Ilitch and Dombrowski – The marriage ended too soon

NOTE: The views expressed in this EDITORIAL do not necessarily reflect the views of Detroit Sports Nation or a majority of its writers and should not be misconstrued as such. The views contained within are the views of the author and the author alone.


When two parties have a strong enough connection to gel together and form a marriage, the chances to yield a successful product increase drastically. Sometimes the strength of one is is the weakness of another, thus, providing balance and unity throughout the period they are together. Other times, the two share a common trait or overall goal, which makes the process that much more fluid.

That was former Detroit Tigers president and General Manager Dave Dombrowski and team owner Mike Ilitch. The latter was fed up with the reputation baseball in Detroit had earned and needed a quick fix. The former had an impressive track record of putting his teams in a position to bring home championships.

Sounds like a match made in heaven for any sports franchise — an owner that is ready to win now and a president with a reputation for building teams to win now in a timely manner. And, for the most part, Dombrowski carried out his job the best way possible.


Because of his successful run down in Miami years before, Ilitch gave Dombrowski the keys to the car, allowing him to make all the necessary moves — spending money on big-time free agents, trading farmhands and/or draft picks for proven big leaguers to add depth. Whatever it meant to make the Tigers, at least on paper, a serious World Series contender from March onward.

And that, he did.

From 2011-14, Dombrowski and the Tigers put together four division crowns, three trips to the AL Championship Series and a rather unlikely visit to the World Series in 2012 (compared to the other three seasons in this span) after playing mediocre baseball for the first four months or so.

Unfortunately after the 2012 season, the team started going in the wrong direction in terms of how their season ended. Exiting in the ALCS in ’13, the Divisional Series round in ’14 and missing the playoffs entirely in ’15 was enough writing on the wall for Dombrowski’s future.

Rightfully so in that sense, Dombrowski failed his employer. The two shared a goal to win right away and virtually do whatever it cost to put the team in that position.

The Tigers had one of the better four-year runs in recent baseball history. However, in this day and age, four 90+ seasons, four AL Central championships, three ALCS appearances and a WS appearance will rarely get recognized by many as a ‘good run’ in sports.

Had they won at least one World Series during that run, it’d be considered a success. But, given all the moves Dombrowski made and how each of those teams ended up, it is declared a failure and I think it’s not fair.

The 2015 season was difficult for the Tigers and their fans for so many reasons. The recent success the city embraced combined with the talent on paper all made it that more frustrating. The last-place finish in the AL Central was highlighted by Dombrowski being relieved of his duties in August after deciding the team was in ‘sell mode’ at the trade deadline.

To many, Dombrowski will be remembered more for being “an aggressive General Manager who spent too much money, depleted the organization’s minor league system, and didn’t fulfill his owner’s wishes.”

Spending too much money – Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera have been cemented in the team’s gradual growth to success, anchoring their respective roles on the team and both deservingly got paid. Victor Martinez earned a pair of four-year pacts with the Tigers and has been the perfect veteran to glue the lineup, even in his mid-30s. If it weren’t for injuries, those contracts would be viewed as money well spent. Signing Prince Fielder was a panic move by Detroit after Martinez announced he’d miss the 2012 season. Sending a message of ‘adding power to lack a little in mobility,’ Detroit got two of Fielder’s best seasons in his career, but his poor postseason performances hurt his affection from fans.

Dombrowski received some flak when he signed Fielder but redeemed himself by trading him to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler, effectively clearing some cap and filling a huge hole at second base.

Ilitch is one of the wealthiest and most free-spending owners in sports, taking advantage of a sport with no salary cap. He green-lighted Dombrowski to make these moves.

Depleted the minor league system – Dombrowski has made a laundry list of moves in an effort to better the Tigers. Signing top tier free agents often costs teams high draft picks. Making trades for big-league-ready talent comes with a price also, usually in the form of draft picks or prospects that are being developed for the future.

Over the last decade plus, the team has had some big league talent sprinkled into their farm system, but by and large, the depth has been thin. They have always prided themselves on using their draft picks predominantly on pitchers, often flipping those for top-notch hitting and rotation help.

The Tigers have been ready to win for some time now, not even thinking about a long-term rebuilding project. In the business of baseball, these types of moves simply have to be made.

Fulfulling the owner’s wishes – The moves were made and the team was in position. Unfortunately, the main goal was never reached and someone had to pay for it. Players don’t get circulated through baseball that often, especially when they’re breaking the bank. One can only make so many changes at the managerial position.

So by default, based on the Tigers’ progressively worse results from 2012-15, Dombrowski was the odd man out. In the words of Mr. Ilitch himself, “I didn’t win a championship with him.”

Dave Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch were a perfect marriage in the front office world of sports. Both are one of the most well-respected at their position in the game of baseball. While I did not support the move to relieve Dombrowski of his duties, the window for the Tigers to win a championship right now remains open.

The keys to the car were given to Dombrowski’s long-time right-hand man, new Tigers GM Al Avila. Avila has already shown his aggressiveness and ability to fix big holes on the roster and, like his former boss, is backed to spend money by his owner.

In my opinion, the Tigers have two years at best, three maybe if Father Time is still being nice to guys like Verlander, Cabrera, and Martinez. But history shows that is never the case as athletes age.

Even still, so long as Ilitch is running the show, the Tigers will be in win-now. Money is not a problem, and the minor league system is not a priority right now.