Henning: Failure in 2015 was too much for Ilitch

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Few people, it seems, can yet believe the timing of Dave Dombrowski’s dismissal Tuesday as the Tigers’ 14-year, front-office commander.

But what we knew Friday, as the Tigers got ready for a game they would lose to the Red Sox, 7-2, at Comerica Park, is that the week of July 27 featured dual storylines.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was disgusted over his 2015 Tigers team and its fraying as a playoff club. He was no happier when Dombrowski, following heavy meetings with this staff in Florida, said they lacked the trade pieces to add a starting pitcher that might salvage 2015’s playoff chase.

Dombrowski recommended the Tigers instead exploit a historically high July market and deal billboard players, a few months from free agency, for multiple talents that might help build better long-term baseball seasons in Detroit.

Ilitch wasn’t happy. But he gave the go-ahead 24 hours after Dombrowski had urged his boss to sell. And at that hour, as the team prepared to board a charter flight from Tampa to Baltimore, Dombrowski went to work making three trades in the final 48 hours ahead of the July 31 deadline.

When the 4 p.m. bell sounded eight days ago, the Tigers had spun off David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria for six young prospects, five of them pitchers.

Those with knowledge of last week’s events and key players say they believe Dombrowski knew he was in trouble once Ilitch agreed last week to look past 2015. Never in Dombrowski’s previous years with Ilitch had he gone so deeply into summer minus a contract renewal. The quasi-surrender of 2015, even if based on reality and a club’s future health, is understood to have sealed his exit.

But rather than work indifferently or with any sense of resignation, Dombrowski instead hit the throttle on trade talks. His reputation from 30 years of working as a GM is that he makes effective deals and is all but unmatched during the waning hours of July’s trade mart.

His stock might have risen a point or two last week, particularly given the impending dread he was feeling following those conversations with Ilitch.

Dombrowski arrived with the team in Baltimore and soon was talking seriously with Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. In the early hours of Thursday morning, they had agreed Price would go to Toronto for three left-handers, highlighted by Daniel Norris.

Dombrowski in demand

Then, on Friday, Dombrowski went all-in with the Mets on a deal for Cespedes. Minutes before the 4 p.m. trade-mart close, Dombrowski won. His hold-out paid off in a package that sent Cespedes to the Mets and brought a pair of prospect pitchers to the Tigers, including star right-hander Michael Fulmer.

A third deal, for Soria, netted the Tigers a young infielder, JaCoby Jones. But none of the late wheeling and dealing appeared to change Ilitch’s mind. The owner called Al Avila on Saturday and told Avila he would become the team’s new GM.

Dombrowski, for reasons that aren’t yet clear, was not officially notified of his dismissal until Ilitch phoned him Tuesday afternoon.

It is baffling, in a superficial sense, how Ilitch and Dombrowski came to part so abruptly, so bloodlessly. They had together wrought the finest sustained run of baseball the Tigers have ever known.

But the failure to bring Ilitch his world championship was an ache that, quite clearly, became more than mere disappointment as Ilitch watched his 2015 team plummet and Dombrowski’s hallmark strength, pitching, weaken in unprecedented ways.

And so he is gone. It will not be for long. Dombrowski is a hot ticket, and should be, considering his 30-year record and how baseball people — baseball people — regard him and his assorted skills.

The belief here is he will end up in Toronto, where the front office is about to change with Paul Beeston’s retirement. It could be Seattle, or even Philadelphia, or Los Angeles (Angels). Boston has some front-office flux at the moment, but the Red Sox are viewed, by all parties, as being a bad fit for Dombrowski, given the club’s current politics.

But for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is Dombowski has experience running a Canadian team, the Expos, the situation at Toronto seems to be Dombrowski’s best match.

Few can match his skills

The Tigers will feel his loss. Which isn’t to say Avila and his realigned front office won’t succeed. There is a reason Avila and others remain in important slots with the Tigers. All were Dombrowski lieutenants for many years, spanning different teams.

They’re good and smart baseball men. But so, of course, was their former boss, who had a skill set few GMs can duplicate.

The Tigers will be a different baseball team in years ahead. Ilitch and his fans will hope for more of those big seasons and playoff runs that became fairly regular here beginning with the 2006 turnaround.

They’ll also hope a world championship is, this time, part of the mix. There will be no official acknowledgment that, given the realities of professional sports, things might not go as dreamily as hoped.