Paul: Dombrowski can't keep job forever without a title

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski finally gave his season-ending debriefing with the media Tuesday, though definitive answers were hard to come by. Using Major League Baseball's informal news embargo during the postseason as a shield, Dombrowski wouldn't commit to which of the Tigers' big-name free agents he'd like back next year, or which areas the team might try to improve upon during the offseason.

In other words, 60 minutes of sound bites, but not much substance.

Here's what I took away from it.

News: While Dombrowski did say the blame for the Tigers' shortcomings ultimately lies with him, he defended nearly every move the fans have loudly criticized — from the Doug Fister trade to Brad Ausmus' handling of the bullpen in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.

Views: No surprise. Dombrowski isn't one to easily admit when he's made mistakes. (Side note, this is why Ausmus never was going to be fired after just one year.) But the cold, hard reality is the Tigers held their news conference Tuesday, which happed to be the 30th anniversary of the last time the Tigers won a World Series.

Not all of that drought is Dombrowski's fault, mind you. He's only been in charge for a little less than half that. And, sure, he's overseen a great renaissance period in Detroit baseball, with five postseason appearances in the last nine years. But Mike Ilitch's baseball trophy case still has a giant void, which, really, is unacceptable given the $170 million he's trusted Dombrowski to spend freely but also wisely.

After Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd resigned last week, Dombrowski moved up to No. 4 on the seniority list among current baseball general managers.

Brian Sabean's been on the job longest, with the Giants, who appear destined to win a third World Series in five years. Billy Beane is second, and he'll have that job as long as he wants, considering he amazingly keeps the A's ultra competitive year in and year out, despite a budget a fraction of what Dombrowski has to work with. And Brian Cashman is third, with four Yankees World Series championship to his name.

Then there's Dombrowski, 58, whose job with the Tigers has nearly mirrored what Ned Colletti did with the Dodgers —spend a big payroll, get to five playoff appearances, and win no World Series. Colletti was fired — OK, reassigned — on Tuesday, when the Dodgers decided they were better off with longtime Rays wunderkind Andrew Friedman.

Dombrowski, meanwhile, is entering the final year of his contract with the Tigers. There has been no word on an extension, and there's a good chance we'll hear nothing on one until after next season. That's because, while the Ilitches have to plenty appreciate what Dombrowski has done for the franchise, but they also have to be supremely frustrated that he hasn't been able to deliver the ultimate prize.

GMs don't typically last forever without winning a championship. In fact, in all of Detroit professional sports history, only one man has done so longer than Dombrowski — Russ Thomas, who went 0-for-22-years with the Lions.

News: Dombrowski made it clear the Tigers plan to upgrade the bullpen before 2015.

Views: What took you so long?

The Tigers' bullpen debacle isn't a new problem. It's not even a somewhat-new problem. In fact, every year since 2007, the Tigers bullpen has finished in the bottom half of the American League, statistically, and usually closer to the bottom than the middle. Every other AL team has finished in the upper-half at least once since 2007.

But when I mentioned that fact to Dombrowski on Tuesday, he pretty much dismissed it, trumpeting Jose Valverde's "perfect" season in 2011 — if you look at the periphery numbers, it really was the luckiest of seasons — and suggesting the bullpen really only imploded on two pitches in 2013.

Spin it if you must. Dombrowski has failed to build, with any consistency, a bullpen in Detroit, outside of 2006, when he struck gold on Joel Zumaya, and milked what was left out of the arms of Todd Jones and Jamie Walker.

Sure, he's tried. He signed Valverde. And Joaquin Benoit. And Octavio Dotel. And Joe Nathan. And traded for Jose Veras. And traded for Joakim Soria. And nearly traded or Andrew Miller. And on and on.

But the bigger issue here is the Tigers don't consistently develop relievers in their system, like so many other teams have to do. Zumaya was fantastic in 2006, and seemed like the ultimate development project, until he disappeared amid a slew of arm injuries. OK, Fernando Rodney, good here, better elsewhere.

Other than that, there hasn't been much — even Al Alburquerque wasn't homegrown, which I had completely forgotten about — and that's a big, big problem, especially given Detroit's M.O. The Tigers spend huge money on big stars. Next year, assuming Victor Martinez returns, they will have some $140 million tied up in eight guys. That doesn't leave a mid-market team like Detroit much to play with for the 17 other roster spots, so you have to be cheap somewhere, and for years they've gone cheap on the bullpen and the bench.

And, by the way, that's fine — so long as you have a farm system that's actually developing some help. But where are Detroit's Glen Perkins, Greg Holland, Zach Putnam or Cody Allen? Nowhere to be found. Instead, we get sold on Bruce Rondon and Ryan Perry.

News: Dombrowski won't yet announce if the Tigers plan to exercise the $7 million option for Soria.

Views: But, of course, all signs suggest they will. They paid a hefty price tag to the Rangers, partly because they'd have the option of keeping him for 2015, too.

I asked Dombrowski, though, if he would consider consulting with Soria and his agent, Oscar Suarez, to gauge their interest in returning, before the Tigers make the final decision. After all, the Tigers acquired Soria without a specific role in mind, then used him sporadically and poorly — before letting him crash and burn in the postseason. Who knows if Soria even wants to come back?

That, of course, isn't Soria's decision. And Dombrowski was correct to point this out. If the Tigers want him, Soria will be back. If they don't, he won't. That's the beauty of the club option. Dombrowski added he hasn't heard of any discontent, "unless you've heard something that I haven't."

Here's what I know: Soria isn't going to cause a scene. He's one of the classiest guys in baseball. Supposedly, when his agent is riled up, Soria has to calm him down — not the other way around.

But, while the Tigers don't owe Soria anything more than a "yes" or "no" for 2015, they would be wise to do him a favor and figure out his role before the start of the season. Dombrowski said Joe Nathan will start the year at closer; that means Soria is the best bet to be his setup man. This is what they did together with the Rangers in 2013, and it worked out well. Maybe they can repeat that success with the Tigers in 2015.

And if Nathan struggles out of the gate, you swap their roles.

Soria, 30, has been a late-inning guy his entire career, and a darn good one. Perhaps the Tigers should start treating him as such.