Sunday, November 04, 2007

Win Now, Or Win Later?

Following a four-game sweep to the St Louis Cardinals on November 10th, 2006 Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski changed the overall philosophy of the Detriot Tigers from a franchise focused on rebuilding and stregthening a depleated farm system to one that is concievably mortgaging the future for that elusive World Series title. With two World Series appearances with two different teams, creating a winning environment is not new to Dombrowski, this "win-now" mantra uncharted territory for the executive.

Dombrowski had seen previous action building, destroying and then rebuilding again the Florida Marlins. He used the market to sign free agents (Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield and Moises Alou ) while filling in the positions through the internal sytem (Edger Renteria, Luis Castillo) and well orchestrated trades. Moves like trading Dustin Hermanson and Joe Orsulak to the Montreal Expos for the little used Cliff Floyd has been the corner stone of the Dombrowski era. While Hermanson ended up having a decent tenure in Montreal, Floyd emerged as a dangerous middle of the order hitter (and was later traded back to Montreal in 2002 that netted the Marlins frontline starter Carl Pavano ).

During the ensuing implosion of the Fish, Dombrowski sent away numerous vital players of the 1997 World Series team. Most trades brought Florida back players who would later help the team complete in 2003. Kevin Brown was traded to San Deigo for Derrek Lee, Al Leiter sent to the New York Mets for A.J. Burnett, and Floyd for Pavano as mentioned above. These are three of the trades that later allowed the Marlins to reclaim their championship title in 2003. It should also be noted that he delt some of his elite players for prospects that never panned out (Conine to Kansas City for a low-A washout, Alou to the Astros for three nobodies, Robb Nen for more nobodies). More the exception than the rule, it was through the shrewed trades and draft picks, that Dombrowski aided in building the 2003 championship following the fire sale.

Never during his time as the GM of the Marlins did Dombrowski dabble in trading prospects for over-hyped stars. Signed them via free agency sure, but never did he sacrific the stability of a franchise. Which is why when he completed the trade of aging and often injured Gary Sheffield for three high quality prospects Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan and Anthony Claggett, I was somewhat dumbfounded. Sheffield, the 38-year-old high-priced and limited the designated hitter, had spent a large amount of 2005 on the DL. He seemed to be growing older by the at-bat so any production the Tigers did gain from him, it would be for only a couple of seasons. Shortly after the 2007 season ended, Dombrowski executed a trade with the Atlanta Braves sending the Tigers' fourth and seventh best prospects (Jairs Jurrijens and Gorkys Hernandez ) for the 32-year-old Edgar Renteria. A player that has been excused of being an NL-only player after a down season with Boston. This one season after he sent his 6th (Sanchez) and 10th (Whelan) for Sheffield. Within two seasons, Dombrowski has sent four of his top ten prospects for expensive aging free agents.

What is happening?

The 2006 Tigers, built from genuine homegrown prospects (Granderson, Inge, Verlander, Zumaya), well-executed trades (Guillen, Polonco, Bonderman) and several key free agent signings (Rogers, Ordonez, Rodriguez), had a strong resemblance to the 1997 Florida Marlins (in fact, both finished with 90+ wins and claimed the wild card spot). The nucleus of the 2006 Tigers could be attributed to three trades in Dombrowski's reign:

1) Bonderman (and Pena and German) for Weaver.

"I couldn't believe that's what the trade was," said a seemingly disgruntled Jeff Weaver told the media on July 7th, 2002, "There were no big leaguers. Zero. They let one of the best pitchers go and got nothing for it."

On July 5th, 2002, the Tigers were 39 and 53, 17 games behind the first place Twins and admittedly looking to rebuild. Their solitary trading chip (and number one starter) Jeff Weaver was 6 and 8 with a 3.18 ERA. Weaver had chewed up 200 innings in the previous two seasons for a franchise that lacked stability. In a three way trade that sent Weaver to the New York Yankees, while the Tigers recieved minor leagues Carlos Pena, Franklyn German and a (a month later) prospect named Jeremy Bonderman from the Oakland Athletics.

Of course, this one move started a domino effect of trades that landed Detriot the necessary core to push them from the bowels of the AL Central to the cusp of World Champions. Granted, it is hard to predict the future, just as Weaver pointed out in is triade to the media above. Despite his delusions of granduer, did the Tigers recieve "nothing" as Weaver liked to say?

Weaver, 25-years-old at the time of the trade, was packaged to New York and contributed 12 wins and 12 losses in his two seasons as a Yankee. In 2002, he added 5 wins and 3 losses in addition to 2 saves. His greatest detriment to the Yankee organization came in the form of post-season collapse. After winning two straight games following the series opening loss, the Yankees were in dire straights. In game 4 of the 2003 World Series, Weaver surrendered the game winning home run to Alex Gonzalez of the Florida Marlins in a Series that the Yankees would ultimately lose in six games. Even if you are dubious about statistical value, this sole moment signalled the end to the Yankee dynasty (then again, Torre could have dispatched Mariano Riviera and did not) and Weaver's arm was responsible for that.

Upholding Weaver's predictations, Pena never lived up to his gospel-like praise from Baseball America for the Tigers. Pena did manage to get on-base a fair share for a power hitter while contributing 75 home runs in his three seasons in Detriot before being released after 2005. Pena displayed all the tools that Billy Beane coveted: power, patience and a respectable on-base percentage. Detriot did not have similiar patience. Had the front office waited on Pena, they might have been reward with the similiar season he had for Tampa Bay in 2007 finishing with 46 home runs, 103 walks, and .282/.411/.627.

