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Winter Meetings: Reviewing the Granderson Trade- Two Years Later

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The Trade: The news rocked Tiger fans like an 8.5 earthquake. December 10, 2009; Curtis Granderson, the most popular Tiger, had been traded to the Yankees. The mere thought of him in pinstripes made Tiger fans shudder. Along with Granderson, the Tigers traded All Star pitcher Edwin Jackson, in a three way trade that brought back four players; Yankees' outfield prospect Austin Jackson, reliever Phil Coke, relief pitching prospect Dan Schlereth, and starting pitcher Max Scherzer.

We didn’t like it, but we were told that it had to be done. Dave Dombrowski said that adjustments had to be made, and that was the time to do it. Jason Beck reported Dombrwoski's explanation for the big trade.

"The reality is, no matter what, we needed to make some adjustments," Dombrowski said. "In almost any scenario, it’s a necessity. But it’s also one of those where we’re in a very good situation with a quality owner that projects to have a really solid payroll as we go forward. But at some point, adjustments needed to be made, and this was the time to do it for us."

Part of the necessity, while the Tigers won’t talk about it, comes from the Michigan economy. But the other impetus, which Dombrowski admits, came from a huge payroll over the last two years and contracts that have weighed down the organization.

Some reports have said that this trade has been a win- win- win for all three clubs. The Yankees got an MVP candidate in Granderson. Arizona got a Cy Young candidate in Ian Kennedy, and they managed to trade Edwin to the White Sox for another young star pitcher in Daniel Hudson. Those two helped lead Kurt Gibson’s D’backs to a division title in just their second year, and they will have them for several more seasons. But for the Tigers, was this trade a success? Not on the field thus far, in my opinion. Austin Jackson does not begin to replace Granderson. Scherzer has been about the equal of Edwin Jackson since the trade. Phil Coke has found his niche as a set up man in the bullpen, and Dan Schlereth probably belongs in Toledo until someone shows him how to find the plate.

But for the Tigers, this trade was never about improving the team on the field in the short term. Both Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski came right out and told us that Austin Jackson was not going to be able to replace the loss of Granderson, just as they told us that Scott Sizemore wasn’t going to be able to replace Placido Polanco at second base. No, it wasn’t about getting better players in this trade, and the Tigers didn’t. The big trade, like other moves that winter, was all about the money. Follow the money and you shall find the truth.

The Reality: While reasonable fans may differ as to the wisdom of this trade, or as to the value of each player involved, there is no denying the financial reality in which the deal was made. The Tigers had just missed the playoffs after losing to the Twins in the twelfth inning of game 163. In the process, they had allowed an $18 million option on Magglio Ordonez to vest for the following season.They had some $75 million in "bad contracts" on the books- contracts that no other club would take, even if they were offered the player for free. Payroll was maxed out. Furthermore, payroll was scheduled to increase even further the following season, even if the Tigers allowed all of their free agents to walk away, and replace them with minor leaguers. One year earlier, the Tigers had the second highest payroll in the game, and actually paid a "luxury tax" for what turned out to be a last place team. Dave Dombrowski had signed himself into a corner. A financial straight jacket, of sorts. He had to find an escape, and he did.

The Great Escape: The free agent players were Polanco, relievers Fernando Rodney and Brandon Lyon, and shortstop Adam Everett. If the Tigers were going to go outside the organization to replace any of these players, or if they were going to bring any of them back, they either had to boost payroll even higher, or they had to clear some payroll off the books. With an economy in Michigan that was at it’s worst since the great depression, and having missed the playoffs and the bundle of revenue that would have come with it, Dombrowski chose the latter course. Detroit had four players that made any money worth speaking of that were worth their salaries. Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, and Edwin Jackson. When you look at it in those terms, there’s wasn’t much of a choice. Verlander was signed to a five year extension. Cabrera, who was battling an image crisis due to alcohol related troubles at the end of the season, was kept. The Tigers would build their future around those two players. The other two, Edwin and Curtis, were traded to give Dombrowski some wiggle room to make other moves.

