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Dombrowski tries to grab Tigers by tail

By Pat Caputo
November 14, 2002

DETROIT–Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski isn’t trying to fool anyone about the state of his organization.

It is not, he is the first to admit, all that it is supposed to be.

But Dombrowski will point out that just because it may not be good at this stage doesn’t mean it will be that way forever.

"We’ve got a lot of room for improvement," Dombrowski said. "But there have been some things we have put in place which we feel like will move us in the right direction."

After going 56-106 the Tigers have nowhere to go but up.

The circumstances Dombrowski inherited when he became the team’s president were complicated. The Tigers were caught in baseball’s version of no-man’s land, not in a position to take a run at championship, yet not rebuilding either.

Last offseason, the Tigers signed several players to long-term contracts: pitchers Matt Anderson, Danny Patterson and Jeff Weaver, and infielders Shane Halter, Jose Macias, Dmitri Young and Craig Paquette. In the years before that, they had signed outfielder Bobby Higginson to a long contract extension, infielder Dean Palmer as a free agent and re-signed second baseman Damion Easley and righthander Brian Moehler to expensive contracts.

Then the major league club started out 0-11. GM Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner were not around for the 11th loss. They were both fired after six games, and Dombrowski assumed Smith’s role as GM.

On the other hand, it’s not as if the Tigers farm system is devoid of talent. The Tigers generally drafted well after Smith began his tenure in 1996. But the talent base has been slow in developing. A new double-play combination in Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago didn’t arrive until this season. The Tigers hoped their 1999 first-round draft choice, first baseman Eric Munson, would move along more quickly than he did. Pitchers such as Anderson, Nate Cornejo, Adam Bernero, Mike Maroth and Weaver have been inconsistent. First-round picks Seth Griesinger, Matt Wheatland and Kenny Baugh–all righthanders–came down with major arm problems.

Dombrowski evaluated the minor league system and liked much of what he saw, particularly the depth. What he found lacking was potential star-caliber players.

That’s why he pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Weaver to the Yankees as part of a three-way trade that brought them righthanders Jeremy Bonderman and Franklyn German, and first baseman Carlos Pena from the Athletics.

Bonderman and German both throw in the mid-90s and now rank among Detroit’s top three prospects. Pena was playing well in the big leagues by the close of the season.

As for the long-term contracts, Dombrowski was also able to trade Moehler to the Reds, but that’s it. After that, the Tigers are stuck. The hope is that Palmer, Young and Easley bounce back from injuries to have good seasons in 2003, while the farm system continues to improve. And that Higginson, who was outspoken in his criticism of the organization in 2002, returns to form now that former teammates Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson have been named as the Tigers’ manager and bench coach. Higginson is especially close to Gibson.

"Regardless of what players we move or don’t move this offseason, we should have quite a few players back from injuries," Dombrowski said. "These are veteran players who should make us an improved ball club."

Dombrowski brought in some of his trusted confidants from the Marlins: assistant GM Al Avila, assistant to the GM Scott Reid and scout Dick Egan. But he did not make changes in the player-development and scouting departments other than having Greg Smith, who was overseeing both operations, concentrate on scouting, while promoting minor league field coordinator Steve Boros to farm director.

"After an evaluation period, I’ve been impressed with our people," Dombrowski said. "I feel they can do what we need to get done. The last couple of drafts have been strong."

The landscape in the American League Central has changed because the Indians fell back after dominating the division.

"What the Twins did last season was outstanding and speaks of their organization," Dombrowski said. "But they are a small-market team, so they have to overcome some factors to keep it together for a long time."

The Tigers are not a small-market team. They are in the ninth-largest media market in the country and play in a new stadium.

"We may not be in a position to have the highest payroll in baseball," Dombrowski said. "But we definitely have enough to have competitive payroll. It’s what we do with these resources that will determine the success of this organization. We feel we can win."

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