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August 13, 2015

Rubbing Mud

GM in a Box: Dave Dombrowski

by Matthew Trueblood

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Record and Background

Age: 59

Previous Organizations:
Chicago White Sox, 1978-86: Began in an administrative role for team's farm system; ascended to assistant GM
Montreal Expos, Spring 1987–Sep. 1991: Director of Player Development, 1987-88; took over as GM July 1988
Florida Marlins, Sep. 1991–Nov. 2001: GM throughout tenure
Detroit Tigers, Nov. 2001–Aug. 2015: President and CEO throughout, GM from Apr. 2002 through departure/dismissal
Current Status: Free Agent
Cumulative Record: 1,867 – 2,117
Playing Career: Played football for a short time at Cornell; looks very much like a basketball coach, from hair to clothing to mannerisms.

Personnel and Philosophy

Any notable changes from previous regimes?

Dombrowski seems to value autonomy and the ability to build something from the ground up. He was the first GM of the Marlins, and within a few months after taking over the Tigers, he fired his GM (taking the position for himself) and his manager. Immediately after taking the reins on his first gig, in Montreal, Dombrowski began pulling triggers, making four trades in July of 1988 and over a dozen between taking over on July 5th and the following Opening Day. That was roughly twice the trade activity the team had seen in the previous two years, and while most of the deals were small, it was a clear statement by Dombrowski that he had a specific vision for the franchise, and he was not afraid to deviate from his predecessors' evaluations of individual players.

What characterizes his relationship with ownership? What type of people does he hire? Is he more collaborative or authoritative?

Dombrowski's attitude toward his clubs' owners has always seemed uncannily cooperative and accommodating. In Florida, he did the bidding of Wayne Huizenga, first when Huizenga ordered extremely aggressive free-agent additions, and then when he ordered them traded away for pennies on the dollar a year later. In Detroit, as has been well documented, he had a much more consistent mandate from Mike Ilitch: go win a World Series, at whatever cost, as soon as humanly possible.

It's been the general practice to praise Dombrowski for his ability to work successfully within the parameters handed down from ownership. There's certainly something to that. He managed to fit Prince Fielder onto a roster already loaded down with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. He didn't miss on any of the high-level targets he identified when building that free agency–fueled 1997 Marlins championship club. He even made some impressively nimble moves when it seemed his back was to the wall, as when he traded for and flipped Mike Piazza during the Reconstruction of the Marlins in the late 1990s, or when he moved the unwanted Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler, an eminently better fit for his roster and a cheaper asset in the first place.

On the other hand, it's an oversimplification to blame ownership entirely for the problems Dombrowski's teams encountered at various stages of his career. There were points at which he rebuilt when he didn't need to, and others at which he made a somewhat desperate move that had little chance of paying off. He may have been asked to do so by the men who signed his checks, but perhaps an underrated skill for a top executive is retaining enough leverage in that relationship to push back when an owner calls for an inadvisable course of action.

As for the people he hires and keeps under his employ, Dombrowski has been known as a good communicator with an eye for front-office talent, but he rarely produces star underlings who go on to independent success. After first encountering Jim Leyland when both were employed by the White Sox in the mid-1980s, Dombrowski managed to lure Leyland to jobs in both Florida and Detroit by which Leyland initially seemed unenchanted. Leyland was a valuable asset, a good soldier to Dombrowski who nonetheless carried independent authority in the dugout. Otherwise, Dombrowski has tended to be his own figurehead, and runs his organizations authoritatively.

What kinds of managers does he hire? How closely does he work with them?

Leyland was always the old codger, respected as a tactician and a baseball lifer, even if there were stretches during which that respect came with a hint of resentment. That typifies Dombrowski's managerial choices even beyond Leyland. Long records of service and direct, personal histories got Rene Lachemann and John Boles nods from Dombrowski during his tenure with the Marlins, even though Lachemann had gone almost a decade since his last managerial stint when Dombrowski hired him, and even though Boles (unlike every other big-league skipper of the last century or so) had never played pro baseball.

