Dave Dombrowski has worked in major league front offices for three decades. His career started with the Chicago White Sox, working under former General Manager Roland Hemond. Two success stories would follow. Dombrowski built the core of a Montreal Expos team that became a strong contender in mid-1990s, despite limited revenue streams. He then moved to Florida, where he was the architect of the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins. Though he left before the next championship, the 2003 World Series-winning Marlins also had Dombrowski’s fingerprints all over them.
Dombrowski made the best of suboptimal situations in both Montreal and South Florida, twice producing winning teams under difficult circumstances. But the Detroit Tigers seemed to be an even tougher task when Dombrowski took over. When owner Mike Ilitch hired Dombrowski as GM in the fall of 2001, the Tigers were coming off eight straight losing seasons. Lacking a strong farm system or star-level major league talent, many speculated that things could get worse before they got better in Detroit. Four more losing seasons, including the historically awful 43-119 season in 2003, proved those dire predictions true. But thanks to some strong drafting, a fruitful player development system and some well-timed trades and signings, the Tigers have come roaring back in 2006. More than one-third of the way through the season, Detroit sports the best record in MLB. Dombrowski recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about the “r” word (rebuilding), the hidden value found in the Rule 5 draft, and tips on how to make the best of a bad situation.
Baseball Prospectus: You seem to have stayed with the same people a lot over the years. When you moved on after Montreal, you took a lot of people with you. And now, of course, you’re back working with Jim Leyland, and again finding success. Is that an unusual trend for a GM to continue with the same people for so long, or even bring them back after many years apart?
Dave Dombrowski: The most important thing is having good people in your organization, that’s your foundation for success. You need a good front office, good talent evaluators, good people on the field. In Montreal it really was whole a new group I walked into. That was an outstanding organization, so many quality scouts, development people, front office people. In Florida, they didn’t have any baseball people–I was going to an organization where things were being built from the beginning. A lot of people from Montreal were available to come with me to Florida, with Dan Duquette and then Kevin Malone coming over there.
Coming to Detroit was a little different. Any time you leave a team, it’s difficult in that a lot more people will often leave as a new regime takes over. In Florida you had new ownership, where John Henry left and Jeffrey Loria took over. In Detroit, a lot of people who were on board were given an opportunity to stay, and that’s worked out well. We were also very fortunate to bring over some new, quality people. There’s always an evaluation process you have to go through, especially with scouts–what they say, how they say it, how they get to know the personnel.
In Jim Leyland’s case it was a very unique situation. I knew him from the White Sox organization, where I was the Assistant GM and he was the third-base coach, so I got to know him quite well. In Pittsburgh his success spoke for itself. So when I was in Florida and we were trying to win immediately, he was available and we were very fortunate. Eventually we went our separate ways, and I didn’t know if we’d ever be together again. But he got the desire back, you can really see that.
BP: Being in two troubled markets like Montreal and Florida, and then going to a team like the Tigers that had been losing so long, those have to have been three of the toughest GM jobs of the last 15 or 20 years. You had success with the Expos and the Marlins, and now things look to be turning around for the Tigers. Is there a common blueprint you’ve been able to use for the three jobs?
Dombrowski: You always have a philosophy, but you also have to be aware of what you have–the same strategy may not work if you don’t have the same talent distribution from one place to the next. And where baseball is now, that’s changed a lot from where it was 20, 30 years ago. Teams may use different methods now to handle a pitching staff or build an offense. You have to react to that, too.
BP: There’s been a lot of talk of the Marlins possibly moving, given all the trouble they’ve had with low attendance, low revenue streams, the owner being upset over not getting a new stadium. Can South Florida be a viable market for baseball? For that matter, could Montreal have succeeded if things were done differently?
Dombrowski: Florida certainly, but you have to have a baseball stadium in the right place to make it work. You need a park with a retractable roof and air conditioning, that would give stability to the franchise. People would come out and support the team in large numbers if that happened.
Montreal surely could have also supported the franchise. I thought it could have been successful. Again, they needed a baseball-only stadium. Olympic Stadium didn’t give you the intimacy you needed, and it wasn’t in the right place in town. You want a place to enjoy the summer weather and also protect the fans from the cold in early spring and the fall. But yes, it could have been viable.
BP: But as we’ve seen in places like Pittsburgh, a new stadium isn’t necessarily going to solve everything. Isn’t building a winning team still the best way to help a franchise?
