Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Architect of the 2006 Detroit Tigers

Joe Dumars gets all the credit in Detroit for taking a wretched excuse of a basketball team and molding it into championship-caliber material within a few years. While Dumars deserves all of the credit he has garnered, there is another General Manager in Detroit that has done every bit the job Dumars has done. Since I’m obviously not talking about Matt Millen or Ken Holland, I’m sure you’ve figured out that I’m talking about Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski. Those of you that have read this blog regularly know that I have been a fan of Dombrowski for quite some time. However, I think Dombrowski’s masterpiece has been lost on Tigers fans and the Detroit media as Tigers-Mania has gripped the town. Jim Leyland has received the bulk of the accolades thus far while Dombrowski continues to come up short in the respect department. I’d like to shed some light on how Dombrowski inherited a pile of bile (so to speak) in 2001 and molded that pile of bile into the best team in MLB by 2006. Considering Dombrowski did the nearly the same thing with the Florida Marlins in 1997, I doubt we’re dealing with a coincidence.

Dombrowski’s Welcoming Gift

To properly credit Dombrowski it is necessary to be reminded what he was given when he signed on to lead the Tigers in 2001. For years, former Tigers GM Randy Smith buried the organization under a pile of bad drafts, bad contracts and horrible player development. Luckily for Tigers fans, the difference between Dombrowski and Smith has been akin to the difference between Scarlett Johansson and Kelly Osbourne. Here is the list of everyday players from the 2001 season:

2001 Detroit Tigers

C Robert Fick
1B Tony Clark
2B Damion Easley
SS Deivi Cruz
3B Jose Macias
OF Bobby Higginson
OF Juan Encarnacion
OF Roger Cedeno
DH Dean Palmer

Team Batting Average: .260

Main reserves: Shane Halter, Randall Simon, Wendell Magee, Brandon Inge

SP Steve Sparks
SP Jeff Weaver
SP Chris Holt
SP Jose Lima
SP Dave Mlicki

RP Matt Anderson
RP Todd Jones
RP Danny Patterson
RP C.J. Nitkowski

Team ERA: 5.01

Click here to see the entire 2001 roster. This is not recommended for pregnant women, people with heart problems, or small children.

The Idiot’s Guide to Shrewd Moves 101

The only player on that list that still remains with the Tigers (other than Todd Jones who left and re-signed this season) is Brandon Inge. In five seasons, Dombrowski got rid of all everyday position players and pitchers. Through a number of shrewd moves, Dombrowski acquired young, talented players to fill the minor leagues. Those moves paid off as the Tigers had the best combined record of any minor league organization in baseball last season. Slowly, but surely, the players that he acquired either made their way through the minor leagues or took their lumps in the big leagues on bad teams. While the Tigers were piling up 100-loss seasons, a movement was underway. It’s just that most people were too focused on the losses to see it happening. Here are the transactions that Dombrowski has made since his arrival in 2001:

2-1-02 Claimed OF Craig Monroe off of waivers from the Texas Rangers

7-6-02 Traded P Jeff Weaver for P Jeremy Bonderman, 1B Carlos Pena, and RP Franklyn German

1-11-03 Traded P Mark Redman for P Nate Robertson, P Gary Knotts, and P Rob Henkel

