Everything in Dave Dombrowski’s baseball soul was telling him he was not overseeing a very good team. The standings said the Tigers were in the AL wild card race, but Dombrowski’s eyes revealed something else.
Still, he knew the mandate. The Tigers were big spenders with huge expectations and an aging owner, Mike Ilitch, wanting a championship in his lifetime. So Dombrowski, Detroit’s general manager, kind of closed his eyes and kept pushing.
He felt his club could not contend without upgrading its pitching, and just after the All-Star break he tried to make a deal, including talking to the A’s about Scott Kazmir. But draining the farm system in recent years to go for it left Dombrowski without the necessary chips for such a deal and — double whammy — left a depleted farm system badly in need of a youth infusion.
Still, Dombrowski was resisting making a recommendation to Ilitch to be sellers at the trade deadline. Echoing the sentiments of several executives, one AL official said, “A week before the deadline, Dave had no intention of moving anyone.”
After getting blown out 11-1 in Boston on July 26 and losing 5-2 in St. Petersburg on July 27, the Tigers – with David Price on the mound – fell behind the Rays 5-1 on July 28 (a game Tampa Bay would eventually win 10-2), and Dombrowski could not shun what his baseball soul was telling him any longer.
“When you watch a team every day, you know things that people who don’t see you every day can’t know,” said Dombrowski, who would be fired soon after and eventually become Boston’s president of baseball operations.
He called Ilitch and recommended the Tigers sell their three main free agents — Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria. The next day — with 48 hours remaining before the non-waiver trade deadline — Ilitch gave his blessings. Dombrowski began a 48-hour sale. And a baseball season changed forever.
Imagine if Detroit wins those three games, or even two. The White Sox, for example, played well in the week before the deadline and decided not to sell, particularly Jeff Samardzija. Many Mets officials believe arguably their worst loss of the season, the July 30 setback to the Padres in which they blew a 7-1 lead amid rain delays, convinced San Diego not to trade Justin Upton — a player the Mets were willing to acquire for a package similar to what ultimately landed them Cespedes.
Even with the three losses, the Tigers were just four games out in the wild card, just 1½ games worse than Toronto. With a few more wins at just the right time, maybe they don’t trade Price to the Blue Jays or Cespedes to the Mets — deals that more than any others have shifted the races in the AL East and NL East. Dombrowski agreed timing is a factor and, yes, what a fickle beast a baseball season is.
This one in particular. For has there ever been a season in which the trade deadline made the buyers so much better and the sellers so much worse?
It was hard enough for the Phillies, for example, to win all year, and then they traded their ace (Cole Hamels), closer (Jonathan Papelbon) and leading hitter (Ben Revere). The Braves began selling in the offseason and that didn’t kill them, but their second sell-off in July (which began when Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe were moved to the Mets) has left them essentially a Triple-A team plus Freddie Freeman.
Obviously, there were trades before July 31, but just to start at a fixed point: Six of the seven worst records in the majors since the start of August belong to teams that moved the best assets — the Braves, Reds, Rockies, Tigers, A’s and Phillies — and of that group, all but the Phillies have considerably worse winning percentages than before July 31. Those teams went from bad to atrocious.
The two best teams — by far — over that span are the Blue Jays and Mets. Toronto was six games behind the Yankees after the games of July 31, the Mets were two behind the Nationals. They are a combined 62-22 since.
And the differential between the Blue Jays/Mets and the sellers is just as dramatic. Before beginning a three-game series Tuesday against Atlanta, Toronto had played eight games against big sellers (Oakland, Philadelphia and Detroit) and gone 7-1 with a 59-25 run differential. The Mets have played 18 games since the deadline against those sellers (Colorado, Philadelphia and Atlanta), going 17-1 with a 141-77 run differential.
Since Aug. 1, Price is second in the AL in ERA at 2.28 (minimum 40 innings) with a 6-1 record. In that timeframe, Cespedes leads the NL in homers (17) and slugging percentage (.691).
Think about the Tigers winning a few games the week before the deadline and deciding not to be sellers. Now, think how that would have influenced this season.