Just days after executing a trio of pre-deadline trades that signaled the end of the Tigers' four-season reign as AL Central champions, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has been released from his contract after 14 years on the job, with assistant general manager Al Avila promoted to the role of executive vice president of baseball operations and GM. The sudden and almost shocking shakeup ends an exciting chapter of baseball in Detroit. Though the Tigers didn’t win a World Series under Dombrowski, he rebuilt the franchise into one of the game’s powerhouses following a very lean stretch of nearly two decades.
That the 59-year-old Dombrowski, who guided the team to five playoff appearances and two pennants during his tenure, is out is itself not a shock, for he did not have a contract for next season, and rumors of his departure had been circulating for weeks given the lack of progress toward an extension. That the move comes in midseason, just after the passing of a July 31 trade deadline in which Dombrowski traded away David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria, is more surprising. Said owner Mike Ilitch in a press release on the Tigers' web site:
"I would like to thank Dave Dombrowski for his 14 years of service … Together we've enjoyed some success, but we're still in aggressive pursuit of our ultimate goal: to bring a World Series title to Detroit and Michigan. I've decided to release Dave from his contract in order to afford him the time to pursue other career opportunities. I feel this is the right time for the Tigers to move forward under new leadership."
Dombrowski joined the Tigers as president/CEO/GM in April 2002. Prior to that, he served in a variety of roles, many on the player development side, with the White Sox (1978–1986) and Expos (1987–1991). He became the latter team's general manager midway through the 1988 season, when he was just 31 years old. During his time in Montreal, he brought promising homegrown youngsters such as Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom to the majors but also presided over the trades of Tim Raines to the White Sox and a young Randy Johnson to the Mariners. He left the perpetually cash-strapped Expos to join the expansion Florida Marlins as executive vice president and GM in September 1991 (they would not begin play until 1993), presiding over both the construction of the surprise 1997 world champions and their sudden dismantling the following year. That cycle included the hiring of former Pirates manager Jim Leyland and then the skipper’s sudden resignation when the gutted team crashed from 92–70 to 54–108, though the two men would cross paths again.
Dombrowski left Florida in November 2001, months before the infamous three-way franchise swap that allowed Marlins owner John Henry to purchase the Red Sox, and Expos owner Jeffrey Loria to purchase the Marlins, with the Expos turned into wards of the other 29 teams; they would eventually move to Washington in 2005. The Tigers initially hired Dombrowski to be their president and CEO, but when the team started the 2002 season 0–6, he fired incumbent GM Randy Smith, who had failed to produce a winning team in six seasons on the job. The Tigers hadn't finished above .500 since 1993 and had just two winning seasons since 1988.
Dombrowski’s arrival didn’t turn things around immediately. The Tigers lost 106 games in 2002 and 119 in '03, nearly surpassing the 1962 Mets for modern-era futility, but the free-agent signings of Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers, trades for Placido Polanco and Carlos Guillen, the drafting of Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander and the hiring of Leyland in October 2005 paid off. The 2006 team won 95 games, a Wild Card berth and the AL pennant—the Tigers’ first since 1984—before falling to the Cardinals in the World Series.
That was the start of a strong eight-year run with Leyland at the helm, during which the team finished at or above .500 seven times, and drew over three million fans four times. In December 2007, Dombrowski pulled off an eight-player blockbuster that may serve as the signature move of his regime, trading 2005 first-round pick Cameron Maybin, 2006 first-rounder Andrew Miller and three other draftees to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Though the latter's career fell apart in Detroit, the former, who Dombrowski signed to an eight-year, $152.3 million extension that's been worth every penny, has continued to carve a path to Cooperstown, winning two AL MVP awards and three batting titles with Detroit, including the 2012 Triple Crown. Though the Tigers lost a Game 163 play-in for the AL Central title in 2009, and sank to 81–81 the following year, they took the division in each of the next three seasons under Leyland, though they could not grab that elusive championship. They lost to the Rangers in the 2011 ALCS, to the Giants in the 2012 World Series and to the Red Sox in the 2013 ALCS, the last of which served as the grizzled manager's swan song.
Under first-year manager Brad Ausmus in 2014, the team, augmented by the July 31 acquisition of Price via a three-way deal involving the Rays and Mariners, won 90 games and the AL Central, but it was swept out of the Division Series by the Orioles. Despite the loss of Verlander to the disabled list via a triceps strain, Detroit began this season at 11–2, but since then, it's gone 40–52, for the third-worst record in the AL.
