From a 119-loss team to a perennial power, Dave Dombrowski has spun magic for Tigers

DETROIT – By the end of the first week, they knew. The players inside the Detroit Tigers clubhouse heard all of the dire prognostications, the prophets of doom who said they might be one of the worst assemblages of 25 baseball players in history. And as their winless opening week neared its conclusion, one of those players, a kid named Ramon Santiago, who like most of the 2003 Tigers had next to no idea what he was doing, stopped to envision the remaining six months of the season.

“I went to my [hotel] room,” Santiago said this week, “and started thinking, ‘Are we that bad?’ And the answer was yes.”

Bad was an understatement. Even though baseball rosters turn over every three years or so, and even though the Tigers have run through hundreds of players since, and even though it was just one season in the franchise’s 113 years of existence, it’s incredible to think a decade after arguably the worst season in baseball history Detroit is here: three wins from its third World Series appearance in eight years, thanks to a turnaround engineered by perhaps the deftest hand in the game, who also happened to be in charge of the 43-119 season, too.

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Dave Dombrowski sat in the dugout at Fenway Park this week before Game 2 of the American League Championship Series and surveyed the team he built as president and general manager. Dombrowski remade the Tigers much as he did the Florida Marlins team he shepherded to the 1997 World Series title and the Montreal Expos roster he grew into a power. Unlike both of those stops, Detroit, led by owner Mike Ilitch, was not going to force him into a fire sale. Dombrowski arrived in 2002 knowing any sort of contention would take a few seasons, and if that meant bottoming out in 2003, so be it.

“It was not a good year,” he said. “There were a lot of things that took place that you remember but try to turn the page. I couldn’t capture it with one moment.”

A few moments, then, should work. The Tigers lost their first nine games. They dropped 17 of their first 18. Mike Maroth became the first pitcher in nearly a quarter-century to lose 20 games. If not for five wins in the season’s final six games, they would have broken the 1962 Mets’ seemingly invincible record of 120 losses. As it was, the Tigers finished 47 games out of first place. Their ERA was 5.30. The Tigers’ best pitcher threw 194 2/3 innings and struck out 46 hitters. The last time anyone struck out so few in so many innings was 1949. Oh, and they were wretched defensively and couldn’t hit, either.

It seems almost impossible to field a club so bad. The Houston Astros have been willfully awful the last three seasons, and the most games they lost were 111 this year. The 2003 Tigers were bad players and bad luck amalgamated. Which makes the 2013 Tigers ... well, as the other holdover from ’03, Omar Infante, said, “a lot different.”

“Like ... we good.”

There is a very simple calculus behind this: Dave Dombrowski has made seven trades for 10 players on the Tigers’ current playoff roster, and every one has worked in Detroit’s favor. Maybe one of the kids he dealt at the trade deadline this season turns out to be a star and dents Dombrowski’s 1.000 winning percentage, but that would still leave him deep in the black and the Tigers perpetual contenders nevertheless.

In these deals, Dombrowski has traded 17 players: Curtis Granderson, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Avisail Garcia, Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly, Charlie Furbush, Chance Ruffin, Casper Wells, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio de la Cruz, Mike Rabelo, Brian Flynn, Francisco Martinez, Giovanni Soto, Dallas Trahern and Danry Vasquez. The last four still haven’t logged a day in the major leagues.

The return: Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta, Jose Iglesias, Omar Infante, Jose Veras and Phil Coke. Or, in order, the soon-to-be back-to-back MVP, the soon-to-be Cy Young winner, the guy who threw six no-hit innings in Game 1 of the ALCS, the guy who will start Game 4, the Tigers’ starting center fielder, their offensive sparkplug this postseason, their dazzling shortstop, their starting second baseman, their primary setup man and a lefty reliever. That is 75 percent of their postseason rotation, 56 percent of their lineup and a pair of bullpen arms to boot.

Consider the numbers. In their time with the Tigers, the bats for whom Dombrowski dealt have hit .300/.367/.492 with 338 home runs, 1,261 RBIs and 1,302 runs over 2,198 games and 9,344 plate appearances. Those he traded away: .243/.317/.419 with 174 home runs, 549 RBIs and 701 runs over 1,306 games and 5,071 plate appearances.

What, you think it’s just Cabrera? Sorry. Take his numbers out and the Tigers still have an advantage: .279/.336/.422 with 111 home runs, 524 RBIs and 687 runs over 1,258 games and 5,290 plate appearances.

The difference is just as great among the arms. Since joining Detroit, the pitchers are 126-87 with a 3.54 ERA. Over 1,775 1/3 innings, they’ve struck out 1,660 hitters, carry a 3.25-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and have yielded 0.80 home runs per nine innings, about 20 percent lower than the league average. The Tigers' expats: 53-78 with a 4.68 ERA. They’ve thrown 670 fewer innings, struck out 721 fewer hitters, posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.92 and allowed 0.9 homers per nine.

