There are so many ways to enjoy the game of baseball. If you’re like most baseball fans–and certainly if you’re like most fans who would frequent a site devoted to baseball analysis like this–there are few things about the game you enjoy more than the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to win. If baseball is a sport designed to appeal to barstool arguments like no other, it is because those arguments, from whether Mickey Mantle was better than Willie Mays to why Billy Beane’s, ahhhh… stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs, are exercises that really leave us arguing about what really makes a winning team.
Which is what makes the delirious success of the 2006 Detroit Tigers so fascinating. Winning teams are not put together overnight. Even teams that suddenly rise up from years of mediocrity to create a dynasty had a foundation of mediocrity to build upon. The New England Patriots were not a good team before they won three Super Bowls in four years, but they weren’t a bad team either–they had gone 43-37 over the previous five seasons.
Three years ago, the Tigers were not simply the worst team in baseball, they had reached the lowest point of any non-expansion franchise in at least half a century. They played badly, they scouted badly, they drafted badly, and they spent badly. Not even the worst expansion teams have had such a bleak outlook: at least expansion teams aren’t saddled with millions of dollars worth of bad contracts, an apathetic fan base, and most importantly, an administration that was incompetent enough to let the Tigers lose 119 games in the first place.
Think about that: 119 losses. Like 73 homers or 232 walks (or any number from Barry Bonds’ 21st-century statistics, really) “119 losses” is so far beyond the normal limits of our comprehension for that category that it’s easy to lose sight of how remarkable it is. Relative to 100-loss teams, the Tigers were as bad as a 100-loss team is compared to a .500 team.
Three years later, they have the best record in the game. The 2006 Tigers are on a pace for 109 wins; using our more conservative projections based on third-order winning percentage, they’re still on course for 103 wins. That’s an improvement of 60 wins in three years. To give you an idea of how historic that is, the gap in winning percentage between the worst team and the best team in the 105-year history of the Chicago White Sox is less (.325) than the gap the Tigers will make up in three years (.371). More than half of the 29 other franchises have kept within a tighter range throughout their entire history (since 1900) than the Tigers have traversed between 2003 and 2006.
To put it another way: after jumping 29 wins between 2003 and 2004, the Tigers are poised for a 32-game jump over last year’s record. Since 1960, only seven other teams had increased their winning percentage by at least .175 from one season to the next, most recently the 1998-99 Diamondbacks. The Tigers are poised to do it twice in three years, and in the sandwich year (between 2004 and 2005), their record only dropped by a single game.
Here’s a list of the most dramatic improvements made by any franchise in the span of three years or less, starting in 1900, or the period after the scourge of syndicate ownership had been purged from the game:
Team Year W L Pct. Year W L Pct. Diff Detroit 2003 43 119 .265 2006 103 59 .636 .371 New York (NL) 1902 48 88 .353 1904 106 47 .693 .340 Boston (NL) 1911 44 107 .291 1914 94 59 .614 .323 Washington 1909 42 110 .276 1912 91 61 .599 .322 Cincinnati 1916 60 93 .392 1919 96 44 .686 .294
Not only are the Tigers comfortably positioned to show the greatest three-year improvement in modern history, but if we eliminate the deadball era, they lap the field:
Team Year W L Pct. Year W L Pct. Diff Detroit 2003 43 119 .265 2006 103 59 .636 .371 Cincinnati 1937 56 98 .364 1940 100 53 .654 .290 Philadelphia (NL) 1961 47 107 .305 1964 92 70 .568 .263 Montreal 1976 55 107 .340 1979 95 65 .594 .254 Oakland 1979 54 108 .333 1981 64 45 .587 .254
It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of what the Tigers are accomplishing. With apologies to the Mets of the late 1960s and the Braves and then Indians of the early 1990s, the Tigers are on pace for the most remarkable rebuilding project of all time.
Which makes them the perfect case study for solving that intellectual challenge, asking the question “how do you build a winning team?” The answer is that there are multiple solutions, but few teams have ever presented a solution quite so elegant as these Tigers have, so an in-depth analysis of how this team climbed from the Marianas Trench to Mount Everest in three short years is bound to be instructive.
Where do we start? Can we point to a specific moment that set in motion the rebirth of the Detroit Tigers? We can: November 5th, 2001, the day that team owner Mike Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski as his new team president.