Dombrowski is one executive who clearly values the tactical over the interpersonal, or at least the on-field over the off-field. The two managerial hires who run against that grain, Alan Trammell and Brad Ausmus, were both as much about their connection to the franchise and their ability to facilitate smooth transitions as about Dombrowski actually loving their managerial chops. Dombrowski likes to know his managers very well long before he actually hires them, but that seems to be primarily because he wants to know for sure that he's hiring a smart baseball man.

Player Development

How does he approach the amateur draft? Does he prefer major league–ready players or projects? Tools or performance? High school or college? Pitchers or hitters?

Dombrowski has generally leaned toward toolsy high-school players. At certain points, especially recently, he has seemed to draft with quick impact (or even immediate trade value) in mind, but he's generally willing to take on a player with developmental years in front of him if it means maximizing the potential star power. He drafted Charles Johnson twice (once on behalf of the Expos, once for the Marlins). He took Rondell White, Cliff Floyd, Cameron Maybin, and Curtis Granderson, as well as Josh Beckett, Andrew Miller, Jacob Turner, Rick Porcello, and Justin Verlander. The ever-changing directives of his owners may have caused Dombrowski to change his approach to the draft in certain situations, but in general, it's safe to say that he looks for superstars.

Does he tend to rush players to the majors or let them marinate?

Perhaps because of his own history in player development, or perhaps because he has largely hired managers and coaching staffs with experience in that department on their resumes, Dombrowski tends to trust that talented players will develop in the majors, and that they can help his teams win even while that process proceeds. Turner, Porcello, and Avisail Garcia are the most notable recent examples of Dombrowski's willingness to push the envelope. The results have been mixed.

Roster Construction

Is he especially fond of certain types of players? Does he like proven players or youngsters? Offensive players or glove men? Power pitchers or finesse?

Over a career as long as Dombrowski's, any statement about trends or preferences can be disputed by at least one or two prominent counterexamples. He appears to like athletic players with speed and instincts, but he's carried Miguel Cabrera like a security blanket for 15 years. He's been accused of tossing together great hitters without gloves to match, but then, he's also responsible for Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose being Tigers right now.

Dombrowski does seem to have a consistent and uninterrupted preference for pitchers with great stuff, and an emphasis on velocity. He's always had guys who flashed nasty, unhittable stuff, even when that stuff was unaccompanied by control or durability.

Does he allocate resources primarily on impact players or role players? How does he flesh out his bullpen and bench? Does he often work the waiver wire, sign minor-league free agents, or make Rule 5 Draft picks?

Dombrowski loves star players. He doesn't mind top-heavy rosters, trusting both his own judgment and his field staff to make the back end of the roster work. If there's a big name on the market, any time, any place, Dombrowski's team has to be at least a co-favorite to acquire them.

Thin benches have been an intermittent problem for Dombrowski teams, though the 1997 Marlins were a very notable exception. Inconsistent relief units have been his real bugaboo. No matter how much or how little he has poured into that outfit, for the last decade and more, Dombrowski has seemed to get nothing but misery out of his bullpens.

Because Dombrowski focuses so much on the big, splashy acquisitions, he makes a relatively small volume of small moves. He's good at them, though, as evidenced by the J.D. Martinez pick-up last spring, among others.

When will he release players? On whom has he given up? To whom has he given a shot? Does he cut bait early or late?

Dombrowski is unmatched in his adherence to Branch Rickey's axiom that it's better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. Of course, that sometimes means that he lets an elite talent get away from him. He traded Randy Johnson for Mark Langston in 1989, even though the Expos were only fringe contenders that year, and even though Langston was due to become a free agent after the season. Langston did pitch well, and a trade for him probably couldn't have gotten done without Johnson, but it remains true that Dombrowski traded away the best left-handed pitcher of all time for four months of Langston.

