DETROIT — When Dave Dombrowski took over as Detroit’s team president for the 2002 season, the Tigers immediately lost 106 games. The following year was an even bigger disappointment: a 43-119 mark among the worst in baseball history.
A decade after Dombrowski was hired, pretty much everything has changed at Comerica Park. The Tigers are headed to the World Series for the second time in seven seasons — a glamour team in the heart of blue-collar Detroit. You could make an argument that the Tigers now have the best pitcher in baseball and the best hitter.
How did this franchise’s fortunes change so drastically? It didn’t happen overnight.
After 225 losses in two years, the Tigers picked second in the draft in 2004. San Diego selected Matt Bush at No. 1, and Detroit took Justin Verlander.
“Greg Smith was our scouting director, and we had some guys that were cross-checkers there that were very adamant that he was the best pitcher, best player in the country,” Dombrowski said. “There were a lot of good players that year — Jered Weaver was there, Stephen Drew was there, Jeff Niemann was there.”
The draft is an inexact science, but the Tigers landed exactly the type of player they needed — a franchise pitcher who would become a foundation for everything the team is accomplishing now.
With nowhere to go but up, the Tigers won 72 games in 2004 and 71 the following season. Then Dombrowski brought in Jim Leyland to replace Alan Trammell as manager. Detroit also signed Ramon Santiago as a minor league free agent that offseason, bringing the infielder back for a second tour of duty with the Tigers. The team was clearly making strides, but not many could have foreseen how big a step the Tigers were about to take.
In Leyland’s first season, Detroit won 95 games and took the AL pennant before losing in the World Series to St. Louis. Although Verlander was a major contributor on that team, the rest of the roster was built around veterans like Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. There was a buzz surrounding baseball again in Detroit — the only question was how long it would last.
“You’re at different phases in what you’re doing,” Dombrowski said. “At that time, you were trying to add talent to get you over the hump and keep you that way.”
The Tigers slipped to 88 wins, but for the franchise’s long-term prospects, it was another productive year. Detroit drafted Rick Porcello in the first round and also landed Danny Worth in the second. Porcello has been in the starting rotation since 2009, and Worth is a backup infielder.
But those moves paled in comparison to the deal Dombrowski pulled off in December 2007, when he sent Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo and Dallas Trahern to Florida for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.
This year Cabrera became baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.
The Tigers quickly locked Cabrera up with a contract extension through 2015, but his first season with the team was a step back. Detroit went 74-88, not exactly an encouraging sign for a team that had just added an expensive star.
The Tigers had a good season but still fell short, losing an excruciating one-game playoff at Minnesota for the AL Central title.
Then Dombrowski took a bit of a risk by trading fan favorite Curtis Granderson and pitcher Edwin Jackson as part of a three-team deal with the New York Yankees and Arizona. In return, the Tigers acquired Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth.
The trade certainly paid dividends this year. Scherzer was terrific down the stretch in the regular season, finishing second in the majors behind Verlander in strikeouts. Jackson also had an impressive year in center field — Granderson’s old position. Coke came through with a couple saves in the AL championship series.
The Tigers signed closer Jose Valverde before the season, and although they didn’t make the postseason, they also drafted Drew Smyly, who has split time this year between the rotation and bullpen. In the middle of the 2010 season, Detroit acquired shortstop Jhonny Peralta and cash from Cleveland.
Detroit won the AL Central by 15 games, thanks in part to another remarkable trade at midseason. The Tigers acquired Doug Fister and David Pauley from Seattle for Charlie Furbush, Francisco Martinez, Casper Wells and Chance Ruffin. Fister went 8-1 after joining the Tigers in 2011 and remains a crucial part of the starting rotation.
Detroit also quietly acquired Delmon Young from Minnesota for Cole Nelson and Lester Oliveros. Young, the team’s DH, was this year’s ALCS MVP.
What began as a quiet offseason took a turn for the worse when Victor Martinez hurt his knee in January. He hasn’t played at all this year, but Detroit didn’t stand pat after losing him. The Tigers instead acted boldly, signing slugging first baseman Prince Fielder to a $214 million, nine-year contract.
It was the ultimate win-now move — owner Mike Ilitch opening his wallet to make a run at a World Series title that’s now four victories away.
When Detroit was in the thick of a tight division race with the Chicago White Sox, Dombrowski gambled again, sending top pitching prospect Jacob Turner to the Marlins along with Rob Brantley and Brian Flynn for pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante. Sanchez held the Yankees scoreless in Game 2 of the ALCS. Infante, who was also on Detroit’s 2006 pennant-winning team, has fit in well.
“There’s no question that we’ve got an owner that’s extremely supportive, and we’re able to do things in free agency that maybe other clubs or we have not done in the past,” Dombrowski said. “You don’t leave any stone unturned, and you’re being aggressive everywhere you can.
“It is a combination of those factors,” he said. “It’s your home-grown talent, it’s free agency, it’s trades.”