Just days after completing a pair of trades, sending both David Price and Yoenis Cespedes out of town for five pitching prospects, Dave Dombrowski was "released from his contract" on Tuesday by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. The timing of the move was perhaps more surprising than the end result, as Dombrowski’s contract was set to expire at the end of the season, and Jon Paul Morosi had speculated that this might be his final season with the Tigers a month ago. After 14 years at the helm, perhaps it was time for both sides to get a change of scenery.
Certainly, Dombrowski’s legacy in Detroit is already secure. He took a moribund franchise and turned it into a perennial winner, putting together rosters that managed a .500 or better record in eight of the 11 seasons after the Tigers posted one of the worst records in baseball history in 2003. They made the playoffs five times during that stretch and went to the World Series twice. Unquestionably, Dombrowski’s tenure with the Tigers was a smashing success, even without bringing Detroit a championship that has eluded Mr. Ilitch for so long.
The foundation of this nearly decade-long run of success was built on the back of some of the most successful trades in baseball during his tenure. While many organizations preach the value of building from within, Dombrowski put good teams on the field that were often pieced together with players extracted from other organizations. Whether it was outright heists for quality players like Carlos Guillen, Jhonny Peralta or Doug Fister, or blockbusters like his deal for now franchise icon Miguel Cabrera, Dombrowski seemed to come out on the winning end of more than his fair share of trades.
And even when ownership boxed him in with a bad free-agent signing — like the nine year, $216 million commitment to Prince Fielder that forced Cabrera to masquerade as a third baseman — Dombrowski figured out how to salvage that deal, picking up a valuable contributor in Ian Kinsler while dumping the majority of Fielder’s remaining contract on the Rangers. Certainly, he wasn’t perfect — his deal sending Doug Fister out of Detroit was as bad as his original deal to acquire Fister was good — but Dombrowski’s trade record can stand up next to any other executive’s in baseball.
But for his many strengths, Dombrowski’s Tigers had one critical weakness that he could seemingly never overcome. For whatever reason, Dombrowski was absolutely terrible at putting together a major-league bullpen.
Going back to 2003, the first roster that Dombrowski was responsible for as general manager, the Tigers have had the worst bullpen in baseball over the past 13 years. In over 6,000 innings of relief work over those 13 years, the Tigers rank 30th in strikeout rate, 28th in walk rate, 20th in home run rate, 21st in BABIP and 25th in their ability to strand runners. There was not a single aspect to pitching that the Tigers bullpen excelled at during Dombrowski’s tenure.
And it certainly wasn’t for lack of throwing money at the problem. The team gave 38-year-old reliever Todd Jones a two year, $11 million contract in 2006, back when $11 million was still a lot of money for a baseball player. When Jones predictably couldn’t hold down leads effectively enough, they spent $14 million to sign Jose Valverde away from the Astros, then gave $16.5 million to Joaquin Benoit to try and get the ball from their starters to their closer. When Valverde failed, they spent $20 million to sign Joe Nathan. When that didn’t work, they traded one of the best pitching prospects in baseball for Joakim Soria.
Through all the years, the Tigers just kept signing one so-called proven closer after another, continually hoping that a mediocre reliever with a high saves total would somehow help preserve important leads. And even when the organization developed relievers internally, they were often one-dimensional — throwing high-velocity fastballs in poor locations, leading to a lot of walks and many blown leads.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of it all is the consistency of the team’s weakness in the relief corps. Here are the Tigers’ annual ranks in reliever WAR for each year of the past decade:
In a good year, the Tigers bullpen was okay; more often, though, it was terrible. While the under-appreciated Benoit helped hold things together during his three-year stint in Detroit — 2011 to 2013, the one multi-year run where the team’s bullpen wasn’t a total disaster — he was the only high-priced reliever acquired by Dombrowski whose tenure could be described as a success. In most every other year, the team’s bullpen was the liability that kept the team from living up to the promise of its position players and starting pitchers.
On the big, important moves, Dombrowski mostly shined. He correctly identified Cabrera as a guy worth giving up premium prospects to acquire, spotted a potential ace in Max Scherzer, and he always seemed to be able to find a good hitter out of nowhere. As recently as last year, the decision to sign J.D. Martinez to a minor-league contract after he was released by the Astros looks like one of the best moves of his entire tenure.
But it is somewhat remarkable than an executive who was so good at building the first 90% of a roster was so consistently poor at putting together the final 10%. Certainly, the good outweighed the bad during his time in Detroit, and his long track record of success will ensure that he has no shortage of options for his next gig. Dombrowski will be an asset to any organization he joins, but it might be time for him to delegate bullpen assembly to someone else.