Dombrowski: There’s a common ground when you talk about Montreal, the Marlins and some other teams in this type of situation. Franchises that haven’t maintained attendance have broken the hearts of their fans. The fans haven’t been able to believe that the franchise was going to be stable. Had we kept the 1997 Marlins team together, I’m sure we would have drawn 3 million people in 1998. But we hurt our fans. It was here we go, just as we’re building up the franchise, trying to build a stadium, the team got taken apart. The same thing happened after 2003. The stability hasn’t been there. Fans understand on a certain level that you won’t see all the same players year and year in out. But at the same time they believed in those guys, and this was more than just losing one or two players. You want a team that wins but also one that brings people back.
BP: Do you believe in the concept of success cycles, where a winning team say, gets older, or loses top talent, and needs to blow everything up and start over? Is rebuilding a necessary evil for a general manager?
Dombrowski: Your preference would be to never have to just blow it all up, just rebuild more naturally. Good organizations, the ones that are successful year in and year out, project into the future all the time, including when they’re winning. At times, though, it will seem like things don’t fit together. Guys get old, guys get hurt, and you may not have enough young players coming through to make up for that.
Sometimes you have to make short-term sacrifices for long-term success. I’ve always been in medium-to-small markets, so we were never going to operate with top payrolls year in and year out. To be successful, you have to have a good minor league system and be able to produce upper-echelon players. Then you can supplement through trades, free agency and Latin America. But there’s not necessarily one right way to do it.
BP: How does all this fit with the idea of job security? Can a GM who’s been at a job for a while and is under pressure from management be patient, stay the course, and accept a losing season when his job may be hanging in the balance? Is there ever a temptation for a GM to be more aggressive now, knowing he might not be around much longer?
Dombrowski: If you’re going to need time to build a team, to make changes along those lines, you need to make that presentation to ownership. Actually, that’s probably something you need to do before you ever accept the job. In today’s game, patience is not a virtue. Thirty, forty years ago, when a general manager got hired by an organization, he lived there forever. That’s not the case anymore. You have to be cognizant of that. To do a rebuilding process, you do have to take a step backwards initially. But eventually you need to show signs of progress, and continue to make progress, so that things eventually come together and you show people that you know what you’re doing.
There’s not going to be an everlasting situation where the process continues forever. You won’t last that long. People say, ‘How many years is this going to take?’ You never really know, it depends on the moves you can make at particular times. If you think it’ll take you eight, 10 years to do something, realistically no one’s going to wait that long in today’s game.
BP: Every team looks for areas where they can take advantage of inefficiencies (including the Tigers drafting University of North Carolina pitcher Andrew Miller, the consensus best player in the draft, after five other teams passed on him). What are the areas where you feel the Tigers can best capitalize?
Dombrowski: Basically everyone’s got the same formula, but you try to keep those little extra edges to yourself. When I started with the White Sox nearly 30 years ago the game was a lot more scout-oriented, and a lot more oriented toward high-school talent. Now Latin America has changed a great deal, becoming much more competitive. There’s a lot more emphasis on collegiate pitchers versus high school pitchers. We’ve seen how high school pitchers can be a big risk. I remember when I first started, when you’d get a player at a younger age, you thought it was a plus. It can still be that way, but there’s been a shift in overall focus in that regard.
There’s also a lot more focus on the statistical side now. There are a lot more general managers who are younger. A lot of decisions are now made based on statistical analysis, and that allows you to acquire some good baseball people you may not have considered years ago. There’s a tremendous ability that scouts still bring to an organization, though. The foundation for being good is that you have to have those quality evaluators of talent. Sometimes people attempt to take the short cut by only looking at statistics and downplaying scouting contributions.
BP: But aren’t statistics just a way to objectively measure what’s happened on the field? How do you bring that same objective evaluation to scouts’ performance?
Dombrowski: If you have a formula, you’re not going to disclose that. But what it requires is that you read their reports, interact with people, ask questions, know what types of questions to ask. You follow the progress of players they recommend. It’s not easy. Roland Hemond was my mentor in Chicago. In 1978 we were doing prep for the draft. I remember having to copy reports for scouts myself. We didn’t even have a copying machine. You had to do extra work, spend extra hours preparing the boards. After the draft, you’d breathe a big sigh of relief. Roland would say ‘you probably think the work of the draft is over–it’s not.’ You have to follow the progress of players, their performance, their statistics. You then have to remember who recommended them, that way you can properly evaluate your scouts. It’s a lot of work. But that process really laid the foundation for my progress as a future general manager. You tweak those things and you get a good foundation for learning.
