The lessons of Dave Dombrowski, baseball’s most coveted free agent – SB Nation

Dave Dombrowski has a .468 winning percentage as a general manager. Basically, every team he’s put together has gone 76-86, adrift and out of contention, on average. Heck, even Ruben Amaro, Jr. has a career .510 winning percentage. And we’re supposed to believe that teams are so excited about Dombrowski that there’s a bidding war for his services? That there’s even a MYSTERY CLUB? Seems unlikely.

Unless there’s more to Dombrowski than can be gleaned by a simple winning percentage, which is absolutely the case. He’s been one of baseball’s most compelling executives for nearly two decades, twisting and turning through calamities that often weren’t his fault, and successes that very much were. Where will he go? Blue Jays? Red Sox? Angels? Whichever team signs him will throw a party, and they’ll share the liquor with the fans. There are few baseball executives worth throwing a party for. He’s one of them.

To remind you why, here are a list of baseball lessons that Dombrowski has shared with us baseball peons. He was, and will be, as deserving of his own Michael Lewis-penned hagiography, and these are the lessons that the book would impart.

Trade whatever in the hell you have for young megastars

This is a tricky one because it doesn’t come up often, and when it does, there are going to be no guarantees that your organization will have enough prospects or young players to follow through. It’s probably the most important GM lesson there is, though. When the (then) Florida Marlins decided they needed to trade a 24-year-old Miguel Cabrera because they dislike planning for the future, consistency, their fans and fun, Dombrowski pounced. There were all sorts of other offers that looked good at the time, mostly hilarious in retrospect, but Dombrowski went over the top and beat them all.

Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller were both top-10 prospects. Not just in the Tigers’ system, but in all of baseball. How many GMs would trade both in one deal? Several, perhaps, when the return is a 24-year-old with clear Hall of Fame talent, but not all. It was a risk, considering that Maybin was almost certainly going to be a cheap, five-tool superstar and Miller was a prototypical left-handed ace.

Always, always, always make that trade. The Dodgers were reportedly mulling a Matt Kemp/Clayton Kershaw package, which would have been something like a worst-case scenario … except they would have had one of the best hitters in baseball history to help soften the blow.

It’s a special situation, as most 24-year-old superstars aren’t usually on the trade market, but that’s the point. If it does happen, freak out. Trade everything. Part of me wishes Jeffrey Loria owned the Nationals, just so we could see what a Bryce Harper derby would look like.

Rebuilding is a myth

At least, it’s a myth that there’s only contending and not-contending, with set strategies for each. When you contend, you’re supposed to contend with veterans and established players. When you rebuild, you’re supposed to rebuild with young players. That’s the established paradigm, at least. It’s just common sense.


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Dombrowski was never into absolutes, though. He took over a Tigers team that would have one of the worst seasons in baseball history, and his job was to rebuild. The problem is that he had three Popsicle sticks, electrical tape and an Ikea catalog. You can’t build anything from that, other than an Ikea catalog wrapped in electrical tape, with three Popsicle sticks jutting out of it. So Dombrowski looked outside the organization, both with trades and free agents.

And, oh, you should have heard the howling and guffaws when he signed a 31-year-old Ivan Rodriguez. Two years after the franchise low point, the Tigers were laden with position players players close to 30, and expensive superstars over 30. Don’t rebuilding teams trade those kinds of players?

The Tigers rode Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez to the AL pennant just three years after losing 119 games. The Tigers had just one traditional blue chip prospect-turned-regular in their lineup, Curtis Granderson. The rest was cobbled together with money, minor trades and general fleecings. Kenny Rogers was a 41-year-old pitcher signed to a three-year contract by a last-place team — just imagine the cyber-tittering if the Phillies did something similar today. It all worked, though. The rebuild was a reload at the same time, and it set the Tigers up to contend for most of the next decade.

In the middle of that contending decade, Dombrowski took an established player and transformed him into young prospects, the way a rebuilding team might. Why? Because the opportunity was there. The 2009 Tigers finished in second place, and they were hoping to contend the following season, but they traded a 28-year-old, homegrown All-Star and an established, 25-year-old All-Star starting pitcher for a center field prospect and an enigmatic young pitcher.

