Grading the Detroit Tigers’ Trades During the Dombrowski Era

The recent trade of second baseman Scott Sizemore has focused the spotlight on Tiger General Manager Dave Dombrowski. Some think the team gave up on Sizemore too soon. The youngster has good numbers at the AAA level, and could blossom into a solid major league hitter. Others had grown tired of waiting for Sizemore to translate those minor league numbers to the big league level. “We’re not in a developing phase,” Dombrowski said. “We can’t afford to wait.”

Since his arrival in Detroit in 2002, Dombrowski has turned the franchise around in many respects. Detroit had suffered eight straight losing seasons when he arrived, and after a 100-loss season in ’02 and an embarrassing 119-loss campaign in ’03, Dombrowski flushed much of the dead weight out of the organization. Understandably, it took a few years to stock the pipeline with good players. With a fondness for pitchers (especially tall hard-throwers), Dombrowski quickly had a stable of hurlers in his organization. In 2006 the club went to the World Series in manager Jim Leyland’s first season at the helm.

Since then, despite playing in one of the weaker divisions in baseball, Detroit has failed to get back to the post-season, blowing leads twice, once in 2009 on the final day of the season.

Dombrowski has earned a reputation as one of the brightest GM’s in the game, a keen evaluator of talent. Frequently he’s used his young players as bait to acquire established major leaguers to bolster his roster. Here’s a look at the bigger deals of the Dombrowski Era in Detroit.

Jeff Weaver for Carlos Pena, Jeremy Bonderman
In Dombrowski’s first season in Detroit, he pulled the trigger on a controversial deal that sent the Tiger ace to the hated Yankees. As part of a three-team trade, the Tigers traded Jeff Weaver to New York, in return they received pitcher Franklyn German and first baseman Carlos Pena from the Oakland Athletics. In addition, the Yanks sent two minor leaguers and Ted Lilly to Oakland. About a month later, the Athletics sent Jeremy Bonderman to the Detroit Tigers to complete the trade.

At the time there was an outcry because Weaver was the best pitcher on a terrible Detroit staff. But Dombrowski correctly predicted that Weaver would never mature into a true ace. The volatile Weaver imploded under the spotlight in New York and pitched for six teams in six seasons.

Pena turned into a decent option for the Tigers at first base for a few seasons, though he ended up having bigger seasons later with Tampa after Dombrowski released him in 2006. It was Bonderman who won this trade for Dombrowski and the Tigers. Just 19 years old when Detroit acquired him, Bonderman had a gifted arm. At the age of 20 he was in the Tiger rotation, learning on the job. In 2006 he won 14 games and was instrumental in helping the team to the World Series. He stifled the Yankees in Game Four of the ALDS that post-season. In all, Bonderman won 67 games for the club in eight seasons.

Grade: B+

Carlos Guillen for Ramon Santiago and a Minor Leaguer
When Dombrowski got him from Seattle in this deal before the 2004 season, Guillen’s career line in BA/SLG/OBP was 264/383/335 – hardly spectacular even fro a shortstop. Since coming to Detroit, the switch-hitting Guillen has put up 299/480/369. Without Guillen there would have been no pennant in 2006, and though he’s battled injuries (especially the last two seasons), this was a big steal. The Tigers even got Santiago back a few years later, too.

Grade: A+

Placido Polanco from the Phillies for Ugueth Urbina
On June 8, 2005 the Tigers traded Ramon Martinez and Ugueth Urbina to the Phillies for veteran second baseman Placido Polanco. One of the best gloves at the position, Polanco wasn’t expected to provide too much offensively, but he did anyway. He hit .338 after being acquired that season, and two years later he hit .341, the highest mark by a Tiger second baseman since Charlie Gehringer. Unfortunately, Dombrowski let Polanco go via free agency in 2010, a decision the club is still trying to recover from. But the deal to get him was genius. Urbina was one of the most despicable people to ever wear a Detroit uniform, and we’ll leave it at that.

Grade: A+

Gary Sheffield for Kevin Whelan, Anthony Claggett and Humberto Sanchez
Following the Tigers surprising trek to the 2006 World Series, Dombrowski made a splash when he nabbed Sheffield from the Yankees for two of his best minor league pitching prospects. Like the Sizemore deal, there was some outcry, some feeling that the Tiger GM had given up too much to get Sheffield. The deal turned out just fine. Sheffield hit 44 homers in two seasons with the Tigers, even providing some (gasp!) leadership. Claggett and Sanchez have pitched five games total in the big leagues, and Whelan has yet to reach the majors.

