Detroit Tigers and the Dombrowski Closer Legacy


The 2015 Detroit Tigers season can be considered a fluke. On paper in spring training, the Tigers had all of the pieces necessary to be a playoff-contending team. They had the best hitter on the planet, one of the toughest closers, a remarkable designated hitter, a shortstop that could fly, and unstoppable corner outfielders. But, the season proved that numbers on paper can be meaningless. If it were not for the injuries that created a rotating door of pitchers, left fielders, first basemen, and shortstops, the season would most likely have been quite different. 

Jul 26, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Detroit Tigers President, CEO and General Manager Dave Dombrowski works in the dugout before their game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Hot Stove season is in full effect, one of the first managers to make a big change in his club was Dave Dombrowski. And, to the shock and awe of Tigers’ fans, he ordered a young, reliable closer by the name of Craig Kimbrel. So, of course, Tigers fans question why Dombrowski did not do this when he was in Detroit. 

Honestly, he did hire a “first tier” closer in Detroit and he did it in 2014. The closer he hired was Joe Nathan. During his years in Minnesota and Texas, Nathan absolutely destroyed the Tigers. The team could not put together rallies against him. So, when fans heard that he was on his way to the team he consistently “killed,” they were more than excited. This quote by Greg Eno from Bleacher Report, dated January 26, 2014, shows fans’ excitement: “Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him.” Fans believed that Joe Nathan was the answer. 

Aug 9, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher J Soria (38) walks off the field during the tenth inning in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Toronto Blue Jays won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Then, the season began and Joe did not deliver. It did not take long for Nathan to go from the “real closer” to having his ability questioned by late May 2014 to being booed during the 2015 spring training games. This was not the Joe Nathan that fans were expecting and the fans let him know. While Nathan struggled in 2014, Dombrowski then brought in another solid closer by the name of Joakim Soria, only no one knew how to use him. He sat around most of the season and whenever he did pitch, he ended up hurting himself. Finally, Soria got to show his skills in 2015, but only after Nathan blew out his arm in Toledo. 

So, while the fans question Dombrowski’s dedication to filling the bullpen during his tenure in Detroit, it is important to remember that he did fill the closer role. 

Was it Dombrowski’s fault that Nathan fell apart? Possibly, because he did start his time with the Tigers at age 39. Was it Dombrowski’s fault that Soria did not pitch much in 2014? Possibly, because he could have spoken with the coaches and manager about getting him on the mound. We can blame Dombrowski for shipping Soria off to Pittsburgh, which resulted in catastrophic late innings for the Tigers. But, before figuratively punching Dombrowski in the gut for not filling the closer role, remember that he actually did and what he did looked good on paper.