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Let’s examine the Dombrowski moves: Detroit edition

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He’s been polarizing, but let’s take a deeper look at what he’s done and why he’s done it

Detroit Tigers Workout Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The reaction to Dave Dombrowski was swift. Those in favor of it lined up on one side and those not in favor were on the other side. It was difficult to find a middle ground that didn’t involve a “wait and see” approach thanks to the statements of no spending by the owner. What we’re going to do is look at the side of the coin that was against the move because of Dombrowski’s reputation as “organization ruiner”.

During his tenure in Detroit and Boston, Dombrowski earned a reputation of going for broke, the future of the roster be damned. He would trade all of his best prospects in order to make sure that the team on the field is winning and getting close enough to the World Series that all that was needed was a break here or there. In Detroit, those breaks never came, but he was able to deliver in Boston. Were there trades that mortgaged the future in order to win in the present? Of course. Any team that does make a trade is going to have to sacrifice a player that could help them in the future in order to get something to help them win in the present.

Examining it closer and it seems that Dombrowski was a little more astute than simply giving away assets that would come back to bite the team. Corey Seidman on Friday took a look at the major trades that would count on the positive side of Dombrowski’s ledger, the ones that would help his team immensely. They’re also the ones that loomed the largest over his organization. Instead of using anecdotal evidence (“It got them to the ALCS!”), let’s look at it through the lens of WAR added and subtracted in terms of how the player(s) performed while in Detroit/Boston and how the players leaving performed in the immediate aftermath with the team acquiring their services. It’s not the most accurate way of determining who wins and loses trades since we’re not going to get into the butterfly effect of what happened to the players years down the road, but it is a quick and dirty way to determine the “winners and losers” of trades.

Today, we’ll start with what he did in Detroit, then we’ll look at his Boston tenure:

Trades:

When you saw the reaction to Dombrowski’s hiring in Philadelphia, the words “gutting the farm system” came up.

A lot.

Justified or not, there is no doubt that using the farm system as a means of acquiring players at the big league level is an M.O. for Dombrowski, something that isn’t exactly wrong as long as it is done smartly and in conjunction with maintaining what is left on the farm. With that in mind, here are the bigger deals he did while in Detroit, the ones that had the most impact, positively and negatively.

Major trades in Detroit

Team and Date Players In Incoming WAR Players Out Outgoing WAR
Team and Date Players In Incoming WAR Players Out Outgoing WAR
Cincinnati (12/11/2001) Dmitri Young 6.8 Juan Encarnacion, Luis Pineda 1.8
New York/Oakland (7/5/2002) Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Pena, Franklyn German 9.7 Jeff Weaver 10.2
Seattle (1/8/2004) Carlos Guillen 18.6 Ramon Santiago, Juan Gonzalez -0.3
Chicago (2/5/2005) Kyle Farnsworth 1.2 Bo Flowers, Scott Moore, Roberto Novoa 0.0
Philadelphia (6/8/2005) Placido Polanco 19.2 Ugueth Urbina, Ramon Santiago 0.1
Pittsburgh (7/31/2006) Sean Casey -0.1 Brian Rogers -0.3
New York (11/10/2006) Gary Sheffield 2.8 Anthony Clagget, Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan 0.0
Florida (12/4/2007) Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis 50.2 Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, Frankie de la Cruz, Mike Rabelo 0.9
Texas (2/5/2008) Armando Galaragga 4.6 Mike Hernandez 0.0
New York/Arizona (12/8/2009) Phil Coke, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth 42.9 Curtis Granderson, Edwin Jackson 15.0
Cleveland (7/31/2010) Jhonny Peralta 8.7 Geovanni Soto 0.2
Seattle (7/30/2011) Doug Fister, David Pauley 9.5 Charlie Furbush, Casper Wells, Francisco Martinez 3.1
Minnesota (8/15/2011) Delmon Young -0.6 Lester Oliveros, Cole Nelson 0.0
Miami (7/23/2012) Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante 11.6 Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn -1.2
Chicago/Boston (7/30/2013) Jose Iglesias 7.8 Avisail Garcia, Brayan Villarreal 6.3
Texas (11/20/2013) Ian Kinsler 18.2 Prince Fielder 0.1
Washington (12/2/2013) Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi -1.9 Doug Fister 4.5
Texas (7/23/2014) Joakim Soria 0.9 Corey Knebel, Jake Thompson 0.0
Seattle/Tampa Bay (7/31/2014) David Price 5.4 Austin Jackson, Willy Adames 8.9
Arizona/New York (12/5/2014) Shane Greene 1.6 Domingo Leyba, Robbie Ray 9.6
Boston (12/11/2014) Yoenis Cespedes, Gabe Speier, Alex Wilson 9.5 Rick Porcello 9.1
Cincinnati (12/11/2014) Alfredo Simon -0.4 Eugenio Suarez, Jonathan Crawford 14.7
Toronto (7/31/2015) Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd, Jairo Loubert 12.9 David Price 2.6
Pittsburgh (7/30/2015) JaCoby Jones 2.2 Joakim Soria 0.7
New York (7/31/2015) Luis Cessa, Michael Fulmer 9.1 Yoenis Cespedes 7.7
Totals 250.4 93.7

Well, he’s active. There’s no denying that.

