It's amazing to watch a roster on a good team turn over. There are, of course, different ways to do this. If you are the Cardinals or the Rays, you just promote from your inexhaustable supply of top tier minor league talent. Nothing to it. If you are the Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers or Red Sox, you just have to open the wallet and write checks. Easy, right? Of course we know that neither of these tactics are easy. The draft is built to be the great equalizer, with the worst drafting first in an attempt to level the field. But St Louis & Tampa seem to be really good at drafting and developing talent lately. Really good. And that makes a G.M.'s job so much easier. Conversely, you cannot always buy yourself a title by writing the biggest checks either. Ask our friends over at Halo's Heaven how that is working out for them.
But unfortunately, there are teams out there that don't seem to have a magic bag full of cost controlled, bursting at the seams talented youngsters on the farm. They also don't have owners with deep enough pockets to buy all the fancy toys that a GM needs in order to stay competitive.
But It appears that Dave Dombrowski has built a hybrid of the 2 models above that has been working for him since he arrived in Detroit. While he has had the benefit of a willing dance partner in owner Mike Illich, his only recent sky high free agent signing was the recently departed Prince Fielder, who by all accounts was brought in at the owners urging. Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Joaquin Benoit, Jose Valverde weren't cheap, but were brought in at market value and were not even close to the most expensive free agents available.
And while you can't point to too many current Tigers that were home grown, 3 of the starting 5 in the 2014 rotation are, and one of them is the best right handed starter in the game. However, Dombrowski has used the farm system to the team's advantage by trading prospects for emerging players who are now cornerstones of the franchise. Think Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin for Miguel Cabrera. Think Jacob Turner for Anibal Sanchez & Omar Infante, and Avisail Garcia for Jose Iglesias. Does anybody know who Giovanni Soto is? That's who the Tigers traded to Cleveland for Jhonny Peralta. When I hear people complain about how little DD gets from the minors, I have to disagree.
Here is how the team transformed from its opening day lineup from their 2006 World Series season to its opening day lineup from their 2011 ALCS season.
Granderson CF.............................Jackson CF
Polanco 2B.............................Rhymes 2B
Rodriguez C...............................Ordonez RF
Ordonez RF............................Cabrera 1B
Young DH...........................Martinez DH
Shelton 1B............................Raburn LF
Guillen SS...........................Peralta SS
Monroe LF............................Inge 3B
Inge 3B...........................Avila C
Jeremy Bonderman SP............. Max Scherzer SP
Justin Verlander SP..............Phil Coke SP
Jones CL..............Valverde CL
The change in personnel is astonishing. Only 2 position players and 1 starting pitcher remained just 5 years from a World Series run. All done with only 1 major free agent signing (Martinez) and a poorly rated farm system. How did Dombrowski do this? First off he had to. The 2006 roster was veteran laden with guys like Pudge, Dimitri and CMo who were on the back side of their career, so he let them go or traded them for prospects instead of handing them big contracts. He then traded budding stars like Granderson & Edwin Jackson. They were slated for big pay raises so he dealt them for major league ready youngsters AJax and Scherzer. He also emptied out whatever talent there was in the minors for a franchise guy in Cabrera. Not content with a merely competitive team, Dombrowski has now put together a 3 year run from 2011 to present that did everything but plant the Commisioners Trophy in Comerica Park. So here we are in 2014. The starting lineup looks to be some variation of this:
Only 4 of the 9 remain from the opening day 2011 ALCS team, while 40% of the rotation and the closer has been regroomed. For the first time in recent memory, the Detroit Tigers are a young team. Hunter and Martinez (both in the last year of their contracts) are the only two hitters that are long in the tooth, being in their mid/late thirties. Platoon player Rajai Davis is 33, Kinsler is 32, Cabrera 31 and the rest are in their 20's. Same thing for the pitching staff. Verlander turns 31 this year, and Scherzer & Sanchez will turn 30, by no means old for a starting pitcher. More like prime of their careers. Then, there is the ageless Joe Nathan who turns 40 in 2014, but after that it's kids as far as the eye can see. If Porcello & Smyly perform to expectations, the starting pitching should see no drop off from 2013. Meanwhile, the bullpen almost has to be better because the 2013 version was just so inconsistent. If Rondon continues his upward arc and Kroll/Chamberlain/Albuquerque become reliable middle innings arms then that represents a decent upgrade where it is needed most.
Dombrowski has made one move that we will have to wait to see how it works out. and that is trading veteran leadership & power in Leyland/Fielder/Peralta for speed, youth and defense with Ausmus/Iglesias/Kinsler/Davis/Castellanos. I think the veteran heavy rosters of the 2006 through 2013 Tigers were perfect for a manager like Jim Leyland. His strengths were his personal relationships with his players in which he built great team chemistry, loyalty and trust. I personally don't think that Dombrowski would have made these moves if Leyland were returning as skipper, but that doesn't mean the changes weren't necessary. With Scherzer, Hunter & Martinez heading toward free agency in 2015 the team will likely get even younger. A lot of money will be freed up, but it will be needed to make the next round of contract signings and extensions for Cabrera, Jackson et.al. While Mr. Illich has been generous so far, the GM must still make the right call on who has to go and who gets a raise to stay. Dave Dombrowski has gotten the Tigers close more than once, but we will have to wait to see if this time he has made the right moves to raise the trophy in Detroit in 2014 and beyond. Fortunately, he has a good enough core of young rising talent and in their prime superstars to make it seem sunny and warm to Tiger fans, even on another cold January day. Better grab my shades.