The reality of it is I think it’s interesting when people talk about statistical analysis. We were talking about it in 1978. We didn’t have OPS and some of the other stats you see today. But we looked at the number of hits per inning given up, strikeout-to-walk ratios for pitchers, strikeouts per nine innings for pitchers. For hitters we looked at walk-to-strikeout rate, power numbers, the number of runs scored. All things that maybe people have developed into formulas now, he was teaching it then. And you know that if he taught it then, he learned it beforehand. You’d see a guy who has a good arm, but if he was never striking anyone out, you were in a position where you would ask why. You could have a conversation with scouts, learn more about pitchers’ deliveries, figure out what could be done to help.
BP: Let’s get into some Tigers questions. Between Chris Shelton, Wil Ledezma and some others, you’ve had more success with the Rule 5 draft than most teams. Throw in the most famous Rule 5 pickup of all, Johan Santana, and you wonder–is this an underrated way to acquire useful talent?
Dombrowski: It’s still very important, absolutely. A lot of work gets put into it. I always treated it as a very important way to acquire talent. You didn’t mention Chris Spurling, who we got as part of a Rule 5 trade. We Rule 5’d Bobby Bonilla in Chicago, from Pittsburgh. Matt Mantei, Antonio Alfonseca and Greg Walker were some of the other Rule 5 picks that we’ve done through the years. I’d say a building organization has the ability to use it more than a team trying to win a championship, because the chance of getting a guy like that and carrying him through the season is not as good. We’ve been in position to take advantage.
BP: One of the biggest stories for the Tigers this year has to be the starting rotation. Kenny Rogers is having a career year at age 41. Nate Robertson has developed into a very good pitcher, Jeremy Bonderman isn’t yet the star people are expecting, but he’s getting close. And then there’s Justin Verlander, who’s been almost unhittable, even though his strikeout rate is just so-so. Is this kind of success sustainable, or could these guys be pitching over their heads right now?
Dombrowski: They’re all individual situations, but there are some similarities. [Robertson and Bonderman] have enjoyed some success at the big league level, and have continued to learn from experiences, continued to improve their pitches. We’ve got a very good pitching coach in Chuck Hernandez. We’ve got a manager who’s very good at handling a staff. We have a strong bullpen so we can take them out when we need do. Rogers has been very helpful, especially to Robertson and Mike Maroth. They spend a lot of time talking to Kenny, I see them all the time having lunch together, dinner together, just talking. Last year our fielding was very poor from our pitching staff. Then Kenny comes into spring training, he’s already notorious for his great fielding, and he sets an example during fielding drills. Our starting staff starts following him around getting pitching tips, and all of a sudden our fielding’s improved too.
Verlander’s a different case. He throws so hard, for one. And being a young guy, I tip my cap to our development people for his improvement. [Minor league pitching coordinator] Jon Matlack helped him with his delivery, and since he’s very athletic, he’s able to adjust quickly. Verlander’s just pitching. He’s using his change-up, getting people to go after the first pitch. He’s been a big asset for our staff.
BP: The 2005 Chicago White Sox had great starting pitching, played good defense, hit a lot of homers, and had a fairly low team on-base percentage. The 2006 Tigers have very good starting pitching, have played great defense, hit a lot of homers, and have a fairly low team on-base percentage. Did you try to follow the White Sox blueprint this season, or is it more of a coincidence that the two teams look so similar?
Dombrowski: It’s a coincidence. We’ve always emphasized pitching. The starting pitching has come along, but we’ve also added [Joel] Zumaya and [Todd] Jones. Obviously we’d like to see even more power, and better on-base percentage. We continue to work on that. I do wish they were a little better in on-base percentage. Placido Polanco’s about the only player in the lineup who’s not a power threat, and he helps the team in other ways. It is a coincidence, but a manager like Jim brings some of those similarities out.
This is my last column for Baseball Prospectus. I want to thank my colleagues for all their hard work in making BP what it is today. It was an honor being brought into the group, and I’m grateful for all I’ve learned. And a huge thanks to all you readers. Throughout the years your e-mails have made me laugh, smile, and think. When you’ve offered criticism it’s been constructive and enlightening, and I’m better for having read them. I hope to hear from you down the road too. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.