Cabrera's calf strain, a pitching staff that has proven surprisingly weak at both ends, a downtrodden minor-league system that ranked last in the majors via Baseball America's Organizational Rankings in spring and a 1–5 stretch that knocked the team under .500 led Ilitch and Dombrowski to conclude that it was time to sell. On July 30, Dombrowski traded Price to the Blue Jays for lefty pitching prospects Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt. A day later, he dealt Cespedes to the Mets for righty prospects Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa, and Soria to the Pirates for Double A shortstop JaCoby Jones.
The haul, which generally drew strong reviews, has already started to pay dividends, as Norris threw seven innings of one-run ball in Sunday's win over the Orioles, and Boyd will make his Tigers debut on Wednesday against the Royals. Given those moves, Dombrowski’s abrupt departure rates as somewhat puzzling, for there was no reason he couldn’t have stayed to finish out the season and oversee what he termed “a reboot” if so inclined. As The Detroit News’s Lynn Henning wrote, “We're left to conclude, as had been the growing feeling this summer, that 14 years was a relationship's expiration date for two iron-minded men who, for so long, needed each other and no longer do.”
Whatever the inside-baseball reasons turn out to be, Dombrowski's departure leaves him available to pursue other openings. The Angels are currently under interim GM Bill Stoneman, who returned to his post after Jerry Dipoto's resignation on July 1. Blue Jays president/CEO Paul Beeston and GM Alex Anthopoulos are both in the final year of their contracts, with the former set to retire at the end of this season—a situation that helps to explain the team’s aggressive deadline moves. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is in the final season of his contract, though the recent hiring of Andy MacPhail as team president makes that an unlikely fit for Dombrowski.
Likewise in Boston despite the possibility of a reunion with Henry, the recent announcement of Larry Lucchino stepping aside as president/CEO has been sold as a promotion for Sam Kennedy, the team's longtime chief operating officer. Seattle could be another option, as current GM Jack Zduriencik has presided over just two winning seasons out of seven (including this one) and has yet to take the team back to the postseason. Dombrowski could in theory claim a president of baseball operations title while team president Kevin Mather handles the business side. If none of those jobs are fits for Dombrowski, he could wind up working as an executive for Major League Baseball, though having fallen short in his attempt to succeed Bud Selig as commissioner, he may not want to be seen as angling for Rob Manfred’s job.
As for the Tigers, the 57-year-old Avila received a five-year contract. He has never served as a GM before except in an interim capacity following Dombrowski's 2001 departure, but he has a lengthy résumé that includes 24 years of experience in professional baseball with the Marlins, Pirates and Tigers. For the Marlins, he oversaw the amateur signings of Livan Hernandez, Cabrera, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez and Edgar Renteria as well as the drafting of Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez. He joined the Tigers in April 2002 as assistant GM and has served under Dombrowski ever since.
He's got some impressive bloodlines, to boot. Father Ralph Avila was a pioneer in scouting the Dominican Republic and still serves as a senior advisor for the Dodgers, for whom he signed Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez as well as his older brother Ramon and other longtime major leaguers such as Mariano Duncan, Alejandro Pena and Rick Rhoden. Son (and pending free agent) Alex Avila was the Tigers' regular catcher for the past six seasons, but amid injuries has been supplanted this year by James McCann.
At his introductory press conference, Avila expressed support for Ausmus and said Ilitch is not in "cost-cutting mode." He inherits a challenge nonetheless. The 86-year-old Ilitch has spent aggressively in an attempt to produce a winner, but the team's payroll ($172.8 million to start the year, since reduced by trades) is buckling under the weight of more than $480 million worth of long-term commitments to Verlander, Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler. Those commitments forced Dombrowski to part with Doug Fister via trade after the 2013 season, and then Max Scherzer via free agency after the 2014 season. Price (who clearly wasn't going to be able to re-sign with Detroit) and Cespedes (who has expressed an interest in returning) are already gone, and another $25 million will come off the books as Avila, Joe Nathan, Alfredo Simon and Rajai Davis reach free agency. Via Cot’s Contracts, the team has $104.8 million committed to just six players, plus another $7 million to pay Nathan’s buyout and an annual payout to the Rangers to help cover Prince Fielder’s salary.
Avila will have to hope that Verlander and Sanchez can return to form, but he’ll need to dip into the free-agent market to find additional pitching help, not only with the rotation but also a bullpen that has proven to be a multiyear calamity. The good news is that in 24-year-old centerfielder Anthony Gose, the 25-year-old McCann and 25-year-old shortstop Jose Iglesias, the team has young, club-controlled talent up the middle that can serve as a foundation as the Tigers retool. They’ll have an effective but aging Cabrera, too; his eight-year, $248 million contract, which covers his age 33–40 seasons, kicks in next year and runs through 2023.
With Cabrera, Verlander, Avila and others in place, some continuity to the next chapter is assured, but Dombrowski’s departure marks the end of an era in Detroit baseball, one that restored luster to the franchise, if not that elusive championship.