But it’s very easy to see that there is a lot more on the incoming WAR side than there is on the outgoing. Now, it’s easy to see that the bulk of that comes from acquiring a future Hall of Famer in Cabrera that was just entering his prime and getting some of the best years of Max Scherzer’s career, but you can’t just eliminate those two. They were the primary targets that Dombrowski was trying to acquire, so they, and their accompanying WAR totals count. Even taking Cabrera’s Hall of Fame worthy WAR total out of the equation, there is still an imbalance to what Dombrowski was bringing in with his organizations than what he sent out. Even one of the ones that looks rough, trading for Delmon Young, gets better when you add the context that in 2012, Young was named the MVP of the ALCS. All in all, I see an MVP award and Cy Young award coming to Detroit and not much else going away.

We can also look at what was sent out and come to a pretty easy conclusion that he hasn’t yet been bitten by that one player, the proverbial “one who got away”. Avisail Garcia and Eugenio Suarez are looking like the biggest ones that perhaps the Tigers wished they could’ve kept, but at this point, they wouldn’t have even contributed to the rebuild the Tigers have entered. So, there doesn’t really seem to be any reason Tigers fans should’ve been mad for trading away the farm. It’s pretty apparent that no one really hurt the franchise.

Free Agents:

Now, let’s look at the other side of player transactions, the dipping of toes into free agency.

This is where Dombrowski has received the lion’s share of his criticisms. He spends too much money for too long a time on players that are too old. That’s fair, but let’s look at a lot of these signings. These are some of the more noteworthy signings made during his tenure in Detroit and Boston.

2004 - Ivan Rodriguez, Ugueth Urbina
2005 - Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones
2010 - Jose Valverde, Jhonny Peralta, Magglio Ordonez
2011 - Victor Martinez
2012 - Prince Fielder
2013 - Torii Hunter
2014 - Joe Nathan

These are solid moves that continued to help the team. If there is one theme that runs through all of them, it’s age. Most of the players here were at the very end of their prime or just past it. They gave the teams they played on a year or two that was worth it, but the end of the deals were disasters. Towards the end of his tenure in Detroit, it was clear that he was doing everything he could to win a championship for owner Mike Ilitch which, while noble, turned into a foolish choice as signings like Hunter and Fielder hurt them.

The one that sticks out the most is the Prince Fielder deal. He did have a top three finish in MVP voting, but everyone at the time knew that his body type wasn’t going to allow him to finish that contract strongly. Eventually, he needed neck surgery that forced his retirement from the game, but by that point, he was in Texas, having been dealt by Dombrowski to fill another hole on the roster.

Many of the players that Dombrowski was signing to free agent deals were older and for the most part, stuck on the positions they were to fill. They weren’t signing Martinez to be a catcher; he was a designated hitter and they were alright with that. It’s the fear of every team that when they sign a player. he suddenly gets old and cannot be moved off of that position to another. Either that, or his contract does not allow him to be moved to another team.

Draft:

Another one of the most common criticisms of Dombrowski remains that his farm systems are rarely, if ever, stocked with premium prospects. Granted, Detroit never really had a farm system that ranked among those that were considered “powerhouses” at the time. However, it’s not as though the team had nothing. After all, how did Dombrowski pull off all of those trades? He had to have something that somebody wanted.

For the draft, it’s not as though he couldn’t identify talent. Here are some of the top draft choices made during his tenure:

2002 - Curtis Granderson, Joel Zumaya
2004 - Justin Verlander
2005 - Cameron Maybin
2006 - Andrew Miller
2007 - Rick Porcello
2008 - Alex Avila
2010 - Nick Castellanos
2015 - Beau Borrows

Those are some solid names in there. There were a lot of misses as well (we’re looking at you, Kyle Sleeth), but for the most part, Detroit did have some good prospects when the drafted them. One could argue that of course a team is going to have a top prospect when they are always drafting at the top. That’s how you get a Verlander, a Maybin and a Miller. But not all teams hit when they draft someone in the first round. Just ask the Phillies!

Looking at his World Series teams, you can see that Dombrowski used players that were drafted and developed by Detroit (Verlander, Brandon Inge, Granderson) as the core of the teams and supplemented them with players added by astute trading and wise free agent signings.


While this isn’t a definitive list by any stretch, it can fairly be said that while Dombrowski was in Detroit, he was an astute baseball man that made the right moves to get his team to the top. They didn’t have the extra luck needed to win that piece of metal trophy, but he did everything in his power to get them there. At the end of his time, there were mistakes made, but the reasoning at least was sound (trying to win for your ailing owner). It was misguided, but that was the directive given from above and he followed it.

But what we can see is that Dombrowski took a team that was quite literally the worst in the game, built them slowly but surely, adding talent when the time was right, until he had built a powerhouse in the American League that was ultimately competing year in and year out. That is how to build a franchise.

Next time, we’ll look at what he did in Boston.