HEY BIG SPENDER (Part 4)

By:  Holly Horning

Today, we wrap up the complete analysis of Dave Dombrowski’s tenure as GM with the fourth installment covering his non-roster-related work, including some of the intangibles.

If you didn’t read the first three blogs, catch them at:

https://totallytigers.wordpress.com/2015/12/06/hey-big-spender-part-1/

https://totallytigers.wordpress.com/2015/12/10/hey-big-spender-part-2/

https://totallytigers.wordpress.com/2015/12/13/hey-big-spender-part-3/

Dombrowski was not only the GM, but also the President and CEO of the Tigers for most of his years with the team. Someone holding these titles is responsible for strengthening, advancing and protecting the future of their organization.

While is it common knowledge among fans that Dave did much to bring the Tigers out of the cellar and make Detroit a desirable place for ballplayers to sign, we are actually hard-pressed to find non-roster areas of the organization where he left a visible imprint.

Dave did bring a high level of professionalism to the Tigers both in his work with employees and within the baseball world. How many of us were proud to point to this high level of behavior as other teams were involved in messy public events that diminished the lustre of their organization? How many teams can state that their employees stay for years because of the positive work environment?

But outside of the roster-related dealings, did Dombrowski leave the organization better than when he came to Detroit? Sadly, we never really considered it until he left and Al Avila came in. As written in Part 3 of this blog, Al wasted no time in implementing numerous changes within weeks of assuming the new GM position.

Could it be said that Dave was, in essence, a one-tool GM who only focused on building the roster? A GM only focused on getting the Tigers to the World Series? Did he plan at all for the future? Did he introduce any programs that would ensure the Tigers stayed competitive for years to come?

The answer is, sadly, no. I really tried to find reports of new systems or resources he created but came up empty in my research.

Dave left a team that finished in last place despite a payroll that was one of the highest in MLB. A team that had no depth and no backup plan in case of injuries. A team with an outdated farm system that had also been stripped bare. A team with future payroll commitments of almost a half billion dollars and only surpassed by the Dodgers.

But let’s now go through the doors of the Front Office to see what was, or wasn’t, going on behind the scenes.

Earlier in this series, you read about Al Avila’s creation of an analytics department. During Dave’s entire tenure, the Tigers were at the bottom of MLB alongside the smallest market teams in not possessing this resource. It was Brad Ausmus who lobbied to get one and was rewarded with 1 part-time analyst by Dave. Dave was big on saying he didn’t believe in analytics.

Speaking of adding personnel, Dombrowski resisted updating the medical and training staff while keeping most of the department, like all the others, intact and untouched for most of the time he served as GM.

The majority of other teams were expanding theirs to provide full service, both mental and physical as well as preventative and injury-focused.  Yet the Tigers kept a bare bones approach despite their competition having 3 times as many staff.  You can read the full blog that details the Tigers’ rise of injuries and the decline of the medical department at:

https://totallytigers.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/ignoring-injuries-and-investments/

Dombrowski also avoided adding important software programs which aid scouts in evaluating prospects. In response, Avila has brought in a former technology and baseball executive from Apple. Can’t get much better than that. I’m sure he’ll also be recommending how to update the computer systems, too.

And much to my relief, Al has taken a first step in finally branding the Tigers with his announcement about creating a “Tigers’ Way” manual. Christmas has come early for this branding consultant. I must send Mr. Avila a thank you note.

Yet, I wince when I think that more than half of all MLB teams have one – with the first one appearing over 60 years ago. Could Dave have felt this wasn’t important considering that he traded for most of the roster? Afterall, only 4 current players came up through the Tigers’ ranks.

Dave also preferred to consolidate his power by having as few executives with real power as possible. A trend he will continue in Boston. While known as Boston’s President of Baseball Operations, he will also be responsible for making trades, instead of Mike Hazen. The new GM will be relegated to having a job description more akin to that of an Assistant GM.

Not surprisingly, Dave avoided bringing in a President of Baseball Operations in Detroit. A new position more and more teams are adopting with the capability of overseeing the big picture. Many of the teams with them have hired young guys with MBAs – even some with Wall Street experience. Their primary job is to ensure the long-term health of a club and how well the financials support the club’s goals.

So what can we deduce from all of this? Was Dave an “old school” GM? Someone who didn’t consider improvements or time-tested tools to help him make better choices? Was he making decisions based upon less information? Were other teams starting to pass him by simply because they had adapted to the changes in the game?

Despite Dombrowski’s unwillingness to address the technological side of the game, how were his people skills?

He was known to be well-liked within the baseball world. An excellent communicator with politician-level skills that diplomatically concealed problems and protected reputations while revealing no real information that would cast a negative shadow.

But did he read stats better than he read people? Did he take into account human dynamics that impact how well a team performs? Did he understand that a mix of personalities works best? And did he understand the value of bringing in real leaders – vocal leaders?

While we will never know how the entire team fit together from year to year, there have to be concerns about some visible examples where Dave failed at reading humans well.

The first question, and one of life’s greatest mysteries after, of course, the Doug Fister trade, revolves around the hiring of Brad Ausmus. Maybe Brad just interviews very well, but Ausmus’ lack of anything dynamic (which is spoofed roundly on radio) is in stark contrast to Dave’s quote about being “blown away” by Brad.

Add that to the rationale for hiring a guy with no managing experience for a team expected to make, and win, the World Series, and it just makes for a collective head shaking.

And then there is Bruce Rondon. Never in history can one remember a minor league prospect being given the closer job year after year before he even played in the majors. Did Dave just look at his stats and potential – and disregard the mental game and character?

When Al Avila took over, it didn’t take him long to send Rondon home. And as we found out, Bruce’s approach to the game had been a long-standing issue that had also impacted the clubhouse.

Appropriately we close out this series by coming full circle. Dombrowski and Mr. I. A relationship characterized as good but with periods of friction. I have often wondered about what Dave was thinking in this last year of his contract. A year in which he had no contract extension talks. Did he not wonder what Mr. I was thinking?

An owner who clearly spelled out what his GM needed to do. An owner who opened his checkbook and took payroll from $55 million to over $170 million. An extremely patient owner who gave his GM 14 years to accomplish his goal. And didn’t.

How could Dave be at all surprised at his release? When questioned at the latest press conference, Mr. I was equally puzzled and responded “If you’re not winning, you have to change.” Mr. I seemed to indicate that Dave shouldn’t have been surprised at all.

And maybe that’s it. For all that Dave had brought to Detroit, maybe he simply couldn’t adapt to a changing game or alter his strategy. Maybe change wasn’t included in the impressive list of skills he brought with him 14 years ago.

3 thoughts on “HEY BIG SPENDER (Part 4)

  1. How DD has acted in Boston shows maybe that’s his way of building a team, buying superstars for the happiness of the owner who sees the sellout crowd at every game, and for the matter was a Mr I’s good partner. But I wonder how much the surprising 2006 season had to do with their strategy. Did DD/MR I think they could get the ring before they thought and that rushed their plans?

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  2. Thanks for taking us thru the doors of the front office Holly! All four of your blogs provided a wonderful analysis of Dave’s skills and shortcomings. I’m left to wonder how long Dave will continue his 1960’s processes…

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  3. If Brad has an understanding of analytics, perhaps during the interview process that blew Dave away was the understanding that if hired Brad was going to use these numbers tools to help plan strategies, use a bullpen and juggle the lineup when needed. Dave perhaps thought that he would not be around toward the end of Brad’s contract to see if his inexperience and use of analytics would work or not.

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