Dave Dombrowski, "Mr. Build it Up, Mr. Break it Down" - Jeff Gray
Great Win Today!
Thanks for stopping by. Today we have another installment of our guest column series evaluating general managers. On tap is Dave Dombrowski who is an interesting pick. He was the GM of the Montreal Expos back when the Expos were building a winning franchise. Then he built the Florida Marlins into World Champions, and now he's turning around a franchise in Detroit. Our guest columnist, Jeff Gray, a contributor at Tiger Blog and proprietor of Under the Bleachers has done a magnificent job of objectively analyzing Dombrowski. This column, like all the others, is a real treat.
It's not often that Tiger fans get to call anything about their club the best in baseball. Is the team the best? Obviously not, though we still cling tightly to the claim that the 1984 squad was the best of the 80s. Are any players the best at their position? Well, we have hope for Jeremy Bonderman, and Ivan Rodriguez is fun to root for, but no. Is the new ballpark the best of the latest crop of retro palaces? Hardly. It's a decent place, but it has way too many cheesy tiger statues, and it looks out on the abandoned Detroit skyline. SBC Park, by comparison, looks out over San Francisco Bay. Is Dave Dombrowski the best general manager in the business? Hmmmm. That one's actually plausible, though the competition includes 13-time defending division champions and multiple World Series winners. Let's take a look, and maybe we'll get convinced together.
Before we dive in, some disclaimers. First, a baseball front office is a complicated beast, much like the staff of any other mid-sized corporation. The general manager is akin to the CEO of that corporation - in Dombrowski's case, "CEO" is actually part of his title. Like any other executive, a GM delegates. Dombrowski isn't solely responsible for the scouting, drafting, player-evaluation, and roster-composition decisions made under his watch, and neither is any other GM. For the purposes of this little piece, however, Dombrowski is going to get sole credit and sole blame for the moves made in his name.
Second, looking at past decisions solely on how they turned out isn't necessarily the right way to go. Just because a star got hurt doesn't mean that, based on the information available when he was acquired, it was a bad move. Likewise, just because a PTBNL throw-in acquisition grows up to be Moises Alou (which happened for Dombrowski in Montreal in 1990) doesn't mean that someone didn't get lucky. We're going to throw that bit of subtlety aside, however, and just look at what moves worked or didn't work from the clear and safe vantage point of hindsight. And with Dombrowski, a lot more worked than didn't work.
We'll start with the moves that didn't. Glancing at Dombrowski's three-team reign, there are three player-personnel decisions that stand out as real stinkers. We'll get them out of the way, in chronological order:
--Acquiring Mark Langston for Brian Holman and Randy Johnson in 1989. Langston would pitch well for the Expos down the stretch, but they would finish at .500 that year, exactly where they stood at the time of the trade, and they'd lose Langston to free agency that offseason. Holman would show potential before his arm fell off, and that Johnson guy, I think he eventually ended up with the Yankees or something.
--Acquiring Jared Camp and cash for Johan Santana in 1999. Dombrowski's Marlins picked Santana up in the Rule V draft, but couldn't keep him and traded him that same day. Just think what the Fish's rotation would look like today with Santana added to the trio of Beckett, Burnett, and Willis.
--Signing Magglio Ordonez for 5 years and $75 million in 2005. Sure the Tigers are protected if Ordonez's magically-repaired knee keeps him out of the lineup, but only this year, and it looks like Magglio's other ailments, injuries, and diseases won't keep him in the lineup long enough for his knee to start hurting.
The occasional egregious mistake aside, Dombrowski's legacy is secure. He built winners in Montreal and Florida, not the same as taking the Yankees or the Red Sox to the top, and he is slowly rebuilding the Tigers, an organization that could boast no minor-league talent, no major-league talent, and all-time lows in fan excitement when he took over. Can any other GM in baseball match this resume?
Awards: Awards for general managers don't get a lot of ink, but Dombrowski's Expos were named Organization of the Year in 1988 and 1990 by Baseball America, and Dombrowski was named Baseball Executive of the Year by UPI (remember when they did sports things like the college football coaches' poll?) in 1990.
Youth: When Dombrowski was named GM in Montreal in 1988 he was the youngest GM in baseball history, a mere 32 years old. Paul DePodesta and Theo Epstein reset that record in the last few years, but they won their jobs in a different baseball climate, one eager to find brainy young Ivy League MBAs. Dombrowski had a much tougher task, convincing the eighties baseball establishment to hire a young business student. His quick rise from administrative assistant to GM in ten years is a supreme accomplishment.
Expansion Team to World Series Champions in Six Years: Dombrowski's finest achievement, a feat unmatched by any of the other claimants to the throne of best GM (Joe Garagiola Jr. doesn't count), was winning the World Series with the Florida Marlins in the franchise's fifth year. Dombrowski was hired away from the Expos in 1991 to oversee the construction of the Marlins, and as such he deserves a lot of the credit for putting together a championship team. He did so using every method at his disposal:
--Expansion draft. Dombrowski got Trevor Hoffman and Jeff Conine, Mr. Marlin himself, in the 1992 Expansion Draft (though Colorado also got Vinny Castilla).
--Signing amateur free agents. Dombrowski's organization signed Edgar Renteria, Antonio Alfonseca, Luis Castillo, and Tony Saunders (the noted Brave-killer) as minor-league free agents. Say what you want about El Pulpo, but all of them played significant roles on the World Series team.
