More than catcher or shortstop or starting pitcher, the general manager is the single most vital asset in baseball, the person with the greatest ability to make and break an organization. Because they wear suits instead of uniforms and operate inside offices instead of before tens of thousands, GMs make a fraction of what their employees do, one of the rare jobs where bosses are compensated so disproportionately with those they hand-pick.
If anyone can change that calculus, it is Dave Dombrowski, the first marquee free agent from the Class of 2015 to hit the market. The Detroit Tigers let Dombrowski go Tuesday afternoon, a move that divorces one of the most successful executives of his generation from the team he rescued from the doldrums and led to a pair of American League pennants and four consecutive postseason appearances.
Detroit's success cemented Dombrowski's place in the upper echelon of executives and as the most successful of his generation. Dombrowski ran the Montreal Expos at 31, won a championship with the Florida Marlins and navigated a 119-loss Tigers team into an annual powerhouse with an unmatched ability to win big trades and a knack for building a team around stars.
Because of that, Dombrowski inhabits a unique niche among his peers: He carries himself with the air of an owner, the baseball knowledge of a great scout and the humility of a low-level operations person. Dombrowski, 59, is the proto-executive, and the $3 million or so he was making with the Tigers could be a fraction of what he gets if resetting the market for executives is at all a consideration.
The perfect market exists for Dombrowski to do just that. The Toronto Blue Jays have spent nearly a year hunting for a new CEO with Paul Beeston's impending retirement, and multiple sources said the Blue Jays have asked questions about Dombrowski during a behind-the-scenes search. With Larry Lucchino gone, Boston could seek a baseball-operations head to match Sam Kennedy on the business side. The Los Angeles Angels need a GM. That's one team with an entire country to itself, another with among the game's richest histories and a third in an enormous market. Which is to say nothing of Seattle or Milwaukee or whatever other jobs may come open.
And should none of those be desirable, Dombrowski could take his glorious head of hair and cleft chin to television, where he'd play the role so many NFL coaches have: sound smart talking about the game, gin up interest among owners who want one of the best there is and wait for the godfather offer that blows away Dodgers president Andrew Friedman's reported five-year, $35 million deal.
Though Friedman's contract set a new standard closer in line to what top executives should make, there's no reason that back-end free-agent starters should snag $12 million a year when an executive in charge of a major league team, six minor league teams, domestic and worldwide scouting, drafting, player development, media strategy and about 500 other vital pieces of running an organization can't crack eight figures.
Last year, a Brown student named Lewie Pollis wrote his senior thesis on just how undervalued front-office personnel truly are. The paper starts off with a stunning claim: one standard deviation of a GM's ability to find players is worth nearly eight wins above replacement – or more than $50 million a year. Essentially, Pollis wrote, a great GM can have almost as big of an impact annually as Mike Trout.
Pollis estimated the value between the best and worst free-agent buyers (San Francisco's Brian Sabean on top and ex-Baltimore GM Jim Beattie at the bottom) at nearly $43 million a year, and that's to say nothing of their abilities to pull off trades or draft and develop.
Granted, Pollis' numbers pegged Dombrowski below average, dragged down by the 119-loss season as well as other rebuilding projects he took over. In reality, those only strengthened his reputation. He can come into a strong situation and make it stronger. He can come into a dumpster fire and hose it into tranquility. Dombrowski's standing among executives is unparalleled.
So if he wants to play CEO and turn Toronto into his personal playground, he has the gravitas to run baseball operations and the business side. Dombrowski would be one of the few people Mike Scioscia would respect as GM, though inserting himself into an Angels situation rife with fraught already isn't necessarily his style. If he wants to navigate the minefield of Boston and invite a power struggle with Tom Werner, he can do that, too. The Red Sox certainly could use someone with legitimate baseball knowledge in the president position after Lucchino spent as much time as he did pretending to have any. And Dombrowski won a ring in Miami and worked under John Henry, who now owns the Red Sox.
Dombrowski understood the situation in Detroit probably had reached its apex and that for all the positive things in the organization – the great returns he got trading David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, a core of players better than a typical rebuild – the trajectory is downward. Owner Mike Ilitch's son, Christopher, has taken on a bigger role, which could limit the outlandish payrolls the Tigers have maintained in recent years. The contracts of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander both could portend trouble sooner than later. The Tigers aren't exactly a stock worth selling. They're not necessarily one worth betting on, either.
Now Dombrowski gets to write his own ticket, and he could usher in a new era where brain gets paid a lot more like brawn than it previously has. Dombrowski put himself here as a master at his craft, one whose achievements go well beyond a single championship. Dombrowski heads up Major League Baseball's committee to re-engage minorities because he's not some executive who does things by rote. He's smart and politically savvy and has allies in all the right places.
His impact may not be as tangible as the catcher throwing out a runner or the shortstop hammering a game-winning home run or a starting pitcher throwing a shutout. It's just much bigger, and it's time the game recognizes that as an inefficiency that has lasted far too long.
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