More generally, Dombrowski is aggressive about turning players he no longer needs or trusts, or who have yet to prove to him that they will realize their full potential, into as much value as he can get, before things have a chance to really go south. You can see that in his trades of Maybin, Miller, and Turner, but also in the Fielder trade, and even in his willingness to give up Austin Jackson in order to land David Price last summer. It's not always giving up, but Dombrowski feels he can sense when a player's true value begins to fall a bit sooner than the marketplace does, and when he does sense that, he usually acts fast.

Is he active or passive? An optimist or a problem-solver? Does he want to win now or wait out the success cycle?

Whether at the command of ownership or of his own volition, Dombrowski seems always to choose a lane and race down it at full speed. He voluntarily engaged in an ugly, hyper-aggressive rebuild when he first showed up in Detroit. When he thinks his team has the talent to win, though, he's extremely aggressive about bolstering the roster.

He does seem to be slow to make sweeping changes to a struggling pitching staff, perhaps because he's aware that pitchers' performances (especially relief performances, and that has always been where his teams' greatest uncertainty has rested) fluctuate less predictably than those of hitters. Still, it might be fair to call him passive when it comes to addressing what appear to be pressing problems in those areas. On the position-player side, though, he's utterly unafraid to make a big, sudden, or even premature move if he believes it will change an unsatisfactory status quo.

Trades and Free Agents

Does he favor players acquired via trade, development, or free agency? Is he an active trader? Does he tend to move talent or horde it? With whom does he trade and when? Is he willing to make trades with teams during the season? How does he approach the trading deadline?

As noted, Dombrowski favors superstars, and if anyone could reliably produce superstars on a consistent basis, they wouldn't be heading for their fourth team in 25 years as a GM. Dombrowski trades aggressively, in winter and in summer. He's made significant trades within his division, and doesn't seem fazed by it. He always wants to be moving toward his objective, whether that is the aggregation of long-term assets or the finalization of a roster that can win a World Series.

Contracts

Does he prefer long- or short-term deals? Does he backload his contracts often? Does he like to lock players up early in their careers, or is he more likely to practice brinkmanship? Does he like to avoid arbitration?

Big-ticket items cost big bucks, so Dombrowski's thirst for top-shelf talent usually requires long-term commitments in order to be slaked. Backloading is a tool for every executive by now, and while Dombrowski uses it, he can't be accused of abusing it.

When a homegrown talent moves toward free agency under Dombrowski's watch, there tend to be a number of whispers about a possible extension. These rarely come to fruition, though. There is, again, a tough element of ownership involvement to tease out here, but Dombrowski appears willing to commit to his elite players well before the decision point, whereas lesser lights—even very good players who simply aren't on the top tier of the team—are dared to make their fortune or lose it by going year-to-year. This really is one area, though, in which only Dombrowski's next job might elucidate his real approach. The Tigers have had such a strange incentive set over the last several years that it's hard to tell how absolute Dombrowski's control over the payroll structure was.

Anything unusual about his negotiating style? Is he vocal? Does he prefer to work behind the scenes or through the media?

Notably, Dombrowski let it be known that Max Scherzer was passing up a fortune by not signing a $144 million offer the Tigers made the spring before Scherzer became a free agent. In general, though, he makes demure non-comments, letting everyone both inside and outside the negotiation know that he is unsurprised and unconcerned by the way the whole thing is proceeding.

Bonus

What is his strongest point as GM?

Well-liked, opportunistic and authoritative, Dombrowski builds toward championships. There will never be uncertainty about his timeline or his definition of success. He's single-minded, but able to communicate amiably and effectively. In short, he's a bulldog with a labrador's manners, with the reserved dignity of some other dog breed, Hell, I don't know.

If he weren't in baseball, what would he be doing?

Seriously, I think he'd be a basketball coach. His whole aura just screams basketball coach.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  General Managers

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