Tigers' success starts at top

Ilitch, Dombrowski positioning their club as the next 'behemoth'

October 08, 2011|Phil Rogers

Like Rudolf Nureyev, the Tigers have turned on a dime.

They appeared to be downsizing less than two years ago when they traded Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson in moves that seemed to show owner Mike Ilitch's concern over a bloated payroll. But that viewpoint passed before the 2010 season started, with free agent Johnny Damon added from the flexibility created by that provocative three-team trade.

General manager Dave Dombrowski said the Tigers were only regrouping.

He saw a winnable American League Central, without a true superpower like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, and made it his life's work to become the bully.

"Your goal is to become the behemoth,'' Dombrowski said at the start of 2010. "You hope the competition drives you up to where you're winning 95 games every year. That's what you're trying to win.''

The Tigers have made it to the top, with 98 victories and counting in 2011, and have no major free-agent concerns on the roster that is playing the Rangers in the AL Championship Series. Behind Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, they are positioned to make life difficult for the White Sox, Twins, Indians and Royals in the next few years.

Credit Dombrowski for being a smart, creative steward for Ilitch, the 82-year-old owner who has set the tone in a market that has been hit hard in America's economic morass.

When the Tigers went to the 2006 World Series, their payroll was $82 million. It soared to $138 million two years later, but Dombrowski cut it to about $110 million for this year and had all the pieces he needed.

Ilitch's commitment, the trades of Granderson and Jackson (for center fielder Austin Jackson and power arms Max Scherzer and Phil Coke) and a farm system that has produced value players such as Rick Porcello, Alex Avila, Don Kelly and Brennan Boesch, has allowed Dombrowski to fill holes.

He made some of the best moves at the trade deadline, acquiring No. 2 starter Doug Fister from the Mariners to offset the inconsistency of Scherzer and Porcello, Wilson Betemit from the Royals to eliminate the outs coming from Brandon Inge and more pop in the lineup with Delmon Young from the Twins.

Young has been revitalized as the Tigers' No. 3 hitter, working in front of Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Young, who suffered an oblique injury on Thursday, was a key to the first-round victory over the Yankees as he became the first Tiger ever to homer three times in a postseason series.

The Tigers started slow this season but picked up steam in June and just kept playing better. They passed first-half surprise Cleveland for good on July 21 and rolled into the playoffs going 30-9 down the stretch.

Few favored them to beat the Yankees, and the odds are also against them in the ALCS. That won't be the case in 2012. With the only roster issues to be resolved involving Magglio Ordonez's free agency and Young's possible arbitration case, the Tigers will be the team to beat.

Holding pattern: Jim Crane's attempt to purchase the Astros is in serious jeopardy. This may have strained the once close relationship between commissioner Bud Selig and Drayton McLane, who is thrilled with his deal to sell the team for a reported $680 million.

Crane quietly met with Selig last week at MLB's Milwaukee offices. He was there to answer questions about a history of workplace complaints and charges of war profiteering, which leave some owners wondering if they are welcoming another problem into their club.

If Crane is rejected, Selig probably would step in to help craft a group including many of Crane's investors. That scenario could open the door to Houston attorney Kenny Friedman, father of Rays general manager Andrew.

Until now, the biggest rift between McLane and Selig was the 2005 World Series, when Selig refused to allow the Astros to close the roof at Minute Maid Park on a beautiful night. MLB's statement then was that the park was built to be opened with nice weather, so it was to be open (even though the Astros thought a closed roof would create more noise, thus more of a home-field advantage).

MLB twice closed the Miller Park roof on beautiful days during the division series. MLB spokesman Pat Courtney says the decision was made in consultation with the teams. He said there was never a good-weather policy, just one that said MLB, not an individual club, made those decisions.


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