Some guys just have a knack for doing their job really well. Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has always somehow pulled off the bold, splashy move that makes his team better.
The surprising blockbuster trade that Dombrowski arranged, sending Prince Fielder to the Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler, is just the latest example of his offseason wizardry. With seven years and $168 million remaining on his mega-contract, Fielder was supposed to be untradeable. As much as Tigers fans wanted to ditch their first baseman after his 2013 performance (especially in the postseason), it just didn't seem possible.
Yet if Dombrowski wants something done, he very often finds a way to make it happen. What appears to be a fantasy becomes a reality. And he acts quickly and decisively. According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, Dombrowski approached the Rangers about this trade on Tuesday. By Thursday night, the two sides had a deal.
(By the way, should we forever shelve the idea that a contract is untradeable in MLB? We've now seen Fielder's contract moved in a deal. Vernon Wells has been traded — twice — the first time while still owed $86 million. Alex Rodriguez was dealt to the Yankees with $179 million remaining on his contract at the time. No team's likely interested in A-Rod's current deal and the $86 million he's owed, but the Biogenesis scandal makes his situation a bit different.)
Dombrowski did it in the winter of 2007, beating out the Yankees and Angels for Miguel Cabrera, giving up the top prospects those other clubs wouldn't to land a cornerstone hitter. Of course, that trade looks even better six years later as Cabrera has won two consecutive American League MVP awards while phenoms Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller haven't developed beyond role players at this stage of their careers.
When the Tigers needed to create some payroll flexibility after the 2009 season, Dombrowski traded Curtis Granderson — one of his most popular players — along with pitcher Edwin Jackson in a deal that yielded an eventual AL Cy Young Award winner in Max Scherzer, center fielder of the present and future in Austin Jackson and Phil Coke, who's been a valuable reliever in three of his four seasons with Detroit.
Of course, ownership's role in such massive transactions can't be overlooked. Dombrowski's penchant for the major trade or free agent signing is often enabled — or prompted — by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who's often encouraged his GM to think big. A nudge from Ilitch pushed Dombrowski to trade for Cabrera in 2007 and sign Fielder in 2012. According to rumblings, Mr. I may have also soured on Fielder after his apathetic remarks following Detroit's ALCS loss to the Red Sox.
Obviously, the flashy moves haven't always worked out. Signing Fielder didn't work out as planned. Trading him two years into a nine-year, $214 million deal can't be what the Tigers had in mind — nor was his 2013 performance, especially in the postseason. Dealing Jair Jurrjens for Edgar Renteria in 2007 wasn't really a winner. (I will always maintain Dombrowski would not have made that trade if he knew he could get Cabrera a month later.) Trading for Jarrod Washburn in 2009 became a disaster.
But a general manager isn't merely defined by the good moves he makes. How he recovers from the bad moves is also extremely important. Dombrowski rebounded from the Renteria gaffe by signing a far better defensive shortstop in Adam Everett. When Everett's feeble bat became an issue, the Tigers dealt for Jhonny Peralta. On the pitching side, Detroit bounced back from Washburn's washout by trading for Scherzer the following season.
Now, Dombrowski and the Tigers have unloaded an underperforming player — one who appears to have worn out his welcome with fans and management — before his presence could become a major problem. But more importantly, Detroit has also unlocked the handcuffs that likely would have prevented Dombrowski from making necessary changes and additions to a team that still has its eyes on a World Series championship.
In that regard, trading Fielder may have a similar effect to the payroll dump the Red Sox made in 2012 when they traded Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. While the Tigers obviously aren't undertaking the roster overhaul that Red Sox GM Ben Cherington executed last year, shedding $108 million gives Dombrowski the opportunity to address other needs on his team. The bullpen needs to add a closer and probably a setup reliever as well. Left field is a question mark that needs to be answered (while perhaps also taking care of a need for a leadoff hitter).
Perhaps more urgently, this also allows Detroit to possibly keep its window toward a championship open longer. Signing Scherzer to a new contract after this season now looks more feasible. Inking Cabrera to a contract extension (he's set to become a free agent after 2015) is also more realistic than it was while Fielder's contract held down the Tigers' payroll like a concrete block.
Detractors might point out that Detroit still hasn't won a World Series during Dombrowski's tenure, but it can't be said that the man hasn't tried. Whether it's adding a major piece to the roster or selling off a player to clear space on the payroll, Dombrowski has been able to make over the Tigers several times since taking his current position in 2002, and even since Detroit became a perennial American League contender in 2006.
Compare Dombrowski's work to peers such as Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, who's trying to wring all he can out of an aging core of players while seemingly refusing to acknowledge that a roster has to continually adapt to stay competitive. The Tigers may indeed face the same circumstances that the Phillies are currently dealing with, but it won't be because Dombrowski is too stubborn to admit his mistakes or hoping for revitalizations that aren't likely to happen.
Anyone who creates or manages something — whether it's assembling a baseball team, putting together an office staff or writing a book — has to be ruthless in acknowledging what doesn't work and willing to slice it away. The objective has to be making that endeavor better, regardless of how the changes might be perceived. Dombrowski's willingness to do that is what continues to set him apart from so many of his fellow MLB general managers and makes every offseason in Detroit an exciting and hopeful one. Whether or not it results in a World Series championship, the ambition is always there.