--Amateur draft. Charles Johnson was the only WS contributor drafted by the Marlins on Dombrowski's watch, but his Expos drafts were much more fruitful, netting Marquis Grissom, Rondell White, Cliff Floyd, Mark Grudzielanek, Gabe White, and Kirk Rueter.
--Trades, notably flipping Hoffman for Gary Sheffield, Dustin Hermanson and Joe Orsulak for Cliff Floyd, and Cris Carpenter (not the one who is a good pitcher for the Cardinals) for Robb Nen.
--Free agency. The most notorious part of the 1997 Marlins' construction, it had purists moaning that any team could buy their way into contention. There's a lot of dumb money that gets spent every year, though (see the contracts awarded to Jaret Wright, Eric Milton, and Christian Guzman in the 2004-2005 offseason), and Dombrowski was efficient and effective. He bought 80% of his championship starting rotation on the free-agent market (Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Livan Hernandez, and Alex Fernandez), two-thirds of his outfield (Moises Alou and Devon White), and his third baseman (Bobby Bonilla, shortly before his playing-cards-in-the-clubhouse-during-the-game-with-Rickey-Henderson days).
--Deadline deals. Dombrowski's in-season trades really pushed the '97 Marlins over the top. Darren Daulton is credited as the veteran presence that made the difference, but Craig Counsell scored the Series' winning run, and even Ed Vosberg pitched well in the playoffs.
Breaking Down a Champion: Here's where Dombrowski sets himself apart from John Schuerholz, Brian Cashman, and the rest of that ilk. Sure, lots of people can build a great team with a reasonable budget (as Dombrowski did in 1997 and in laying the groundwork for the aborted success of the 1994 Expos), but can they conduct a firesale and actually bring back something of value? Dombrowski was tested to do just that immediately after the Marlins picked up their rings, and he did it well. Ownership's demolition mandate alienated every new Marlin fan and eventually Dombrowski himself, but the destruction of the 1997 Marlins planted the seeds of the next Marlins championship team, which would come together shortly after Dombrowski left for Detroit. The moves Dombrowski made in the two years after the World Series win were remarkable. Sure there were missteps, but the fact that he got anything back when the Marlins' desperation created such a buyers' market is an accomplishment.
The mistakes are clear. Dombrowski got nothing much for Alou, Nen, and Hernandez, and only two reasonable relief pitchers for Renteria. More damningly, the Marlins lost useful players in the next expansion draft (Saunders and Randy Winn) and in the Rule V draft (Scott Podsednik).
Still, he turned Kevin Brown into a young Derrek Lee. He turned Al Leiter into a young AJ Burnett. He turned Gary Sheffield and Charles Johnson, through a complicated series of trades involving Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile, into Preston Wilson and Mike Lowell. And he turned Matt Mantei into Brad Penny. It's a tremendous haul of young talent considering that every single GM Dombrowski was trading with knew he had to unload his veterans.
Rebuilding a Lost Franchise: Dombrowski's record here, since he joined the Tigers in late 2001, is still incomplete. The Tigers are not good yet, but it's important to remember where they were when he took over. They hadn't had a winning season since 1993, and they still haven't. Despite one high draft pick after another, the minor league system was abysmal. His predecessor, Randy Smith, had made a lot of noise, but despite one trade after another with his dad in Houston and his former team in San Diego, never managed to acquire any above-average major-league players.
Sure, Dombrowski presided over the worst embarrassment in recent baseball history, the '03 Tigers, losers of 119 games. But that was Smith's team, and does it really matter if a team loses 105 or 119 games? Dombrowski's prime contribution to that debacle was to unload the Tigers' one tradable commodity, Jeff Weaver, for Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Pena, and Franklyn German in 2002. It's a trade that looks good now - Bonderman, at 22, is already a better pitcher than the pricy Weaver.
What Dombrowski did after the 2003 debacle is the key: he went out and spent money on free agents. There were still no reinforcements on the way from the minor leagues, and the Tigers absolutely had to field a competitive team to have any hopes of staying relevant in their market. Free agency was the only route. If Dombrowski had to spend a little extra for aged or injury-prone players to get them to Detroit, so be it. The arrival of Ivan Rodriguez, Rondell White, Jason Johnson, and Ugueth Urbina put a few fannies in seats and generated enough buzz to keep the franchise alive. The trade for Carlos Guillen was even better, a clear case of getting something for nothing even before Guillen developed into a monster. There are now actual major-league players in place to hold the fort down, while the farm system oh-so gradually improves.
It appears that Dombrowski overreached with the same formula before the 2005 season. The signings of Ordonez and Troy Percival were both clearly too expensive. Neither player will be worth their money even if they're healthy, and neither player will be healthy. The few Tigers fans left with the stomach to consider such matters are concerned that these moves, especially the Ordonez signing, will hamstring the franchise for years to come.
With these moves, however, a little trust is in order. The signings have to be PR schemes, designed to sustain the buzz that last season's free agents generated. Dombrowski has to know that Ordonez was wildly overpriced, that 40 innings per year from Percival is not worth $12 million. The Dombrowski who built winners in Montreal and Florida would not have made those moves - I fervently hope - without assurances from management that his budget would increase enough in the next few years so that Ordonez and Percival won't possibly be able to consume it all by themselves, from the disabled list. We should trust that the Dombrowski Tigers aren't being short-sighted. Trust and faith in the Detroit Tigers? Dombrowski must be the best GM in the business.