March 23, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Detroit Tigers: Dealing Dombrowski
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the winningest teams of the past four years and PECOTA-projected division titlists Nationals and Tigers.
Since 2011, the Tigers have won the American League Central each year and are tied with the Nationals in total wins. The individuals who deserve the most credit for this run of success—besides, of course, owner Mike Illitch, Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Verlander—are the ones in charge of the Tigers’ personnel decisions, general manager David Dombrowski and his assistant Al Avila.
The pair had worked together before Illitch brought them on to revamp the front office after the Randy Smith era left the organization in a lurch. With the Marlins, Avila served as Dombrowski’s scouting director; in 1999, he called his boss from Venezuela raving about a 16-year-old Miguel Cabrera. The Marlins signed him for $1.8 million. Four years later, Cabrera helped the Marlins win the 2003 World Series while Dombrowski and Avila had already taken their talents to Detroit to build more international connections:
I remember having conversations with Mr. I (illitch) and with Al on how we wanted to grow more in Latin America. We had a lot of ties there from our days in Florida. And so he (Illitch) gave us the OK. It was quite an investment, especially when we know we weren’t going to see great returns in the short term.
With Detroit, the Dombromski regime has built a strong presence in Venezuela as one of five teams with both a teaching academy and summer league team there. In recent years, the Tigers have signed and developed the following players from Venezuela: Bruce Rondon, Avisail Garcia, Eugenio Suarez, Angel Nesbitt, Dixon Machado, and Hernan Perez.
While the Venezuelan pipeline has been beneficial itself, the Tigers’ approach is multifaceted. The team is also a product of tremendous professional scouting, not to mention the gobs of cash ownership invested. Dombrowski might not garner the notoriety that Athletics general manager Billy Beane has, but he’s absolutely fearless when it comes to making big trades. The payroll flexibility provided by Illitch and wealth of prospects from their Venezuelan pipeline allow the Tigers to aim high in trade talks. The epitome of this is the Doug Fister acquisition, wherein the Tigers’ professional scouting identified a potential breakout player and used their prospects—including headliner Francisco Martinez, a power-hitting prospect from Venezuela—and payroll flexibility to acquire said player.
The package the Mariners accepted for Doug Fister mid-2011
Fister, of course, broke out immediately tossing a 1.79 ERA over his 70 innings with Detroit that season and then beat the Yankees twice in the playoffs, helping the Tigers advance to the ALCS. He was worth 7.9 WARP in two and a half seasons with the Tigers. The next year, Dombrowski dealt Jacob Turner and Rob Brantly for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez, the latter who the Tigers re-signed despite the Chicago Cubs’ best efforts and went on to lead the AL in ERA in 2013. Dombrowski isn’t afraid to make trades that upset fans, either: he created this mini-dynasty by acquiring Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson for fan favorite Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson after the 2009 season.
In fact, nearly every year, Dombrowski executes a trade involving substantial talent:
All of these trades have yielded great returns, yet many have come while Dombrowski was bargain hunting. When the Mariners seemed to think Carlos Guillen’s career was stagnating, Dombrowski plucked his next shortstop. Guillen went on to lead the club with 5.3 WARP in 2006 as the Tigers won their first pennant since 1984. When the Indians were done with third baseman Jhonny Peralta, he again found a shortstop. Peralta provided 8.1 WARP over three seasons while taking home $16 million before the Cardinals signed him for over three times that amount in free agency prior to last season.
Despite the traffic of incoming talent, Dombrowski isn’t perfect and has made some mistakes along the way. The Tigers have rarely had players with good on-base percentages bat in front of Cabrera. The bullpen tends to be light and the bench has been a disaster area for years. The Doug Fister Trade Part II was a complete bust from the start.
Since Dombrowski took over the Tigers' general managing reins, he's bought and dealt his way into being an annual playoff contender, and his team is still projected to win the AL Central, despite the loss of Scherzer. After this season, their expensive ace (Price) will, again, be headed for free agency. This time, it’s the Tigers and not the pitcher who have leverage. With plenty of frontline starting pitching set to hit the market this offseason, money coming off the books as Joe Nathan, Alex Avila, Yoenis Cespedes, Joakim Soria, Alfredo Simon, and Rajai Davis are also due for free agency, and Verlander, Sanchez, and Shane Greene still under control for 2016, an extension for Price makes little sense for Detroit now. But even if they don't pay the man and become short on pitching, Tigers fans needn't worry; Dombrowski has moved major assets from one part of the team to another many times before.