negatively or positively. And I think this is a positive clubhouse,” Verlander said. It’s time for everyone to step up . . . If the veterans aren’t panicking the young guys aren’t.”
Catcher Alex Avila said “I don’t think anyone is going to feel sorry for us . . . I’m not giving up in here, and if there’s anyone else giving up in here you can pack your bags and leave. With him going down, it hurts us, but there’s still a lot of good players on this team. We’ve got to keep it there for when he gets back and make a run at this.”
Those sentiments were expected. But wouldn’t the Cabrera injury be an awful lot to overcome? Wouldn’t this team, with its porous bullpen and depleted starting rotation be well-served to use the Cabrera injury as a pretext for a restructuring? Maybe not a wholesale rebuild, but might it be worth punting 2015, trading the players who were likely to leave via free agency after the season, and going back at the Central with a healthy Cabrera in 2016?
At the time I asked several Tigers officials, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, about that possibility. One said “Dombrowski is a buyer. He’s never been a seller.” Two made mention of the fact that owner Mike Illitch is 85-years-old (he turned 86 yesterday) and that given his age and the amount of money he has poured into the team, the notion of tearing things down was just not a thing anyone discusses. When I asked them to tell me what they’d do as the GM right now, especially given that the Tiger’s farm system is mostly barren of desirable, projectable talent, I was given variations on NBA-style trades in which good players were acquired via the acquisition of bad contracts. One suggested getting Jonathan Papelbon. Another thought that the Reds may be willing to trade Aroldis Chapman if the Tigers took on Jay Bruce.
Since that morning the Tigers are 6-7. The division-leading Royals are 10-4. The second place Twins are 8-4. Even the Indians and White Sox have gained ground on the Tigers, who now find themselves nine and a half games out of first place. The mood among the fan base has changed as has the front office’s idea of how to proceed for the rest of the season.
“Blow it up. We gotta blow it up and start over,” said one Tigers fan I spoke to when I returned to Comerica this past weekend. “We’re old. We’re hurt. Verlander is lost. The pen sucks. We’re not going to sign David Price. We need to trade everyone and start all over.” This came after Friday night’s 7-3 win over the Orioles. As the weekend wore on, the sentiment of fans and team officials I spoke to, and even that of some players, turned even more sharply negative.
On Saturday night the Tigers got a strong performance from David Price. Chris Tillman, however combined to toss a one-hitter. The crowd was never into it and, by the time Price was gone and the pen had given up two runs, there were scattered boos throughout Comerica Park. One of those pro-buying team officials I had spoken to previously — who is not in baseball operations, it should be noted — was now all about a fire sale. “Price has one foot out the door. Soria too. Maybe you let them walk and get draft picks, but you could get real talent for them now. Cespedes too.”
Sunday was worse. Justin Verlander took the hill and didn’t survive the fourth inning, surrendering seven runs on eight hard hit balls. Getting shelled is something he’s been doing a lot lately — more on him tomorrow — and Tigers fans are all but resigned to it. Ian Kinsler was ejected by the home plate umpire for throwing his bat in frustration. Third baseman Nick Castellanos took a grounder to the face that, somehow, also injured his finger. It was an ugly, ugly game and those scattered boos from Saturday night turned into widespread boos on Sunday. “I don’t think booing is the way to help,” Verlander said after the game. “I think cheering would be more beneficial than booing, but we’re frustrated, too. We don’t want to be in this position.”
Late in the game I looked up from where I was sitting and saw this:
It was a car fire in a nearby parking lot. I tweeted the picture out and was met with dozens of replies from Tigers fans, all of whom rushed to joke about how it was really a picture of the dumpster fire that was the Tigers bullpen. Or the tire fire that was Verlander’s approach to hitters with his diminished velocity. Or a symbol of what the Tigers’ 2015 season has become.