Trading Edwin Jackson was a no brainer, in my opinion. He had an agent in Scott Boras who is hell bent on taking each of his clients to the free agent market, where he can wage a bidding war for their services and get them the maximum number of dollars for the greatest number of years. In Scherzer, the Tigers were getting five years of a pitcher with about equal talent, but four more seasons of "club control", and he’d save them a few million in the upcoming season. Edwin was also pretty awful, posting an ERA of 5.07 after the All Star break, and he was one reason that the Tigers were unable to seal the division title down the stretch. The Tigers could "sell high" on Edwin, the All Star 13 game winner with the 3.62 ERA for the season.

Trading Curtis Granderson was not easy, and the wisdom of doing so can still be questioned. Sure, Curtis had his struggles, both at the plate and in the field. There wasn’t a poorer hitter in the league against left handed pitching in 2009 (.183 .245 .239 .484). He didn’t belong in the lineup, never mind leading off against lefties. But he had hit lefties in the past. Maybe this was on Lloyd McLendon? My thoughts one year after the trade, after a strong rookie season from Austin Jackson and a dominating second half from Max Scherzer, was that Dombrowski did the best that he could do with a bad situation, albeit a situation that he created.

Back to the point of this whole deal. Money. This trade was the big move, but there were other smaller moves that Dombrowski made in the dark winter following the 2009 season. Marcus Thames and Matt Treanor were released, making room to bring back Adam Everett on the cheap, for $ 1.5 million. Rodney and Lyon were offered contracts, and offered arbitration, knowing full well that they’d decline and sign longer term contracts elsewhere. In a rare boost for Dombrowski playing the arbitration game, this netted the Tigers two supplemental draft picks (later used to draft Nick Castellanos and Chance Ruffin- who was traded to Seattle in the Doug Fister trade). They let Polanco go without so much as an offer of arbitration, and installed Sizemore at second base. That was the one vacancy created by free agency that was filled internally. (It didn’t work, either, but that’s another story).

The Comeback: Once the trade had been completed, the comeback started. While the big trade was not about immediately improving the team’s talent on the field, nor was it a fire sale, as some in the media had suggested. On the contrary. It was about money, as in being able to spend money. As Tiger fans awaited the news that they had signed a new closer on the cheap, maybe a Kevin Gregg for a couple million bucks, they landed the best closer on the market. After three consecutive winters without signing a single free agent player to a multi year contract, Jose Valverde was signed for two years plus an option year, at about a 30 per cent discount. Next, Dombrowski signed Johnny Damon for one year, and $ 8 million, as insurance in the event that Jackson didn’t work out as a lead off man, and as a capable No 2 hitter at least. Things began to come together.

The Tigers were just able to tread water for one more season, finishing .500 with a payroll above $ 120 million in 2010. But they got through it, and they had some $ 72 million in contracts expiring after the season. The totals on the bad contracts were staggering, and all of them were contract extensions, given to existing players at the time. Carlos Guillen, Ordonez, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis, and Brandon Inge. A year earlier, they had shed Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones, and Gary Sheffield, who were all injured and unproductive before their contracts expired. Now, for the first time in several years, Dave Dombrowski had plenty of room on the payroll to go after free agents, and he wasted no time doing so, bringing in Joaquin Benoit, and Victor Martinez. He didn’t entirely avoid the old habit of giving out extensions- signing Inge and Jhonny Peralta for two years apiece, but the approach was much more balanced than it had been during the three years when the term "free agent" was treated like the "f" word in Detroit.

This story does have a happy ending, as we know. The new, old approach paid immediate dividends, with the Tigers’ first division title in a quarter century. The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games. In July, the Tigers were able to make moves at the trade deadline while their division rivals, theTwins and White Sox were unloading salaries. The Tigers now have a payroll with room to spend, while the White Sox and Twins are still strapped for cash, and while the Indians and Royals have limited resources. The division is still Detroit’s to lose.

Looking back on the Granderson trade, one can still make the argument that the Tigers didn’t need to trade Curtis. They could have traded Edwin Jackson and gotten about the equivalent of Max Scherzer. After all, Edwin was since traded twice, for Daniel Hudson and for Colby Rasmus. But if they had not traded Granderson, they probably could not have signed Valverde, or Damon. Maybe I’m just like Fonzie on Happy Days, looking in the mirror, but I still don’t like that trade. Tiger fans can salivate just thinking of Granderson in the current lineup in place of Austin Jackson, and I, for one, would unwind that trade in a New York minute. Would you?