A detailed analysis of Dombrowski’s tenure as GM of the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that it is worth a column or three on its own. The short story is this: Dombrowski became the de facto GM of the Expos (his actual title was VP of Player Personnel) on July 5th, 1988, when he was 31 years old. Back in the dark ages of baseball–you know, more than about five years ago–General Managers tended to be a lot older than the players they were buying and selling. At the time of his hiring, Dombrowski was one of the youngest GMs in major league history.
He ran the Expos for four years before leaving at the end of the 1991 season to become the first GM of the Marlins. While the Expos were essentially a .500 team all four years he was at the helm, their farm system was one of the most productive in baseball, and they were named Baseball America‘s Organization of the Year in both 1988 and 1990. The core of the 1994 team that would hold the best record in baseball at the strike were in the organization when Dombrowski left, a group that includes Delino DeShields, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Rondell White, Kirk Rueter, Wil Cordero, Mike Lansing, Mel Rojas, and Jeff Fassero.
The Marlins were Dombrowski’s baby from day one, and won the World Series in just their fifth season, becoming the fastest expansion team to win a title. The roster that won the championship was assembled by almost every every possible means: the expansion draft (Jeff Conine), savvy trades (Gary Sheffield, Robb Nen), the draft (Charles Johnson), international signings (Edgar Renteria), shrewd free agent signings (Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Moises Alou), a then-minor deadline deal (Craig Counsell), even a quick pickup of a Cuban refugee (Livan Hernandez).
It was Dombrowski’s finest hour…and he had about an hour to enjoy it before Wayne Huizenga ordered him to rip the team apart in the game’s greatest fire sale in almost 60 years. Even so, by the time Dombrowski left four years later, he had assembled the nucleus of yet another World Championship team, having acquired Derrek Lee, A.J. Burnett, and Braden Looper in the fire sale, and later adding the likes of Mike Lowell, Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, and Miguel Cabrera. Again, this is the abridged version. A detailed look at his body of work makes it clear that Dombrowski ranks as one of the five greatest front-office executives of the last 25 years, even if his Q rating wouldn’t rank in the top fifty.
So for all the mistakes Ilitch had made in allowing his Tigers to become the laughingstock of baseball, he knew what he was doing when he hired Dombrowski. Ilitch lured Dombrowski to Detroit with a five-year contract that paid $2 million a year, making Dombrowski the highest-paid executive in the game. At that price, he was a bargain.
The decision to hire Dombrowski was complicated by one tiny problem: he wasn’t actually hired to be General Manager. This problem was solved the way you would expect: Dombrowski took advantage of the Tigers’ 0-6 start to can GM Randy Smith, along with manager Phil Garner. The rebuilding could begin in earnest, not just on the field, but off.
When Dombrowski was hired, he brought with him several front office employees who hold integral positions with the Tigers today, including VP of Player Personnel Scott Reid, Baseball Legal Counsel John Westhoff, and Director of Baseball Operations Michael Smith. A week after Randy Smith was fired, Dombrowski completed the Marlins migration by hiring Al Avila as his Assistant GM. Avila was with Dombrowski with the Marlins, where he had been Director of Scouting from 1998 to 2001, and had overseen the signings of most of the team’s Latin players dating back to 1992. No other significant front office changes were made during the season; a few ex-Marlins scouts were brought in that winter, but the scouting director that Dombrowski inherited, Greg Smith, kept his job through the 2004 season, and still remains with the team as a scout. In all honesty, in light of how bad the team that Dombrowski inherited was, it’s surprising that the franchise didn’t see more turnover.
Only three members of the 2006 Tigers–Mike Maroth, Brandon Inge, and Fernando Rodney–preceded Dombrowski in the organization. By the time Smith was fired, the Tigers had added a few more. Jamie Walker was signed as a minor-league free agent the day after Dombrowski was hired; to that point, Walker was a Triple-A pitcher notable only for his impressive ability to surrender home runs, having given up 37 in just 195 innings. Walker had been a throw-in to the Royals in the Michael Tucker/Jermaine Dye trade in 1997. I saw him pitch for the Royals in 1997 and 1998, and believe me when I tell you there was no reason to think he would ever pitch effectively in the majors, let alone be working on his fifth sub-4 ERA in a row.
The Tigers traded Juan Encarnacion for Dmitri Young in December. Young had a great 2003 season, but has done little since, and until his recent hot streak, his main contribution to the 2006 team was on the police blotter, so we’ll pass over this move.