Grade: B+

Jair Jurrjens to the Braves for Edgar Renteria
After the Tigers failed to make it back to the post-season in 2007, Dombrowski wanted to bolster the left side of the infield. By acquiring Renteria, Detroit could slide Guillen to third base. Renteria was coming off one of his best seasons, having hit .332 in 2007 for Atlanta. But the Braves did to Dombrowski what he typically had done to other clubs: dealt a player at the apex of his value. Renteria spent one mediocre season in a Tiger uniform.

In Jurrjens the Braves got one of the best pitchers in the Tiger organization. The right-hander won 13 games for the Braves in 2008, 14 in 2009, and in 2011, still just 25 years old, Jurrjens is one of the best starters in the National League, with a 6-1 record and a league-best 1.56 ERA through Memorial Day.

Grade: D-

Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis for Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and others
As bad as the deal for Renteria turned out to be, Dombrowski has made up for it with this trade that also occurred late in 2007. On December 4, the Tigs traded Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio de la Cruz, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and Mike Rabelo to the Florida Marlins. In return they got slugger Miguel Cabrera and left-handed starter Dontrelle Willis. With the exception of Rabelo, this was a prospects-for-stars trade. Willis and Cabrera immediately gave the Tigers talent at two positions. Though D-Train never panned out (two victories and a 6.86 ERA in three seasons), this deal will still go down as one of the best in Tiger history.

Cabrera has been everything he was advertised to be. And since he was just 24 when Dombrowski snatched him from the Fish, he’ll be paying dividends for years. He signed a long-term, megabucks deal in 2009. The big gun in the middle of the Detroit lineup, Cabrera has finished fourth and second in AL MVP voting already in his three seasons in Motown.

A former #1 draft pick, Maybin was touted as the center fielder of the future, but he’s yet to hit more than .250 in the big leagues. He’s now in San Diego trying to fulfull his promise, but there’s little evidence that he’ll ever be an All-Star caliber player. Also a #1 draft pick, Miller is a tall lefty that Dombrowski usually covets. But he parted with him for the chance to get Cabrera. In three years with Florida, Miller went 10-20 before being traded to the Red Sox. He’s now at AAA in the Boston organization.

Grade: A+

Matt to the Rays for Edwin Jackson
In December of 2008, Dombrowski sent Joyce to Tampa Bay for right-handed pitcher Jackson. Showing how astute Dombrowski’s pitching is, Jackson had a career year for Detroit in 2009: 13-9 with a 3.62 ERA. The next year he was included in the Curtis Granderson deal and was sent to Arizona, where he pitched a no-hitter.

Joyce has finally matured early here in 2011, leading the league in hitting. At 26, Joyce is at the age where he is probably making a big jump toward his real value as a big league hitter. Though Dombrowski used Jackson in part to make the deal below, this trade is still a bad one on his record.

Grade: D+

Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth for Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson
In December 2009, almost exactly one year after acquiring Jackson, Dombrowski included him in this blockbuster that shook up the Tiger roster. Granderson was one of the most beloved Tigers in years, so this trade was unpopular with Tiger faithful, to say the least. Now, nearly two seasons after the deal it’s becoming easier to grade this trade. Once again, Dombrowski seems to have been a keen judge of pitching talent.

Scherzer has established himself as the true #2 on the staff behind Justin Verlander. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last two months of 2010, and started 2011 with a 6-0 mark. Jackson had a great rookie season in 2010, finishing second in ROY voting. Except for the power numbers, which will come as he matures, Jackson is almost a carbon copy of Granderson, who would have demanded much more money as a free agent in Detroit anyway. Coke is in the Detroit rotation and Schlereth is in the bullpen. Both have good arms and seem that they’ll be serviceable for many more years if needed.

We’ll need a couple more seasons to see how Jackson, Scherzer, and Coke work out, but so far this trade has been a good one for Detroit. Dombrowski deserves credit for having the guts to make a deal that involved Granderson, who will surely go on to have several good seasons too. But in getting at least one solid starting pitcher and a center fielder in the deal, and possibly another good starter too, Dombrowski made a solid move here.

Grade: B

Jhonny Peralta for a Minor Leaguer
Where would Detroit be in 2011 without this trade? So far, Peralta has been the most reliable offensive force in the Tiger lineup outside of Cabrera and Victor Martinez. When Dombrowski traded minor leaguer Giovanni Soto to the Cleveland Indians last July for Peralta, it was in an effort to at least temporarily solve a problem at shortstop. Peralta has proved up to the task, so well in fact that he was invited back for 2011. Soto is just 20 years old, so he could make an impact still at the big league level, but he’s already in his third organization and isn’t considered a top prospect.

Grade: B

In nearly ten seasons as GM, Dombrowski has made nine major trades, with seven of them working out in the Tigers favor. Many of them overwhelmingly. Dombrowski may be open for scrutiny in other areas: personnel moves and free agency signings (or non-signings as in Polanco), but his record as a trade-maker is quite accomplished.

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