12-8-03 Signed OF Marcus Thames

12-15-03 Drafted 1B Chris Shelton in the Rule-5 draft

1-8-04 Traded SS Ramon Santiago and SS Juan Gonzalez for SS Carlos Guillen

2-2-04 Signed C Pudge Rodriguez to a four year deal

1-6-05 Traded INF Anderson Hernandez for C Vance Wilson

2-7-05 Signed OF Magglio Ordonez to a five year deal

6-8-05 Traded RP Ugueth Urbina and INF Ramon Martinez for 2B Placido Polanco

12-8-05 Signed RP Todd Jones to a two year deal

12-12-05 Signed P Kenny Rogers to a two year deal

Dombrowski was maligned for the contracts he awarded Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez since both players were coming off injuries. Dombrowski was also criticized for trading Jeff Weaver in 2002 and signing Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers this past off-season. In five years of work, I can’t seem to find a single move that backfired for Dombrowski. The Tigers didn’t give up on any players that eventually made it big for another team. The Tigers were burned on the contracts given to Fernando Vina and Troy Percival but those were unexpected injuries. Dombrowski always cashed in his most valuable commodities when their values peaked (i.e. Mark Redman, Jeff Weaver, Kyle Farnsworth, Brian Moehler). He never let a player leave Detroit without getting value for him. Even more amazing, out of all the trades he has made since 2001, the Tigers didn’t give up even one player that is contributing meaningful numbers in MLB today. Urbina is in jail. Weaver was never the same after the trade to the Yankees. Redman’s best seasons in MLB were with the Tigers. The prospects that the Tigers gave up in the Guillen and Polanco trades never materialized. There is a common saying in sports that goes something like, “you have to give to get”. Presumably, what you give has to be worth something in order to receive value in return. In five years, Dombrowski has gotten without giving time and time again.

The Draft Guru

As excellent as Dombrowski has been in building a formidable Detroit Tigers ball-club and supplying depth to the minor leagues, his true impact won’t be felt for a another 2-3 years. Dombrowski has stockpiled the farm system with quality “arms”. He has a plethora of prospects in the minor leagues that have major league potential. Each draft brings in 5-6 new prospects that the Tigers expect to make an impact in the future. Before Dombrowski arrived, it would take 5-6 years for the Tigers to get 5-6 prospects through the draft. Here are just some of the names that the Tigers have accumulated through the MLB Draft since Dombrowski’s arrival:

Brent Clevlen drafted 2nd round of 2002 MLB draft

Curtis Granderson drafted 3rd round of 2002 MLB draft

Joel Zumaya drafted 11th round of 2002 MLB draft

Jordan Tata drafted 16th round of 2003 MLB draft

Justin Verlander drafted 1st round of 2004 MLB draft

Jeff Frazier drafted 3rd round of 2004 MLB draft

Nate Bumstead drafted 32nd round of 2004 MLB draft

Dallas Trahern drafted 34th round of 2004 MLB draft

Cameron Maybin drafted 1st round of 2005 MLB draft

Kevin Whelan drafted 4th round of 2005 MLB draft

Jeff Larish drafted 5th round of 2005 MLB draft

The Tigers own the 6th overall pick in next week’s 2006 MLB Draft which is quite a coup for a team with the best record in MLB.

Sorting Through the Rubbish

Like most things that he’s done well, Dombrowski has also failed to gain praise for his ability to recognize the Tigers that were worth keeping on the 2001 team. While orchestrating the mass exodus of virtually every Tigers player in the organization, Dombrowski managed to identify the only players that were worth keeping. Looking back on who he decided to keep and let go, I can’t see even one obvious mistake. The following players are just a few players that were in the farm system in 2001 that remain with the organization today: Fernando Rodney, Jamie Walker, Omar Infante, Brandon Inge, and Humberto Sanchez

Rodney is a premier set-up man. Walker is a situational-lefty with a miniscule ERA. Inge is a quality third basemen and one of the premier number nine hitters in MLB. Infante is proving to be a valuable commodity for Jim Leyland this season. After Verlander and Zumaya made the team out of Spring Training, Sanchez immediately became the Tigers top pitching prospect. He hasn’t disappointed. In nine games for Double AA Erie Sanchez is 5-2 with a 1.87 ERA. Even more amazing are his 68 strike-outs in 57.2 innings.

Know When to Say When

Another aspect that Dombrowski has thrived in is his ability to cut loose players that the Tigers had invested a lot of time and money into without any sort of return. While the temptation exists to milk the investment to the last possible drop, these players were “busts” that had run their course in Detroit. These ill-fated experiments included Matt Anderson, Carlos Pena, and Eric Munson. Each player has failed to succeed in other organizations while the Tigers replaced them with productive major leaguers.