Craig Monroe was claimed on waivers from Texas in January. This was a gambit out of the Billy Beane playbook: Monroe was coming off two excellent statistical seasons in a row, hitting .282/.366/.506 in Double-A in 2000, and .280/.357/.512 in Triple-A in 2001. He was just 23 and then 24 years old in those seasons, and neither came in a hitter’s park. Monroe would spend most of 2002 in Triple-A, where hit .321/.379/.511; he started 2003 in Toledo, but after hitting .404 in his first 14 games he was brought up to Detroit to stay. From 2003 to 2005 Monroe was a cheap source of power and a solid lefty-masher (.282/.327/.535 vs. LHPs). He is no longer underpaid at $2.8 million nowadays, and he’s 29 and the sort of player who declines quickly in his 30s, but for the time being his power and his ability to hit lefties (even though his splits are backwards this year) make him a useful role player.
In the draft that June, the Tigers used their third-round pick on Curtis Granderson, who was the NCAA runner-up in batting average (.483) his junior year (behind only Rickie Weeks). Granderson attended the University of Illinois-Chicago, hardly a baseball hotbed–no UIC player had ever reached the majors. The knock against Granderson was that while he had no glaring weaknesses, none of his tools were above-average either. In particular, few thought he could handle playing center; he projected to most teams as simply a good fourth outfielder. His second full minor-league season was therefore a breakout in every sense of the word, because not only did Granderson respond to a jump to Double-A by posting his best season statistically, but scouts raved that his tools all seemed to improve as well, and he suddenly projected as an excellent defensive centerfielder. A 19-year-old player will frequently show new-found bat speed or eliminate a hitch in his swing, but it’s very unusual for scouting evaluations to change so dramatically for a 23-year-old player.
The Tigers got lucky in the 11th round, when Joel Zumaya fell to them. Zumaya was drafted out of high school as just another pitcher with a high-80s fastball but a projectable arm. The Tigers certainly did not expect the projection to come overnight, but by the time Zumaya reported to the Gulf Coast League his fastball had managed to creep into the low 90s, and he kept adding velocity to the point where he was one of the hardest throwers in baseball by the following year.
Even after Zumaya dominated the low minors with his upper 90s heat, there were major concerns about his ability to develop command, as well as his ability to stay healthy given his poor mechanics. Not only did Zumaya’s performance not deteriorate as he ascended to the high minors, his mechanics have become smoother and more repeatable with each passing year. He has stayed healthy, and his control has remained acceptable for a pitcher with his stuff. The Tigers have further managed their risk by apprenticing him in the bullpen this year, and Zumaya has emerged as one of the best middle relievers in the game.
The Weaver Trade
The first big move of the Dombrowski administration was the decision to trade Jeff Weaver that August. It’s easy to forget this now, given that Weaver’s career started going in reverse almost from the moment he left Detroit, but in the summer of 2002 he was considered one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball. Just 25, he was in his fourth major-league season, having reached the majors after just six minor league starts. He had never been on the DL, and was coming into his own that season, with a 3.18 ERA and just four homers allowed in 122 innings at the point when he was dealt. This wasn’t a move to dump a player before free agency; Weaver was still under Tigers control through the 2004 season. Instead, the Tigers traded him because they thought they could get more talent in return. What they got was Carlos Pena, Franklyn German, and Jeremy Bonderman. Pena was a massive disappointment in Detroit, but to be fair they weren’t the only organization that thought he was a future star. German cooked with gas, but his command never developed.
Happily, Bonderman has more than justified the deal on his own. Bonderman was still in A-ball at the time of the trade, and if that didn’t make him risky enough, the Tigers doubled down the following spring when they jumped Bonderman all the way to the majors on Opening Day. I disagreed with the decision then, and still do today, if purely for the financial implications–a few weeks in Triple-A, and Bonderman would not be a free agent until after the 2009 season, instead of 2008–but the move also was risky in a pure baseball sense. While Bonderman struggled as a rookie, his ERA has dropped every year, he has an excellent health record (he missed three starts with elbow soreness last year), and is a far more promising pitcher at this stage of his career than Weaver ever was.
To lose 119 games, you almost have to try to be bad. And maybe, on some level, the Tigers were trying. Not only did they trade Weaver, their best player, the year before, but over the offseason they traded Mark Redman, after he had led the staff in innings in 2002 while posting a league-average ERA of 4.21. He was traded to Florida, where he put up a 3.59 ERA, contributing to the Marlins’ second championship team.
