Mensching: Hard to say Dombrowski could've made Tigers' rebuild better

By Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski

People will remember 2006. They will remember 2012. Those were the two years under former general manager Dave Dombrowski’s leadership that a once-hapless Detroit Tigers franchise made it the World Series. They didn’t win either year.

Yet 2013 will shine just as bright in memories for years to come. That’s the season the Tigers lost to the Red Sox in the ALCS, the series the featured the infamous clip of Torii Hunter toppling over the right field fence in Fenway Park as he tried to snare a series- and organization-changing grand slam. It only tied the game, but the metaphorical titanic shift felt physical.

"I thought we let one get away," then-manager Jim Leyland said. "We did it collectively. I'm just as guilty as everyone else. That's what hurt. With all due respect to the Boston Red Sox — they earned it, they won it. … This hurts. We let it get away."

A year later, the Tigers were swept by the Orioles in the ALDS, their last playoff appearance. A year after that, late owner Mike Ilitch fired Dombrowski.

The Red Sox pounced, and today Dombrowski and several of those 2013 Tigers he managed to bring to Boston are celebrating a World Series victory.

They earned it.

A natural question arises, though: What would have happened if Ilitch had stuck by Dombrowski, the man who took a perennial 100-loss Tigers organization to a decade of some of the most exciting and successful baseball in the history of baseball in Detroit?

Although sports opinions are supposed to carry an air of certainty, the answer here is truly that we don’t know.

Dombrowski wasn’t fired at the organization’s peak. The Tigers were already on the back end of the inevitable rise and fall that every baseball club endures.

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The window of competitive baseball was narrowing, propped open only by a unique owner who often threw money at the organization’s roster problems while the club ignored some fundamental shifts in the game.

Among every publication that ranks farm systems, Detroit could be found in the bottom five. Drafting consistently late due to the big league club’s success and free-agent signings choked off oxygen there, and trading away the prospects who did draw attention for big league stars assured there was not much future to be had. The Tigers would have to live or die based on expensive free agent signings.

That catches up to everybody.

Dombrowski’s front office wasn’t the most sabermetrically inclined, either. Money can overcome a lot of issues, and he was more of an old-school GM. When Al Avila assumed Dombrowski’s post, his attempts to pull the franchise’s analytical department into the present made big news. Something called “Caesar” became a featured topic not because it was successful, but because it existed at all.

Finally, we have to note that Ilitch died just two months before the 2017 season began. He was the kind of sports owner whose spending prompted Sports Illustrated to call the Tigers “The Righteous Franchise” on their magazine cover.

“Ilitch doesn't operate from a profit-and-loss standpoint," a rival executive said in the article. "He treats the team like a public trust."

From 2012-17, the Tigers were among baseball’s top five spenders. They peaked at a $200 million payroll even as crowds were shrinking. The Ilitch family reined that in, as was necessary.

Dombrowski’s time in Detroit will never be forgotten. The conditions were just right, a combination of narrative and ownership and, yes, a special executive who is among the game’s best. Those conditions are different now.

Dombrowski made the best of a bad situation, and the Red Sox were a perfect choice. The organization was primed to do exactly what it has. His personnel decisions, including bringing in a few choice Tigers like J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler and David Price, made them even better.

The Tigers’ rebuild might be a little further along had he not been fired. It might not have been. It likely wouldn’t look much different than it does, not the least because a few of Dombrowski’s favorite deputies remained in Detroit.

He oversaw a great era in Detroit, but that era has passed. All eyes need to be on the future now.

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.