If you paid attention to social media you would think Tiger President and GM Dave Dombrowski was a moron. David Aldridge of TBS actually called him “Dumkowski” on national TV during the ALDS. (Aldridge obviously needs to stick to covering the NBA, where his critique of tall men in shorts is more accurate).
The Tiger front office guru is not “Dumkowski,” he’s actually the chief architect of the three-time AL Central Division Champions. The Tigers are in their Golden Era, well-stocked with star players, and armed with a deep pitching staff. Dombrowski has crafted this team like a mechanic tunes a high-performance engine. His clever moves – nearly all of them working in Detroit’s favor in a huge way- have built a team that has reached baseball’s final four for three straight seasons, and captured two pennants in the last eight seasons, with a chance for another.
As the Tigers head into Game Three of their American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, let’s stop and take a peek at how they came to be.
November 2001: Dombrowski is brought in
A baseball rat, Dombrowski cut his teeth in the White Sox and Expos organizations, building a deep, talented farm system with the latter team. In ’97 his Marlins’ club stunned the baseball world by winning a World Series title in just their 5th season in the league. Just 45 years old, Dombrowski was lured to Detroit by owner Mike Ilitch, who told him he wanted one thing more than any other: to restore Tigers baseball to respectability and win a title. As he had with Montreal and Florida, in Detroit Dombrowski had to focus on player development first.
April 2002: GM Smith is chopped
Randy Smith was never Dombrowski’s man, and he wasted no time getting rid of him. Smith was the numbskull who traded for Brad Ausmus almost every year, drafted young prospects who never panned out, and watched his attendance plummet. He handed over a very dismal team to Dombrowski, but more importantly, the farm system was abysmal. The 119-loss season of 2003 is more Smith’s fault than DD’s. Six games into the ’02 season, Smith and manager Phil Garner were axed by their new boss. Dombrowski grabbed GM duties for himself.
February 2004: Pudge agrees to come to Motown
It seems like a lifetime ago, but 2003 was a nightmare in Detroit. The Tigers lost 119 games and were embarrassed as they did it. They were “major league” in name only, as the team on the field was mostly has-beens, castoffs, neverwasses, and never-gonna-bes. the average age of their starting rotation was 24, and three of them lost at least 17 games. In only one month did they even manage to win as many as 10 games, and they lost 17 of their first 18 and 25 of their first 28. It was a bizarro world reversal of the ’84 team’s great start. Only a three-game sweep in the final weekend saved the team from breaking the all-time loss record set by the Mets in 1962, an expansion team!
Despite all that horribleness, All-Star catcher Pudge Rodriguez wasn’t scared to become a Tiger. Dombrowski (aided by Ilitch) talked Rodriguez into taking a chance on Detroit, explaining that he would soon be joined by some young players and that Ilitch would open his pocketbook to attract more quality big leaguers. Three years later, Pudge’s faith paid off – he was in the World Series with the Tigers.
June 2004: Verlander drafted
In the 1990s, the Tigers had drafted every tall pitcher they could out of college and high school, but none of them ever amounted to squat. Dombrowski also focused on hurlers, but his judgment proved more astute. His first big catch was Verlander, a power arm out of Old Dominion University. Less than 24 months after being selected in the June draft in ’04, JV was in the Tigers regular rotation, and he started Game One of the ’06 Series. If there’s no Verlander, there’s no great ace to build a staff around. His importance cannot be overstated, he has given the Tigers a power arm and a marquee player who draws fans and wins games (clutch games – see Game Fives in Oakland).
October 2005: Trammell exits, Smoky is hired
This was an unpopular move at the time. Most fans, including this author, lambasted the Tigers for their mistreatment of Trammell. But it had to be done and it has proved to be the correct move. Trammell was, in some ways, used by the Tigers. He was asked to come in and be the face of a terrible team with no stars, at a time when the franchise was on the ropes. He did his duty, and he also tutored young players coming up through the ranks. But he wasn’t a polished big league manager, and his team started to drift away from him during the mess of 2003. Was it completely fair to Tram? Not really, but he also knew what he was getting into.
Leyland has had his detractors (I’ve been one of them), but one thing can’t be disputed – he’s won. His players love him, and the skipper epitomizes the working class city of Detroit. From his first season in Motown, when he guided the Tigers to the pennant, shocking almost everyone in baseball, through his three straight division titles, Leyland has been a steady hand at the helm.
December 2007: Miggy acquired from the Marlins in blockbuster
After a disappointing ’07 season, when the team tailed off in the second half, Dombrowski realized he needed to bolster his lineup and add big names. He made a splash when he nabbed a pair of All-Stars – Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis – from Florida. Cabrera is a favorite of Dombrowski, who drafted him as a teenager, and guided the slugger through the minor leagues and his first few years as a pro. Willis never panned out, of course, but Cabrera is one of the all-time greats. Only one of the four prospects the Tigers sent to the Marlins was still playing in 2013. It’s one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. Based on this deal alone, the city of Detroit should erect a statue in honor of the Tiger GM.