Franklyn German won 8 games out of Detriots bullpen between 2002 and 2005. His only losses came in 2003 with 4 losses though he saved 7 games. German was claimed off of waivers by the Florida Marlins on August 3rd, 2006. Incidentally, German could be regarded as the "nobody" Detroit recieved.

Which brings us to Bonderman. The trade was executed on July 5th, 2002. The Oakland Athletics still owed Detriot a "player-to-be-named-later". Bonderman was a 19-year-old toss-in from the high-A California league. He had 144.3 innings and 160 strikeouts under his belt when he went from high-A to the majors. The Tigers threw him in -sink or swim- and Bonderman promptly lost 19 games in 2003. To his credit, the Tigers lost an additional 100 more games when he didn't start coupled with an offense that was outscored 928-to-591.

In a move that was percieved as a payroll dump where the Tigers avoided having to pay Weaver nearly double his 2002 salary, the Tigers ended up netting Jeremy Bonderman who started 3 games in the 2006 playoffs with a 1 - 0 record. Bonderman and the Tigers slowly started to improve over the next couple of season, he finished with 11-13, 14-13, 14-8 and 11-9 records in 2003 to 2007. Weaver's record has trailed off significantly, he went 5-7, 14-11, 8-14 and 7-13. Weaver finished 2007 being paid $8.32 million while Bonderman was compesated half of that at $4.5 million. Despite not paying immediate dividends, it is clear that Detriot was rewarded for its return on investment netting a future dominate front-line starter at half the cost of Weaver.

2.) Guillen for Santiago and low-A burn out.

Dave Dombrowski turned his attention next to shoring up the infield. On January 8th, 2004, the Tigers acquired Carlos Guillen from the Seattle Mariners for a pittance.

Never too big on the entire youth-movement (see: various USS Mariner posts ) Seattle's new general manager Bill Bavasi insisted on going a different direction at shortstop for the 2004 season. After failing to unload Guillen onto the Cleveland Indians for Omar Visquel, a deal that ultimately fell apart, the Mariners signed Rich Aurilia and Scott Spiezio for shortstop and third.

Left with Carlos Guillen and no place to put him, the Mariners began shopping him around. Detroit offered a utility infielder and a low-A prospect and Seattle bit. The centerpiece was Ramon Santiago, 24, a career .231/.297/.311 hitter. His appeal to Seattle was that he was under contract for $307,000 and was not eligible for arbitration until after the 2005. Seattle would have been better off simply dumping the entire salary upfront.

In 2004, Santiago had exactly 39 at-bats with the parent club and witnessed 8 more in 2005 before returning to Detriot after he was outright released. Juan Gonzalez, the low-A prospect, has yet to ascend higher than A ball and is currently in the Dodgers organization. Guillen, meanwhile, has anchored a position in Detriot that hasn't been occupied steadily since Trammell, he has been a two-time All-Star and hit 65 home runs over four seasons. He contributed 76 Win Shares to the Detroit Tigers, Seattle recieved zero.

In the same year the Mariners opted not to pay Guillen, who by the way produced 23 Win Shares for Detriot in 2004, Aurilia managed 3 Win Shares (On July 19th, 2004 the Mariners ended the Aurilia experiment by trading him to San Diego for "future consideration" and began using Willie Bloomquist at shortstop). Spiezio, meanwhile, faired a tad better, lasting the entire 2004 season with Seattle but was released on August 19th, 2005 after a horrendous season (he did have a renaissance of sorts with the World Champion Cardinals in 2006). Spiezio provide the Mariners with 2 Win Shares in 2004 and 2005.

3.) Polanco for Urbina & Martinez.

By June 8th, 2005, the Tigers were in a familar spot battling the lowly Kansas City Royals for the dweller with a record of 27-30 and 12 games out of the AL Central race. Unsatified with the performance Omar Infante had been providing at second base, the Tigers traded away Ugueth Urbina, the 31-year-old closer who was 1-3 with 9 saves in 25 games with Detriot and 32-year-old utility infielder Ramon Martinez to Philadelphia for 29-year-old Placido Polonco.

What can be said is that Detroit grifted Philadelphia. In exchange for two aging players, one a relief pitcher who was steadily declining (and would be out of the league soon) and making $4.0 million for the season and a punchless utility infielder scheduled to make $1.025 million the Tigers recieved a solid-contact rate, line-drive hitting, young second baseman who was making $400,000 less than the two players traded away. The Phillies recieved 1 Win Share from their newfound utility man in 65 plate appearances in 2005 while Urbina converted one save in seven opportunities adding 5 Win Shares in the process. Polanco became the most consistant contact hitter in the AL, hitting .338, .295 and .341 since the trade. He also added 51 Win Shares. This is the definition of smart trade. And with that, Detroit had found a very cost-effective number two hitter.

The trades represent a complete plan when it comes to addressing the needs of an organization. Because of these three moves coupled with the emergence of draft-picks and the performance of the free agents, the Tigers packaged one of the strongest offensive and defensive rosters since the first Bush administration, and took the American League's wild card spot into the World Series. While the efforts fell short, the combination of talent and prospects certainly made the Detroit Tigers early favorites for 2007 and beyond. Depleted your farm system, however, is not in the best long term interest of your franchise.