And, no, this isn’t just a Scherzer thing. Get rid of his stats and the Tigers still have more wins (62), more starts (124 to 105), an improved ERA (3.47), a robust strikeout-to-walk number (3.1-to-1) and a crazy-good homer rate (0.61).

The standard sentiment in baseball is straightforward: Draft well and you will win eventually. Plenty of teams support that notion. There is an alternative path, though, and Dombrowski embodies it. While the Tigers did ostensibly draft well – their prospects were good enough to fetch players who would develop into stars – Detroit never held dearly onto its young players. Miller, Maybin, Turner – all were top-flight prospects, and the Tigers deemed each fungible.

Part of this was because Ilitch’s win-now attitude motivated him to carry payrolls well beyond his market size, giving Dombrowski leeway not to rely on minimum-salary players. Even more important than dollars was Dombrowski’s vision of what the Tigers should stockpile: starting pitchers with power arms and low-strikeout, high-powered hitters. Neither is easy to find, which makes the success all the more impressive.

In fact, one of the most vital pieces of all arrived thanks to the 2003 season. Back then, the American League and National League alternated years choosing No. 1 overall in the draft. Even though the San Diego Padres finished 21 games ahead of Detroit, they had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft. They chose a shortstop out of a nearby high school named Matt Bush. Today, he sits in jail.

With the No. 2 pick, the Tigers took a right-hander out of Old Dominion named Justin Verlander.

Alex Avila was 16 during the 2003 season. He spent summers in Detroit with his father, Al, the Tigers’ assistant GM and Dombrowski’s right-hand man. In the middle of the summer, a kid Al Avila helped sign would make his debut for the Florida Marlins: Miguel Cabrera. And even though he was dominating as a 20-year-old and Derrek Lee and Pudge Rodriguez and Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis were starring on their way to another World Series win, the interest in Detroit still exceeded that of Miami.

“As bad as they were,” said Alex Avila, now the Tigers’ catcher, “people still went to the games. They were drawing more fans than the Marlins did that year, and they won the World Series. I was at games for both teams. And it’s true.”

He’s right: Even though the Tigers barely won a quarter of their games, they still managed to pull 17,103 fans a night at Comerica Park, more than the Marlins and Rays and Expos. Granted, that isn’t saying much, but considering the quality of baseball – Bad News Bears meets Keystone Kops – anybody willing to sit through Tigers baseball in 2003 was a true fan, a masochist or perhaps both.

Change happened quickly. Detroit waited for Pudge Rodriguez’s market to crater during the offseason and signed him to a four-year deal in 2004, which Dombrowski today hails as the most important moment of the rebuild. The stigma of Detroit waned enough that Magglio Ordonez signed a five-year deal the next offseason. And by 2006, with a couple more savvy trade acquisitions – Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco – plus a farm system that spit out Verlander, Granderson and Joel Zumaya, the Tigers weren’t just better. They made the World Series.

As much credit as Dombrowski gives Rodriguez for making Detroit a viable destination, what gave the Tigers staying power, Santiago said, “was Miguel coming here. Magglio did a really good job when he was here, and Pudge was a big part of that. But look at Miggy. He’s been here for six years, and he makes the difference.”

Dombrowski dealt six players, including Maybin and Miller, for Cabrera and Willis. Detroit is now in its third consecutive ALCS, the first team to do so since the Yankees dynasty of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Except for Scherzer, they control most of their core players through 2015. And although scouts consider Detroit’s farm system thin, it has fed Dombrowski enough to assemble the team he wanted when he suffered through 2003.

“It was not a short process,” he said. “And if you tried to short-change it, it wouldn’t have worked. There was a lot of work that needed to be done by a lot of people. We needed an influx players. We needed to change the philosophy. If you lose for a while, as the organization did, it becomes too accepted.”

Not anymore. The idea of 119 losses is unfathomable to these Tigers.

“I can’t even imagine it,” said Prince Fielder, who signed a $214 million deal with Detroit two years ago. “That would be terrible.”

“I saw it,” said Victor Martinez, then a 24-year-old with the Cleveland Indians and now Detroit’s DH. “They lost 119 games. I can’t say anything that says more than that.”

The number still staggers. Anything in triple digits is bad. A pair of ones next to each other is worse. And one loss shy of the team that defines sporting futility? After turning that into this, perhaps Dombrowski should tackle the city of Detroit itself next.

For now, he’s got one remaining goal: The Tigers haven’t won a World Series since 1984. They’ve got as good of a shot as any team this year. After a crushing loss in Game 2, the series is tied. Verlander goes in Game 3 on Tuesday at 4:07 p.m. ET, Fister a day later, and Sanchez in Game 5. If Games 6 and 7 are necessary, it’s back to Scherzer and Verlander.

“When you get the right people,” Martinez said, “you get good turnaround.”

And it really is that easy. The 2013 Tigers have the right people, from the owner on down to the field, and want to make history. Just not the kind of a decade ago.