June 2008: Nepotism pays off
Assistant GM Alex Avila and Dombrowski have had a Earth/Moon type of professional relationship. The two were key architects of the Marlins’ World Series titles in ’97 and ’03 (even though both were gone from Florida for the latter triumph). In his current position as VP and Assistant to the GM, Avila has been a valuable contributor. In both 2005 and 2008, the Tigers drafted Al’s son Alex, even though he was not a big prospect either time. But the younger Avila has blossomed, earning one All-Star selection and solidifying the catcher position.
December 2009: Three-way deal nets Max & AJax
When it’s all said and done, this trade might be considered the best in Tigers history, for the fact that it has delivered so much to the team in so many ways. Not only did Detroit get a starting pitcher who has blossomed (rather quickly) into one of the best in the game (and probably the 2013 Cy Young winner), it also netted a young center fielder who’s fantastic with the glove and a (usually) productive leadoff man. Add in Phil Coke (tolerate him or hate him, he’s filled a role aptly in the bullpen for four seasons and counting), and this blockbuster tilts heavily in favor of the Tigs. In most trades if you get one good player who can contribute for a little while, you’ve won. But in this trade the Tigers received two All-Stars and a left-handed reliever. The price? Curtis Granderson, who has turned into an all-or-nothing slugger for the Yankees. Big win for Dombrowski and the Tigers, no telling how different things might be if this deal hadn’t been made.
November 2010: Veterans VMart, Benoit are inked
By this time it wasn’t too hard to lure free agents to Detroit, but snatching Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit away from other teams willing to pay as much or more, was a coup. The two are key contributors to the current Tigers, and both have been worth the investment.
July 2011: Fister snatched from the Mariners, Jonesy named pitching coach
Early in July of 2011, with the Tigers in a tug-o-war with the Indians for first place in the AL Central, Dombrowski decided to shuffle Leyland’s coaching staff. The decision came on the heels of two interleague series with the Mets and Giants in which Tiger pitchers allowed 54 runs in six games. Pitching coach Rick Knapp was shown the door, and Jeff Jones was named to replace him, vacating his role as the bullpen coach. Later that month, at the trade deadline, DD traded for Doug Fister, a 27-year old pitcher in his third big league season with the Mariners. Fister warmed to the notion of playing for a team in the playoff hunt, and he went 8-1 the rest of the way, playing a huge role in Detroit’s first division title in 24 years. To get Fister, the Tigers gave up a minor leaguer, Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush, and Chance Ruffin. None of them have been missed.
January 2012: Prince returns to Motown
In a shocking move, the Tigers flew Prince Fielder into Detroit and wooed him to the team after learning that Martinez would be lost for the entire season due to a severe knee injury. Fielder, who grew up in the clubhouse at Tiger Stadium at the knee of father Cecil, was more than happy to return to Motown for a princely sum of money. Though he hasn’t been a big game performer (yet), in Fielder’s first season, Miguel Cabrera, who hits in front of him, had his best year and won the triple crown. Just 29 years old in 2013, the durable Fielder promises to be a fixture in the Detroit lineup for several seasons.
July 2012: Another Marlin catch – Sanchez, Infante reeled in
A year after getting Fister to bolster the Tiger rotation, Dombrowski acquired right-hander Anibal Sanchez from the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline. This time he also got another big piece of the puzzle – second baseman Omar Infante, a former Tiger who filled a glaring hole in the middle of the diamond. Sanchez has good enough stuff to be an ace on most teams, but with Detroit he gives Leyland another deadly weapon from the mound.
February 2013: Hunter chooses the Old English D
It remains to be seen if Torii Hunter will finally get to the World Series with the Tigers, but it’s safe to say he’s been accepted by Detroit fans as one of their own. Not since Magglio Ordonez has a former rival been welcomed into the family like Torii the Tiger. His presence in the #2 spot in the lineup has helped the offense. He’s also a team leader who quickly asserted himself in the clubhouse.
July 2013: A shortstop is found to replace Peralta
Whether or not Avisail Garcia becomes a star with the White Sox, this trade will be seen as a positive for the Tigers for years to come. In just a few months on the scene as a Tiger, Jose Iglesias has already made plays in the field that have never been seen in these parts. He may never hit like Alan Trammell, but he might field like Ozzie Smith. Another gutsy and bold deal by Dombrowski, this time to shore up a leaky infield defense and replace the suspended Jhonny Peralta.