Sometimes I think Dave Dombrowski should write a book about running a high-payroll baseball team, but I doubt any other general manager would buy it. Dombrowski does things that don't make much sense, right until the moment they do. And to understand how deftly he has navigated a job that is more difficult than people realize, look at what Dombrowski did, from start to finish, with Prince Fielder.
Dombrowksi's Tigers traded Fielder and almost all of his enormous contract to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler. The Tigers will have to eat some money -- various reports pegged the total at $30 million -- but they unload the rest of Fielder's contract, and anyway, the point here is not the money. If the Tigers have shown anything, it's that they don't worry about bang for the buck. They worry about winning. That is it. This will make them better, once Dombrowski knocks down a few more dominoes.
We all like to think that it's easy running a big-market, high-payroll baseball team. Protect your prospects, outspend teams in the amateur market wherever possible, sign free agents who are expensive but not too expensive, avoid monstrous deals to old players, and you're good to go.
In real life, it's not that simple. In real life, everybody has an owner. Dombrowski has Mike Ilitch, an 84-year-old former Tigers minor leaguer who is desperate to win a World Series before he dies. That means the Tigers spend big. But it also means there are no five-year plans, and that can get tricky.
In January 2012, Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez tore up his knee. The Tigers could have waited a year to get Martinez back; they had a great shot at winning the American League Central anyway. But Ilitch does not believe in waiting a year, and Dombrowski knows what every young professional should learn: Pleasing your boss is part of your job. You might not agree with everything your boss does. You might not want to do what he asks. But he is your boss. Pleasing him is part of your job.
Dombrowski told Ilitch there were several low-cost options, but only one real difference-maker. Ilitch had a soft spot for Fielder since he was a kid, but Ilitch has a soft spot for any great baseball player who asks for Ilitch's wallet. A mere $214 million later -- and just a few days after the idea of Fielder as a Tiger was absurd to people in the organization -- Fielder was a Tiger.
The Tigers had done something utterly ridiculous: They paid more than anybody else in baseball for a player that they needed less than most teams in baseball. They already had the best first baseman in the game, Miguel Cabrera. Signing Fielder would mean moving Cabrera back to third base, where he had struggled in the past (neither player wanted to be a designated hitter). It meant committing enormous money to the second-best first baseman on the roster when he hit his mid-30s.
None of this mattered. Do you know what mattered? Pleasing the boss. Tomorrow would be tomorrow's problem.
Fielder arrived, hit well, played in the 2012 World Series, and nearly made it back this season. He could be aloof in the clubhouse, but he got along well with Cabrera, and as Cabrera often pointed out, Fielder provided the lineup protection that helped Cabrera win two American League MVP awards.
Fielder also created another problem: He was awful in this past postseason (after being pretty bad in previous postseasons) and worse, he looked tentative and embarrassed. It was an ugly downward spiral, culminating in his ugly bellyflop at third base in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. Fielder then gave a series of bizarre answers after the Tigers were eliminated, such as: "It's not tough for me. It's over. I've got kids to take care of ... For me, it's over, bro."
It's great that Fielder's kids are more important to him than baseball games. But this was an incredibly foolish thing to say. You can care deeply about both your job and your children. Millions of us do it. Heck, Prince Fielder does it. He takes great pride in doing it. He was just being defiant.
This made Fielder a pariah, or close to it, in Detroit. That status clouds some realities about him: He is an exceptional player, remarkably durable, who had a down year while getting divorced. He turns 30 next May. He needs to lose some weight and keep it off as the season progresses -- he clearly gained a few pounds from April to October this year -- but he has missed one game in the last five years.
The Rangers will owe him $168 million over the next seven years, and they have good reason to believe he will be worth it.
The Tigers could have kept Fielder, withstood a few April boos, and watched him produce. The problem was not Fielder himself, or his postseason flop (figuratively and literally), or even his huge contract. The problem was the exact problem everybody saw coming when they signed him: He was the second-best first baseman on the roster, and they owed him a bunch of money into his mid-30s.
Cabrera belongs back at first base. The Tigers are better off spending their money on a Cabrera extension, a Max Scherzer extension, and a second baseman. Now that they have Kinsler, they can work on the other two. They can plug prospect Nick Castellanos in at third base, and they will have a more versatile, athletic lineup that is better suited for the postseason.
Scherzer's contract is up in a year, and he is a Scott Boras client, and so many people have pointed out that Boras likes his clients to test free agency. This is all true. But those folks miss two key points.
One: The Tigers probably have the best relationship with Boras of any team in baseball. This goes back to when they outbid themselves to sign Boras clients Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. It explains why they negotiated the Fielder deal with Boras so quickly. Dombrowski and Ilitch don't complain about Boras's tactics like a lot of owners and executives. They don't roll their eyes publicly at his hyperbole. Boras has players, and the Tigers want players. So they deal with him.
Two: Scherzer does not work for Boras. Boras works for Scherzer. And Boras surely has learned that same valuable lesson: Pleasing your boss is part of your job.
Did the Tigers win the Kinsler-Fielder deal? That's a fun but ultimately irrelevant question. A general manager's job is not to win trades. His job is to win games.
A general manager's job is also not to build the best farm system in baseball. Sometimes that gets lost in the discussion of the best organizations. The Tigers' farm system consistently ranks among the worst in the game. Dombrowski will argue that the rankings are inaccurate, and the Tigers get penalized because they don't publicly promote their minor leaguers.
That is beside the point. Dombrowski understands the most important thing about prospects: They only matter if they help your big-league team win. There is not much point in having winning minor-league teams. It's nice to have 11 guys in your system who are potential major-league starters, but that alone means nothing.
The Tigers, for example, traded their top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner, at the trade deadline in 2012. They acquired a half-season of Anibal Sanchez in the deal. Viewed in a vacuum, that is a poor baseball decision. But Sanchez helped the Tigers make the World Series in 2012, and then the Tigers used their financial might to re-sign him to a five-year, $88-million deal.
Could they have kept Turner and signed Sanchez as a free agent anyway? Maybe. Will they miss out on several productive, cheap years of Turner? Probably. But you know what? None of this matters. They improved their team. If they spent extra to do it, so what? That's the benefit of having Mike Ilitch own your club.
You don't get to hold a parade for having a wonderful minor-league system, and they don't hand out trophies for fiscal responsibility. A general manager is supposed to put together the 25-man major-league roster that gives his team the best chance to win the World Series. Dombrowski's Tigers still haven't won the World Series. But they should have a damn good shot again next year.