Dombrowski dismisses idea that Tigers' time has passed

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — On social media and message boards, in conversations over beers and water coolers, the words, said with a blend of melancholy and regret, are often heard.

"The Tigers window is closing."

But is it?

The team-is-decaying refrain that sometimes rumbles within Tigers Nation suggests a regular contender is headed for sunset because of aging stars that have made missing a championship after four consecutive division titles all the more painful.

"I've heard it everywhere, in a lot of different places, and it's a situation where people have a sense of generalization," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager who, along with manager Brad Ausmus, is overseeing the opening days of spring camp.

"But I've said, also, that after 2006 (Tigers lost to the Cardinals in that year's World Series), I remember a respected national writer, whose name I won't mention, said the Tigers weren't going to win any time in the near future — that it was a veteran-laden team whose time had passed.

"So, you have to be careful as a GM. We're trying to do everything we can to win now — and, no question, moves were made to win now — but it's also incumbent that you try to think about the future at the same time."

That's where Dombrowski, among others, sees not necessarily a steady playoff favorite in Detroit. But, rather, a team that should leave spring camp in most years with a shot at contention because of decent pitching and just enough kids mixed into a lineup anchored by graybeards.

The Tigers also should snip about $50 million from their payroll after this season, which is nice flexibility when next autumn one of the most pitching-rich, free-agent crops in memory is expected to hit the market.

That doesn't necessarily reassure somber Tigers followers who wonder if a good-old-days era is passing. And, at least on the surface, they have a point.

The Tigers rotation lacks the Hollywood glamour it had when Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello were 40 percent of a quintet among the best in baseball. But because David Price and a potentially healthier Justin Verlander are still in partnership with Anibal Sanchez, and because farm arms (Kevin Ziomek, Buck Farmer, Austin Kubitza, etc.) are perhaps moving closer to Comerica Park, Dombrowski submits Detroit's pitching will hold up, even as two new starters, Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon, move into rotation slots.

If the new cast isn't as glitzy as the old crew, and if Price's autumn free agency supports views the Tigers are moving closer to playoff extinction in seasons ahead, Dombrowski isn't buying it.

"When they say the window is closing — and I read somewhere recently that it looks like 2017 — well, that's a long time in baseball's time frame," Dombrowski said. "There are so many flexible things you do, and we've shown that on a yearly basis."

Dombrowski differs also with Tigers students who say the team is becoming so old archaeologists should be called to Comerica Park.

"I'm not sure where this thought process began that players no longer can be productive after they're 32 years old," he said. "But I don't think there's any question that there are many players in history who have continued to perform well into their mid-30s at least, and some stars go beyond that.

"I don't know why Miguel Cabrera won't hit until he's 40. Victor Martinez is older, we all understand that, but a lot of those guys on his level hit until they're 39 or 40. Cabrera, Martinez, Verlander — we think they'll have very productive years ahead of them."

Dombrowski added "it can be painful for some people" and that "it's hard to break in young players when you have a chance to win a championship," but that mixing in the occasional young starter is essential to a contender's genetics.

"And we've done that with (Nick) Castellanos," he said, speaking of a third baseman who played regularly as a rookie in 2014. "This guy has a chance to be a quality hitter for a long time. Jose Iglesias (shortstop) is a young player, a good player, people almost forget about. James McCann (rookie catcher), we think has a chance to be an everyday player. J.D. Martinez (outfielder) — people say they can't be sure after one year, but he is just 27 and we think he can be a big contributor."

Dombrowski talks about kids still in the incubator: Steven Moya, a long-ball-hitting outfielder expected to be ready for regular work no later than next year. He mentions kid pitchers, and payroll opportunities, and a farm system that regularly is panned but seems annually to produce roster talent or trade chips.

And he sees a team that has as much chance at staying in the playoff chase as it did after that 2006 season when at least one national pundit said: R.I.P, Tigers. Your time has passed.