Why the Tigers won’t miss Dombrowski as much as you might think


The Tigers’ dugout might have been the most dangerous place to be in Detroit Friday night, and certainly was in baseball. That’s where rookie catcher James McCann confronted shortstop Jose Iglesias, who shoved McCann and then got an earful from Anthony Gose, whose bat has been far more quiet this season than the outfielder was.

The good news is Tigers fans should be happy to know their sub-.500 team still has fight. The bad news is, given Iglesias’ 20 extra-base hits in 373 plate appearances, McCann might be the hardest contact he’s made all year.

All the particpants dismissed the incident, as teams invariably do (well, except for the NFL’s New York Jets), and perhaps they were right to. Iglesias said he was “OK with it,” and manager Brad Ausmus said, “Maybe (Iglesias) subscribes to the theory that there’s no bad press.” It’s good for Ausmus that he has a sense of humor. With 60 games left, he’ll need it for most of them.

Gose all but said, “What fight?” perhaps unaware that cameras these days are elsewhere other than on police officers. “I don’t even remember,” said Gose. With a memory like that, here’s hoping Gose is never called as an eyewitness to a real fight.

The dust-up was the latest in a frustrating season for the Tigers, who have made the playoffs the last four seasons but almost certainly won’t this year.

Ownership’s response to the 54-58 season was as curious as Friday’s outburst. They allowed Dave Dombrowski to move impending free agents David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, thanked him and then fired him.

Like the players he traded, Dombrowski was in the final year of his contract, which might explain why he was fired, but not why it wasn’t until after he started the rebuild his management necessitated.

Owner Mike Illitch released a statement that said, “I’ve decided to release Dave from his contract in order to afford him the time to pursue other career opportunities.” What they were, Illitch didn’t say, but we can probably rule out running for president. Perhaps not on the GOP side.

Dombrowski will take over another team soon enough — it was a common theme in Pundit-ville that Dombrowski might be the most coveted free agent available this offseason, even more so than the pitcher he traded. Unlikely, unless Dombrowski can get his fastball over at 97 mph.

If your general manager is the Phillies’ Ruben Amaro or the Mariners’ Jack Zduriencik or the Padres’ A.J. Preller or the vacancy created in Anaheim by the power struggle with manager Mike Scioscia, Dombrowski certainly appeals.

But In Detroit, apparently, the awe was gone, with Illitch if not the fans.

Dombrowski built championship teams and his reputation, and deservedly so. But in Detroit, at what cost?

He won a World Series in Miami, and built much of the 2003 team, which won a second. But that wasn’t even his greatest accomplishment with the Marlins — lasting more than a decade in Wayne Huizenga’s employ couldn’t have been easy.

Dombrowski took over a Tigers team which lost 96 games in 2001, and it got worse before it got better. The 2002 Tigers lost 106 games, but they were winners compared to 2003. Those Tigers set low marks for losses (119) and a winning percentage (.265) that was 56 points worse than Miguel Cabrera’s lifetime average.

But beginning in 2006, the Tigers made the playoffs five times in nine years, won 90 games or more four times and reached the World Series twice, if only to lose it. Given the random nature of today’s 10-team playoffs, don’t hold that against Dombrowski. Just ask Billy Beane why.

But Dombrowski also left an organization that is fat on contracts and thin on prospects. Successor Al Avila will have to tell his son, impending free agent Alex Avila, that the team won’t have a lot of money to pay a .182-hitting backup catcher with a history of concussions (the elder Avila reportedly asked the Tigers not to draft his son to avoid exactly these types of scenarios fraught with potential perceptions of nepotism.) 

Given the bloated payroll Dombrowsi left, that might be the easiest thing Avila has to do.

The Tigers haven’t yet plateaued like the Phillies, but they’re following the same trail of broken bats and crumpled-up doctors’ notes.

Consider:

  •  The Tigers owe Justin Verlander, a pitcher who has a 4.55 ERA over his last 269 innings, $112 million for the next four seasons. Think CC Sabathia. Verlander is s 1-5 with a 4.57 ERA in 2015 after missing two-and-a-half months with a triceps injury. Someday, Verlander’s conract may be to fallen pitchers what Ryan Howard’s has been to fallen sluggers. Kate Upton is still with him, and she’s likely to be more loyal than some Tigers fans will be by 2019, when Verlander’s contract expires — at the earliest.
  • The Tigers owe Victor Martinez $54 million over the next three seasons. Martinez, who will be 39 when his contract expires in 2016, is hitting .247 this year with nine homers and a .691 OPS, which is 38 points less than Iglesias’. Unless your shortstop is Troy Tulowitzki, you’re not going to win if he outslugs your DH. Thanks mostly to Martinez, Tigers designated hitters rank 14th in the AL in OPS.
  • The best DH in the AL is Prince Fielder, who used to be  a Tiger. When Martinez was lost to injury in 2012, the Tigers signed Fielder — and gave a one-year replacement nine years and $214 million. When Martinez returned, this left the Tigers with two DHs and  $284 million committed to the position. So the Tigers traded Fielder in 2014 and agreed to pay $30 million over the last five years of his contract, which expires in 2020.
  • In return for Fielder, the Tigers received second baseman Ian Kinsler, whose contract is at least two years shorter (three if the Tigers exercise a $5 million buyout on 2018) and $105 million cheaper. But Kinsler plays the same poition as Devon Travis, their best prospect, so they traded him for Anthony Gose, whose OPS is 195 points worse. Suffice it to say, Dombrowksi has made better deals.
  • Dombrowski extended Miguel Cabrera’s contract for eight years and $240 million — when the original still had two years to go.  Cabrera will make from $28-32 million per year through 2023, when he’ll be 40. This year he’s getting $22 million and earning it — he’s hitting .350 with an OPS of more than 1.000. But he’s also missed 35 games after playing hurt in his 2013 Triple Crown season. For that kind of money, availability is a requirement.

Dombrowski might be gone from Detroit, but he left his mark — nearly half a billion in future contract commitments to five players, one of whom isn’t even a Tiger. No matter how good their TV contract, it’s probably not that good.

All the analysts touting Dombrowski might ask themselves if that’s the kind of financial future a prospective employer wants. If nothing else, Dombrowski has been good at spending Illitch’s money. 

Dombrowski gets credit for acquiring Cabrera and deservedly so. But Cabrera wasn’t obscure — he hit .320 with 34 homers and a .965 OPS the season before the Marlins traded him– and it’s always easier to negotiate when you’re armed and the party of the second part isn’t. You’ll pay less to park your car at a downtown lot if you wave a gun when you ask how much, and nobody knew better than Dombrowski who had the power.

(Dombrowski also had to take Dontrelle Willis, which evened the deal, if only a little. Andrew Miller, now among the best closers in baseball, went to the Marlins, though it took several years and stops to attain that status).

But all the money promised meant there wasn’t enough to sign pitchers David Price this year or Max Scherzer last year — Dombrowski won the latter three-team deal, and for all the unease about dealing Doug Fister, he’s now pitching mop-up; the additions of Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene haven’t helped as much.

There’s more to winning than spreading money far and wide.

If there wasn’t, the Dodgers would win every year.

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