Dave Dombrowski is back in the headlines again. Wow, is he ever back in the headlines. The former Tigers GM wasn't satisfied with merely picking up one of the top closers in baseball in Craig Kimbrel, he furrowed his brow, frowned even harder, and signed ace starting pitcher David Price for seven years and enough money to buy a small country. We get it, Dave, you're out there, you're still all about the pyrotechnics, and you need a U-Haul to carry your massive man-junk around town.
If we're measuring success in units of hype, dazzle, or flair, I'm afraid Dave Dombrowski has Al Avila beat by a country mile. Avila got Francisco Rodriguez as the team's closer for the cost of a fringy infield prospect. Effective, cheap, and to the point, even if the "wow factor" was more "Benny The Jet steals home" than "Roy Hobbs hits a game-winning home run into the stadium lights." Avila also got a starting pitcher in Jordan Zimmerman, a top-five free agent pitcher who comes on a fairly team-friendly deal. Again, this is effective work, even if it's like getting the PS3 instead of the PS4 for your birthday.
Fog machines and fancy light shows isn't how we should measure success, though. And more and more, as I watch Avila quietly go about solving a difficult puzzle using more binary code than brute force, the more I think it may be time to re-evaluate Dave Dombrowski and his time in Detroit.
/puts on flame retardant suit
Maybe it wasn't Mike Ilitch forcing some of these questionable moves all along. Whose idea was it to let Joaquin Benoit walk after 2013 and spend $20M on "proven closer" Joe Nathan? Whose idea was it to solve the Victor Martinez-shaped hole in the 2012 roster by signing Prince Fielder to a mega-contract that very quickly looked like it might be a long-term millstone?
I'm not saying that Mike Ilitch had nothing to do with any of it, but I am staring long and hard at the fact that Dombrowski doesn't work for Ilitch anymore, and his solution for a Boston bullpen that needed up-and-down renovation was to sign a top-flight closer for an average of $12.5M per year (and give up four prospects in the process). I'm noticing that, even without the Ilitch Factor, Dombrowski's solution for a starting rotation that was one of the worst in the American League was to sign an ace starter for seven years and $217M. Dombrowski is Dombrowski, it seems, with or without Mike Ilitch in the picture.
It's easy to get caught up in the hype. We signed David Price? HELL YEAH BABY! We locked up Prince Fielder for ten years? HOME RUN DERBY HERE WE COME! But the weakness in the philosophy that is sooooooo easily obscured by the ninety-point, bold font headlines is that these kinds of moves come at the expense of roster depth, payroll flexibility, and maybe even future success.
Spending most of the bullpen money on a star closer means "Plan B" is a pair of crossed fingers, as 2014 showed us. Tying up 40 to 50 percent of the payroll on three or four star players means you lack depth and end up tanking if two or more of those stars show up to spring training with strains, stitches, and screws (hello, 2015) -- or it means your last, best hope for a ninth inning rally rests in the hands of a rookie pinch-hitter who just fell off the bus from Toledo a few hours ago.
There's a reason why the Tigers were where they were at the start of this offseason, trying to spin less than $50M into two starters, two relievers, and an outfielder. Sooner or later, the available money runs out, the farm system shows very few bright spots, and more and more of your trades mean swapping decent, young MLB talent like Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly for Yoenis Cespedes and David Price, who you can't afford to keep. Then you end up having to fill those newly created holes by trading middle-tier prospects (which is all that's left) for guys like Alfredo Simon.
I'm not suggesting we burn Dave Dombrowski in effigy. He was a trade-executing ninja more often than not -- Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler deserved a standing ovation. Turning Curtis Granderson into Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson was a very, very clever move. Still, the larger, overarching Dombrowski Philosophy may have done just as much harm as good in the long-term. Yeah, I know, he's St. Dombrowski to a lot of people, but I'm quite comfortable calling myself a Davenostic, even if I'm not a full-blown Davetheist.
The bottom line? I feel safer heading into the Winter Meetings this year. I'm not worried that Al Avila is going to throw the fanbase into disorientation by pulling the rug out on us: Guess what? I TRADED DOUG FISTER FOR BASEBALL CARDS. Guess also what? ALFREDO SIMON, BOOM!
With the way Avila has gone about his business so far, I'm a lot more confident that whatever trades he makes, whatever free agents he signs, he will have had a lot of assistance from both scouts and a solid analytics team who know what xFIP is. Beyond that, he knows what xFIP is too, and he knows it's important.
So bring on the madness in Nashville. I'm going to sleep soundly, and this year, any drinking I do will be recreational, not Tigers-related.