The man in charge, Dave Dombrowski said nothing at all that weekend. I requested a chance to speak with him or someone else in baseball operations on Sunday, but was politely, and perhaps understandably, invited to interview him or an assistant by phone sometime later this week. Seems they’re quite busy at the moment, with a report out now that he is planning on punting on 2015 and trading multiple veterans, including David Price and Yoenis Cespedes. You have to figure Soria is on the block as well. Officially Dombrowski said that plans have not yet been finalized, but he didn’t deny the report either. In the past two weeks the conversation has turned away from integrating new pieces into the core of veterans and keeping the Tigers mini-dynasty alive and, instead, breaking things up and, if not rebuilding, certainly retrenching.
The question I had in my mind as I drove up to Detroit two weeks ago was “how do you keep a dynasty alive?” The answer, it seems, is “you don’t.”
The Tigers have made the playoffs in each of the last four years. They came into 2015 as a somewhat diminished team, but many nonetheless expected them to once again win the AL Central or, at the very least, remain relevant in that conversation.
As of now, however, they are a full nine games behind the Kansas City Royals in the division. They are only three and a half back in the Wild Card race, but there are three teams ahead of them, another team tied with them and another four teams within two games of them on the backside. And the worst part about it, Detroit looks to be in worse shape than any of them heading into the second half.
The biggest reason for that is obvious: Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the best hitter in the game, is on the shelf with a Grade 3 strain of his calf muscle. That will keep him out of action until at least mid-August, and likely a bit later than that. Losing a guy hitting .350/.456/.578 for weeks on end is going to hurt anyone, but there is perhaps no other team who relies on one guy as much as the Tigers rely on Cabrera.
The rotation is also kind of a mess, as only All-Star David Price has posted a better-than-league average ERA on the year. The back end of the rotation has been horrific lately, with Alfredo Simon posting a 11.12 ERA in his last five starts, Shane Greene has posted a 12.57 over that time and Justin Verlander, finally back from the DL, has been getting beaten around on the regular.
Because there may be children reading this we will not speak of the bullpen, as they need not be exposed to such obscenity.
So what can the Tigers do? And, more importantly, what will they do?
If you were looking at this objectively, you’d probably think that it’s time to rebuild or, at the very least, re-jigger with the hope of competing anew next year or the year after. How to do that? Think hard about shopping David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, Joakim Soria, Alex Avila, and Alfredo Simon, all of whom are in their walk years. Price may be nice to keep around but he’s going to be super expensive on the market this winter. The rest could all bring in some much needed young talent to place around Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler young catcher James McCann and an aging yet still effective Victor Martinez. It’s not ideal — questionable trades and free agent decisions have decimated a once-dominant rotation — but getting something for these guys rather than nothing seems to make a heck of a lot of sense given where the Tigers are right now.
Except that scenario is highly unlikely given what we’ve seen from the Tigers front office in the past and given what they’ve been saying publicly. Owner Mike Illitch is 85-years-old and has plowed money into this team. Nothing about his approach or what people close to the Tigers say about his expectations suggests that he’s interested in a rebuild. GM Dave Dombrowski is likewise an historical buyer, not a seller, and nothing he or people close to him have said anything to suggest he’s approaching this trade deadline any differently.
But what is available for him to buy? And what does he, with his nearly barren farm system, have to sell? Not much, frankly, so if he is buying, it would likely involve taking on some bad contracts and accepting second-tier trade fodder. That doesn’t seem like a difference-making proposition in a longshot battle for the division title and a chaotic Wild Card race.
What it does seem like, however, is a futile gesture. The Tigers are old, they’re hurt and they’re expensive. If nothing changes in the second half, they’ll also be on the outside looking in come playoff time for the first time in years. And, perhaps, they’ll be facing a future like that of the Cincinnati Reds or — perish the thought — the Philadelphia Phillies. Teams which didn’t rebuild aggressively when it became clear they were about to fall short. And which now face a long time in the wilderness.
Video: Alex Avila falls into stands to make excellent catch
Miguel Cabrera is going to be missed while he’s out with a Grade 3 strain of his left calf, but the Tigers are getting by just fine so far this afternoon against the Blue Jays. Check out this excellent catch from Alex Avila, who is getting the first shot at filling in for Cabrera at first base:
Great stuff, but given Avila’s knee problems, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus probably had to hold his breath for a second there.