The Quantum Leap

For the first time in decades, the Tigers have a legitimate shot at being the best team in MLB. Likewise, for the first time in decades, the Tigers are dealing from a position of strength. They have a potent roster from top to bottom. Every position is filled with a viable major leaguer. Come the July trade-deadline, the Tigers will now play the role that was customarily held by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Tigers can make a run at a superstar pitcher like Dontrelle Willis because the depth in the minor leagues allows it. Dombrowski could dangle Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan, and Jordan Tata in front of a re-building Florida Marlins team in an effort to acquire one of the most dominant left-handed pitchers in the game. We all saw how brilliant Dombrowski was without any leverage. Just imagine what he can do dealing from a position of power. I expect Dombrowski to explore all options come the trade deadline including making a run at a top-of-the-rotation starter. He did the dirty work for five years with little to no credit. Now, he gets to do the fun stuff.

Some People Wouldn’t Recognize Brilliance if it Hit Them in the Face and said, "Hello, my name is Brilliance. How are you?"

While Jim Leyland deserves some credit for the clubhouse atmosphere and his selection of a competent coaching staff, Dombrowski is the real hero. He hasn’t received anywhere close to the recognition as Leyland despite being the architect of the whole operation. In fact, one would think that his name is Dumb-rowski by the way he has been treated in the media. A few months ago, Rob Parker wrote an article in the Detroit News bashing Dombrowski. Apparently, Parker had forgotten the mess that was the 2001 Tigers organization. It’s almost humorous to read this now but it is somewhat consistent with how Dombrowski has been viewed in Detroit by fans and the media for the last five years. The knowledgeable Tigers fans could see what Dombrowski was doing from day one but those fans were few and far between. It takes time to revamp an entire organization from A-ball to the Major Leagues. Dombrowski fixed 15 years of neglect in just five seasons. More impressively, he pulled it off without 99% of the baseball world noticing.

As I mentioned earlier, Parker wasn’t the only writer who continually degraded Dombrowski’s efforts. Here is an excerpt by Pat Caputo while he was contributing to a write-up on the state of the Tigers’ farm system for Baseball America in 2004:

“While the Tigers made a comeback to moderate respectability at the major league level in 2004, improving from 43-119 to 72-90, the farm system may have hit a new low. Given the organization’s dismal track record in player development over the past quarter century, that’s quite a statement.”

Has there ever been a more clear case of a writer attempting to hit the Tigers while they were down? In the same article, Caputo lists the Tigers top-ten prospects as:

  1. Curtis Granderson, of
  2. Kyle Sleeth, rhp
  3. Justin Verlander, rhp
  4. Joel Zumaya, rhp
  5. Humberto Sanchez, rhp
  6. Tony Giarratano, ss
  7. Jeff Frazier, of
  8. Ryan Raburn, 2b
  9. Eric Beattie, rhp
  10. Eulogio de la Cruz, rhp
What a bunch of losers, eh? It’s not like all of these players unexpectedly succeeded. It’s just that it was easier to pile on to the criticism rather than wait three or four years to see the payoff. Dombrowski hired David Chadd as the new director of scouting in 2003 which was widely regarded as a heist from the Boston Red Sox. Dombrowski has one of the best assistant GM’s in the business in Al Aliva. He recently added money to the payroll for more scouting in Latin America. With the roster that was inherited in 2001 combined with the payroll limitations given by Owner Mike Illitch, I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job than what Dombrowski has done in Detroit. It’s inconceivable that the turnaround of the entire organization could’ve been done any faster. When Dombrowski finally gets the respect he deserves and is revered in Detroit as a mastermind, it should be remembered how much flack he endured while he was stuck with all of the dirty work. Eventually, writers like Parker and Caputo will have to eat crow or risk being institutionalized.

Every time a Tigers fan smiles after a victory, he/she should give credit where credit’s due. Dombrowski deserves the same status as Joe Dumars here in Detroit. Think of it this way; is it easier to overhaul a 12-man NBA roster, or an entire MLB organization including the minor league system and a 40-man major league roster?


BillionaireNaj said...

Well written article. It is much harder to build a quality baseball team than possibly any other pro sports franchise. The drafting is based heavily on potential and young players usually take some time to develop into major league stars. I agree that Dombrowski has done an excellent job of improving his major league squad while at the same time adding life to the farm system.

Anonymous said...

Parker and Caputo, of course, are idiots. Which enhances the point you make.

Anonymous said...

Good info here.

Anonymous said...

Nice read and well written.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best articles I've read about DD and the Tiger turnaround. GOOD JOB!!!


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