If I were a Tigers fan, I probably would have freaked out. But turning Granderson and Edwin Jackson into Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson became one of his defining moves with the Tigers, helping them to another pennant. It was a rebuilding move from a team that wasn’t rebuilding, a move by someone who really, really, really trusted his assembled braintrust. Someone explained why Jackson wasn’t going to last, why Scherzer was going to win a Cy Young and why the future contributions of Austin Jackson and money saved were worth the short-term hit of losing Granderson.

It was one of the Beaniest moves of Dombrowski’s career, unless the other moves were the Dombrowskiest of the Beane moves. It was one eye toward the future, one eye locked on the present and a third eye checking out how the players performed five years in the future. The young pitchers acquired for David Price and Yoenis Cespedes have an excellent shot to extend that tradition.

Got that? Sign older free agents when your team is dreadful and trade your young, established players when your team is contending. Just don’t screw it up.

Be flexible

Because owners are weird. Imagine that you design electronic gadgets, and your latest creation took the world by storm. Everyone has one of your dongle-doohickies on their wrists or in their pockets. The president of the United States has one, and he just mentioned it in his State of the Union address. You’ve done it. You’re at the top of your field.

Then your boss comes in and says, “Oh, by the way, we make kitchen appliances now. Please change everything you were working on, shift gears and stop production on that ludicrously successful product.”

There would be an adjustment period of pain, and you would almost certainly look for a new job, but, by gum, you were going to make sure the person taking over for you would have the best kitchen appliance template possible.

The 1997 Marlins were the successful gadget. The 1998 Marlins were confused factory foremen trying to put oven doors on a watch band. The 2003 Marlins were a thriving furniture company, running from the template Dombrowski left behind.

It’s not just the weirdos running the Marlins, though. Dombrowski went to the Tigers, who were run by an impulsive, dedicated, smart owner who was desperate to win. Dombrowski had ideas of how to make that happen, most of which didn’t include Prince Fielder, and whoops, there’s Prince Fielder on the roster. Now make it work. He did, and the complementary moves got the Tigers another pennant. When the Fielder deal predictably soured, he traded him for a more valuable player that fit the roster much better.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there are apparently several ways to … duct-tape fur to a tiger that is cold and shivering? Dunno, that line will (probably) be fixed in the editing process, but the point is that Dombrowski can adapt to the whims of his owners, rebuilding as well as he reloaded.

Valar Morghulis

Which translates to: All GMs must die. This is the saddest, truest lesson of Dombrowski.

Every team will get tired of every GM. Every team will hit a rough spot. Brian Cashman will sail into that good night. Brian Sabean will shuffle off that contending coil. Eventually, even Dombrowski’s new team will look for something else out of their GM, unless Dombrowski will look for something new out of his new team.

His failing in Detroit? He could never assemble a bullpen that was good enough to complete his generally excellent rosters. Part of that is poor luck, signing the wrong minor league free agents instead of the right ones, and part of that is poor planning. Anyone who watched the Tigers in the postseason knew they needed bullpen help, and a year later, they’re still the kind of team that doesn’t feel safe with a six-run lead.

Dombrowski isn’t perfect, and the under-.500 Tigers should tell you as much. Occasionally, the imperfections can take over the roster’s intended design, and Dombrowski will have to move on. Valar Morghulis.

If you disagree with one of his moves, you’re probably wrong, except for that horrible Doug Fister trade

Man, that still ticks me off, though I guess it’s not like Fister is helping the Nationals right now. Still, he turned a rotation stalwart into Shane Greene in a couple simple steps. This was … sub-optimal.

The rest of his moves are usually sound, though. The rest of his moves usually make a lot more sense, and he’s seeing the whole chessboard while you’re busy learning what the horsie does. He’s been one of baseball’s better executives for a long time now.

It was time for a new challenge, though. Teams are going to line up. He will be paid a lot of money. If Dombrowski holds true to the lessons he’s taught the rest of us, he and his new team should be delighted.


SB Nation presents: The Mets’ recent trade collapse


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