Assessing Dombrowski, Leyland


Twitter is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?  Upon opening up my browser this morning I saw a tweet from Greg Eno who directed his followers to an article on where Bill Simonson absolutely raked Jim Leyland over the coals.  Simonson called for accountability and questioned why Leyland is so revered.

Recently, on this very site,  there was a similar discussion going on in the comments.  Bob offered his outrage over Leyland and Dave Dombrowski and while my first inclination was to disagree, the more I considered his points, the less I could argue.   

The truth is, I have taken time and considered my thoughts carefully when assessing the work that Leyland and Dombrowski have done.  At this time, I am not prepared to call for the heads of either, but I am questioning why I shouldn’t.

Before coming to Detroit, both Leyland and Dombrowski had long and successful tenures with other organizations, including winning a world series together in 1997 with Florida.  Since the two men hooked up again in Detroit prior to the 2006 season, the Tigers have made one playoff appearance, finished second in the division three times and had one last place year, the debacle of 2008.

When you consider that the Tigers had exactly one winning season in the 17 years prior to 2006, it would be easy to say that both have been successful in bringing winning, meaningful baseball back to Detroit.  When Dombrowski took over for Randy Smith, the cupboard was bare of talent throughout the major league team, as well as the minor leagues.  He brought in David Chadd to oversee scouting, and together they have built a solid core of young arms in the minor leagues, but the system still lacks quality positional prospects.

On the major league level, Mike Illitch has given Dombrowski the freedom to add payroll seemingly at his whim, and while he has been guilty of handing out needless extensions, most of his acquisitions have been beneficial.

Certainly, he has missed on a few.  The ill-fated trades of 2009 that brought in Aubrey Huff and Jarrod Washburn did not work out, but these were moves that most applauded at the time.  The trade of Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez to Atlanta for one bad year of Edgar Renteria is probably his most egregious error on the trade front.  Try as I might, that one still seems indefensible.  Then there are the long-term extensions given to Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman, and Dontrelle Willis.  At least they will all expire after 2010.

As was the case when he ran the Marlins, Dombrowski has had great success when building through free agency.  The ’97 Marlins were full of high-priced stars that Wayne Huizenga paid handsomely to get.  When the fire sale was ordered after the Fish saw their bottom line, Dombrowski did very well in trading those veterans for youth.  His trades brought in the core of talent that helped the Marlins win the 2003 Series.

Since taking over the Tigers, Dombrowski has signed Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez, Adam Everett, Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones, and Brandon Lyon among others.  Every one of those players directly helped in making this team a respected opponent.

He made trades that were considered minor at the time that have paid off big as well.  He dealt for a little known utility man named Placido Polanco, an injury-prone shortstop (Carlos Guillen), and a journeyman first baseman (Sean Casey), all of whom helped take the Tigers to a pennant.

Dombrowski has always had an eye for talent, but it seems his best deals involve trading aging stars for young players.  He got Bonderman in a trade for Jeff Weaver, Polanco came in for veteran closer (and murderer) Ugueth Urbina.  Zach Miner was had for a half season of Kyle Farnsworth.  He managed to swindle the Mariners out of Guillen by trading Ramon Santiago, who has since returned to Detroit.

The way I see it, if the Tigers are planning on getting younger over the next few seasons (and they better), Dombrowski is the guy I want running the ship.

As for Leyland, he took over after Alan Trammell was fired and immediately won back the clubhouse.  He exorcised the demons of 2003 by getting after his players and getting rid of ones that didn’t follow along (see: Young, Dmitri).  There is no question to me that Leyland came into 2006 with something to prove and he managed with a fire in his belly.

Since that season, however, it does appear as if he has lost something.  The urgency that he brought to the club early on has faded.  The 2009 club was built on veteran hitters that shouldn’t need much prodding, but the accolades that they have received may have turned them soft.  The fire in Leyland’s belly seems no bigger than the one on the end of his Marlboro.

Earlier this season, I campaigned for Leyland to receive the extension I felt he deserved.  The Tigers eventually agreed and Leyland is under contract for two more years.  For better or worse, he will be here next season.  Now I think I may have misjudged him.

Leyland has shown a willingness to think outside the box on occasion.  When he knew his club was struggling to score, he would put runners in motion or call for a squeeze play.  He did these thing effectively, but not nearly as frequently as he could or should have.

Leyland has always liked to ride his veterans, and this year was no different.  Late in the season, when Huff and Guillen were struggling, Ryan Raburn remained on the bench, despite being one of the club’s hottest hitters.  He rode Brandon Inge’s bad knees to a league high 161 games, and pinch hit for Inge just once all season, despite Inge batting under .190 over the final three months.  Rookie catcher Alex Avila sat helplessly by when Gerald Laird had bad at bat after bad at bat down the stretch.

Just when you thought he would ride another veteran, however, he handed the ball to rookie Alfredo Figaro on the last Saturday of the season when he could have started Justin Verlander on three days rest.

The Tigers needed to win their final two games to make the playoffs, but Leyland spit the bit and basically forfeited that game to Chicago.  Had Verlander pitched Saturday, Porcello would have been on full rest on Sunday.  Given the choice of starting his two best pitchers when he needed to win two games, Leyland instead punted and hoped the Twins would lose.  These are all fireable offenses.

Then there are his “unique” lineups.  Look, Clete Thomas is a nice player.  He plays good defense and he can hit a little bit, he’s a good fourth outfielder to have around.  What he is not, however, is a three hitter.  Leyland started Thomas in the three hole an alarming 39 times.  Thomas rewarded Leyland with a .200 average and .597 OPS when batting third.

I know Ordonez was struggling and someone did actually have to bat third, but why not use Curtis Granderson is that spot?  Granderson was ineffective in the lead off spot all year long.  If you need to move someone into the three hole, it should have been Grandy.  For the record, Granderson did not start one game batting third.  He did bat fifth and seventh several times.

The 2010 Tigers will enter the season with a solid group of pitchers and a bunch of veteran hitters.  Even if Polanco walks away, Ordonez, Guillen, Granderson, and Miguel Cabrera will provide the core of what could be a good lineup.  Leyland needs to find his old fire and manage with urgency.  The Tigers’ window is closing as far as this core group is concerned.  If they don’t get it done next season, Leyland might be and probably should be fired.

So that’s it then.  I am not one who cries for change just for the sake of making one.  I guess I’m just worried that the failure of the Tigers teams of years past are clouding my judgement.  Could it be that the Randy Smith/Phil Garner/Luis Pujols era is making me relish what success the Dombrowski/Leyland teams have had?  Probably.

The way I see it, trying be as objective as possible, I like the job that Dombrowski has done much more than the job Leyland has done.  If there were a change to someone else in the dugout, I could get behind that fairly easily.  What is Davey Johnson up to nowadays?