In return, the Tigers got three minor league pitchers, none of them top prospects. One of them, Nate Robertson, was a 25-year-old Double-A pitcher whose career strikeout rate in the minors was a pedestrian 6.2 Ks per nine innings. Nothing in his track record presaged even adequacy at the major league level, but as a rookie in 2003 he whiffed 6.7 per nine in eight starts, and in 2004 he struck out 155 hitters. He’s been a valuable down-rotation starter for the Tigers each of the last three years.
Following the season the Tigers once again made use of the free talent market, signing Marcus Thames as a minor-league free agent. The similarities between Thames and Monroe are eerie: like Monroe, Thames had been let go by the Rangers, and like Monroe, he was a right-handed hitting outfielder who had a monster year in 2001, hitting .321/.408/.598 for Double-A Norwich. He had never hit that well before, and really didn’t hit all that well in the minors in 2002 or 2003. But in Toledo in 2004, he hit .329/.410/.735, and slugged .509 for the Tigers down the stretch. He struggled with the Tigers last season, earning a return to Toledo, where he once again dominated the competition with a line of .340/.427/.679. He started this season on the Tigers’ bench, but has been a quasi-regular since mid-May, with a season line of .275/.346/.583. He’s making a whopping $342,000 this year.
Detroit then took advantage of having the first pick in the Rule 5 draft–and the Pirates’ exasperating stupidity, because five of the first six players drafted came out of their organization–by relieving Pittsburgh of Chris Shelton. Shelton was a no-brainer pick. He had hit a combined .336 between A-ball and Double-A the year before, with 34 doubles, 21 homers, and 76 walks. The Tigers weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly as they had multiple scouting reports that agreed with the numbers. Shelton played sparingly and poorly during his mandated year in the majors, but quickly found his stroke in the minors last year, and was starting at first base for the Tigers by June. Yes, he’s been demoted to make way for Sean Casey after slumping the last three months, but his .326/.404/.783 explosion in April keyed the Tigers’ great start, and his .269 EqA for the season is only a little below-average for a first baseman.
It may not rank with the haul the Twins walked away with for A.J. Pierzynski, or the surreal absurdity of Chuck LaMar finding a way to turn Victor Zambrano into Scott Kazmir, but one of the most lopsided trades of this decade occurred on January 8th, 2004, when the Tigers traded Ramon Santiago (and minor leaguer Juan Gonzalez, who never reached the majors) to Seattle for Carlos Guillen.
To be fair, this looked like a lopsided deal at the time. Christina Kahrl wrote as much at the time: “The best move of the off-season for Dombrowski so far has been the acquisition of Carlos Guillen, a perfectly competent everyday shortstop, for a long-shot prospect in Gonzalez and a never-was in Santiago.” But what looked like a merely imbalanced trade now qualifies as Grand Theft Shortstop. Santiago could not hit at all (.225/.292/.284 in 2003), but he had just turned 24, and occasionally young shortstops already established in the major leagues learn to hit later on. Santiago did not. The Mariners released him last November, and ironically he’s back with the Tigers, currently toiling in Toledo.
Guillen, on the other hand, was a perfectly average shortstop with the Mariners, notable more for his consistency than anything else. Between 2000 and 2003, Guillen hit between .257 and .276 every year, with homer totals of 7, 5, 9, and 7. His slugging averages read .396, .355, .394, and .394. He was 28 years old. This was not the profile of a player about to have a breakout season. Nevertheless, in 2004, Guillen hit .318/.379/.542, with 67 extra-base hits in just 136 games; he led all major league shortstops in OPS. Last season, Guillen was hobbled by injuries and played in only 87 games, and managed only five homers, but he still hit .320, and in doing so improved his batting average for the sixth season in a row. Only six other players in major-league history–in any number of at-bats–have ever managed that feat, and if Guillen hits over .320 this year, he would be the first player since 1900 to up his average seven straight years. This season Guillen is at .307/.389/.511, with a stellar .298 EqA, second only to Derek Jeter among major league shortstops.
A lot of incremental improvements, some small, some large, go into transforming the major league’s worst team into its best. None packs more punch than turning waiver-wire fodder into one of the game’s best-hitting shortstops.
We’ll pick up from this point tomorrow, and look at how the rest of the 2006 Tigers were molded into shape.
Thanks to Kevin Goldstein for his contributions to this article