Buzzing on Yahoo Sports:

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

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

View gallery

.

Miguel Cabrera, watching his Game 2 homer Sunday, was acquired by Dave Dombrowski in 2007.

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.

[Related: Unruly Red Sox fan rips home-run ball out of another fan’s hands, throws it back]

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.

View gallery

.

Dave Dombrowski, left, rewarded Justin Verlander with a contract extension in March. (AP Photo)

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.

View gallery

.

Max Scherzer was acquired from Arizona in 2009 as part of a three-team trade. (AP Photo)

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.

View gallery

.

Dombrowski says signing Pudge Rodriguez in 2004 was "the most important moment of the rebuild." (AP Photo)

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.

Sign up for Yahoo Fantasy Football
View Comments (107)

Recommended for You

  • 29-Year-Old Golf Phenom Who Disappeared From The PGA Tour Will Get $10 Million If He Quits Forever

    Anthony Kim hasn't played since 2012. Anthony Kim, the ex-golf phenom who has become golf's greatest mystery since vanishing from the PGA Tour in 2012, is mulling an impossible decision. According to a new article by Sports Illustrated's Alan Shipnuck, Kim has an insurance policy that covers him in…

    Business Insider
  • Carlos Beltran leaves Yankees following death of unborn child

    Sadly, we learned on Wednesday they are going through that pain and anguish again, as Beltran announced that they had lost their unborn son. Carlos Beltran, away from the team for personal reasons, just posted on his facebook page that he has lost his son. When Beltran left the team on Tuesday,…

    Big League Stew
  • Rumor Roundup (Sept. 18, 2014): Steve Austin WWE update, Sting at WrestleMania 31, Dean Ambrose return, more!

    Speculating on the rumors surrounding pro wrestling is a favored pastime of many fans, perhaps second only to actually watching the matches. In this daily column, we take a look at the latest rumors being churned out by the pro wrestling rumor mill. None of this has been confirmed as legitimate…

    SB Nation
  • Mayweather: "When May comes around I'll have a totally new team."

    Mayweather: "When May comes around I'll have a totally new team." It appears Mayweather will be shaking up his team and parting ways with longtime friend and CEO of Mayweather Promotions, Leonard Ellerbe. Perhaps you noticed a familiar face was missing from Floyd Mayweather's corner during his…

    SB Nation
  • Remember When Michael Sam Was Supposed To Be A Distraction For The Dallas Cowboys?

    The great distraction that was supposed to come to Dallas with Michael Sam has all but vanished as the NFL is swamped with bad news. As any long time reader here at BTB knows, I am loathe to point out when the esteemed members of the media who cover and comment on the Dallas Cowboys are totally,…

    SB Nation
    Sun, Sep 21
    10:00 AM PDT
    Dallas at St. Louis
    Preview Game
  • Pep Guardiola celebrates Jerome Boateng's late winner against Man City by choking him

    Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng scored a 90th-minute winner against former club Man City (with a helping deflection off Mario Gotze) and that kicked off a touchline mosh pit starring Pep Guardiola. After Boateng ran over to celebrate with his coach and teammates, Guardiola gave him a celebratory…

    Dirty Tackle
  • LeBron has new shoes, but he can't touch Jordan

    LeBron James may be one of the biggest names on the basketball court, but when it comes to sneaker sales, Michael Jordan still holds the title. Nike (NKE) unveiled 10-time All-Star Lebron James' signature shoe late Tuesday. The LeBron 12 debuted at an event at the company's headquarters in…

    CNBC
  • Jonathan Dwyer reportedly in police custody for domestic violence

    The Arizona Cardinals can apparently be added to the list of teams with problems with domestic violence. It is being reported by 3TV reporter Tyler Baldwin (in Phoenix) that Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested by Phoenix Police for domestic violence.

    SB Nation
    Sun, Sep 21
    1:05 PM PDT
    San Francisco at Arizona
    Preview Game
  • Legendary announcer Jim Ross prepares for his MMA broadcast debut

    There probably aren't many sports broadcasting legends who will outright say that one of the items on their bucket list is calling a mixed martial arts event. In fact, the first time I heard it was many years back, from of all people, UFC's lead voice, Mike Goldberg.

    SB Nation
  • Here is a story about Ian Poulter that sums him up perfectly

    Paul McGinley gave an interview to the Irish Independent recently in which he said he wishes he'd had a little more "f--- you" to him over the course of his career. "I remember standing on the 18th fairway with Poulter in the singles," said McGinley. As always Ian Poulter is the best.

    CBS Sports
  • Colts' MNF meltdown costs bettor a $100,000 payday on a $5 bet

    A bettor in the Delaware Sports Lottery was less than one half of football away from winning $100,000 on a $5 bet, but the Indianapolis Colts couldn't hold up their end of the deal. The Colts, as you may recall, had a two-touchdown second-half lead on the Philadelphia Eagles but couldn't hold on,…

    Shutdown Corner
    Sun, Sep 21
    10:00 AM PDT
    Washington at Philadelphia
    Preview Game
  • The Steps To Success

    Who is the one person who has had the biggest impact on your life?

    AdChoicesstrayerSponsored
  • Blue Jackets president accuses Ryan Johansen of extortion, reveals contract numbers

    The Columbus Blue Jackets have had enough of this Ryan Johansen restricted free agency negotiation.  To the point where affable team president John Davidson called it “extortion." * He announced that the team had offered Johansen $6 million over two years and $32 million over six years (which JD…

    Puck Daddy
  • Fan heckling Harper in Atlanta ejected by umpire

    Umpire Tim Welke heard a foul-mouthed fan heckling Bryce Harper and decided it was time for the man to go. Welke took off his mask, pointed to the fan and ejected him from Turner Field in Atlanta during Tuesday night's game between the Washington Nationals and Braves.

    Associated Press
    Fri, Sep 19
    4:10 PM PDT
    Washington at Miami
    Preview Game
  • Week 3 PPR WR/TE Sleepers

    Tyler offers you his advice on some potential week 3 WR/TE studs that PPR fantasy owners won't want to miss out on. As we come to the end on week 2 in this NFL season, injuries are starting to affect fantasy teams all around. With bye weeks approaching as well, it is my job to give you the best…

    SB Nation
  • Ronaldinho blasts penalty kick into the stands on his Mexican debut

    Ronaldinho made his debut for Queretaro in their Copa MX match against Tigres and though he was presented with a golden opportunity to start with a bang, it didn't quite work out for him. Tigres jumped out to an early lead when Herculez Gomez scored in the ninth minute.

    Dirty Tackle
  • Rockets acquire Jason Terry from Sacramento Kings

    Rockets acquire Jason Terry from Sacramento KingsSACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- The Houston Rockets have acquired guard Jason Terry from the Sacramento Kings for two second-round draft picks and guard/forward Alonzo Gee. The Kings also received guard Scotty

    The Associated Press
  • Froot Loops® Cereal

    Who Says You Have to be a Kid to Enjoy the Fruity Goodness of Froot Loops? Remember The Sweet Aroma & Fruity Taste with a Bowl of Froot Loops Today!

    AdChoicesKellogg's Froot Loops®Sponsored
  • Fredi Gonzalez Must Go

    Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and the majority of his coaching staff must be fired if the Braves are serious about winning in the future. For the Braves' recent struggles, Frank Wren must fire manager Fredi Gonzalez and hitting coach Greg Walker. The Atlanta Braves must fire Fredi Gonzalez and Greg…

    SB Nation
    Fri, Sep 19
    4:35 PM PDT
    NY Mets at Atlanta
    Preview Game