It's no surprise that Tigers fans would consider this season to be a disappointment. The Tigers felt they had a ball club that would once again contend for a World Series, and instead the club suffered through injuries, poor performances from key players, and a bullpen that still can't regularly close out games. However, no one really expected that the struggles of the 2015 season would result in the dismissal of Dave Dombrowski, who has been with the organization for the last 14 years.
Right now everyone is looking for answers with few being offered. And in Tuesday's press conference announcing the promotion of Al Avila to executive vice president and general manager, not a single member of the Ilitch family was in attendance to provide any. So we are left to speculate as to how a long-standing relationship came to such a sudden and surprising end, at least to the public. It’s entirely possible this has been in the works for some time, but the way the release was worded, the timing of it, and the absence of a comment from Dombrowski indicates otherwise.
To be clear, Avila being promoted to the ranks of General Manager is not a surprise. There had been talk of this move for years, and with Dombrowski’s contract ending at the end of the year, the 2015 offseason appear to be a logical transition point. But not August 4th, just days after the trade that deadline in which the Tigers declared themselves sellers and made a number of trades essentially giving up on the 2015 campaign.
As best I can tell, and to be clear this is my informed speculation but speculation nevertheless, the decision came down to a few key factors.
The first was that Avila was ready to be GM, and after 14 years with the same man in charge, it made sense to hand over the reins to somebody else. While making change for the sake of change isn’t necessarily recommended, new leadership brings new ideas and new strategies, and after following a certain path for many years, the Tigers likely could benefit from a different viewpoint at the top. Avila has long been Dombrowski’s second in command, has built a strong relationship with the Ilitch family, is well respected in baseball, and knows the organization inside and out. Simply put, Avila was ready to be GM, and if the Tigers didn't make him that, it would only be fair that they allow him to explore other opportunities outside the organization, after declining him that opportunity many times previously.
Second, I believe that the family had reached the point in which they wanted a family member to be in charge. Since purchasing the ball club, Mike Ilitch has always been the owner and final decision maker. However, he has largely been hands off in the day-to-day operations of the ball club for many years now. That responsibility fell onto Dombrowski. With Ilitch getting up in age, and his health being called into question, it would make sense that he’d want to identify the new day-to-day leader of the organization, and that someone being one of the family members – potentially Chris, who is also President and CEO of Ilitch Holdings. Dombrowski has been with the organization for a long time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was a lifer. It was readily apparent that if the opportunity arose to be MLB’s new commissioner, Dombrowski would have jumped at it – and who knows to what extent he was exploring potential new opportunities with his contract coming up at the end of this year. Ilitch wanted stability in leadership, and really, the family can provide that best.
Finally, I think Mike Ilitch was on board with the decision to sell at the trade deadline. But, I also think he blamed Dombrowski for being in the position that they needed to sell to begin with. This entire team was orchestrated by Dombrowski – yes, Ilitch got involved along the way at times and made large investments in certain players, which did limit financial flexibility a bit. But by and large, Dombrowski had a very large payroll to work with, and was unable to field a team that was capable of competing for a World Series. He turned Doug Fister, one of the better starting pitchers in baseball, into Shane Greene (through Robbie Ray), who is now struggling in the bullpen. He hoped a flash in the pan season from Alfredo Simon would turn into a full year of productivity. And he has failed to build a reliable bullpen, even after last year’s debacle, instead bringing largely the same cast back to try and right the ship.
I think all of those things played a role in the ultimate decision that came down yesterday.
Dombrowski has done a tremendous job turning around a franchise that literally fielded one of the worst teams in the history of baseball. They’ve been competitive almost every season since the resurgence fully took hold in 2006, won two pennants, four division crowns, and made a number of deep playoff runs. They came up short in their ultimate objective of winning a World Series, but it’s hard to hold Dombrowski accountable for a pitching staff that couldn’t throw a ball to first base (2006), a red-hot offense going ice cold in 2012, or a groin injury turning the best hitter in the game into a singles hitter in 2013. A lot has to go right to win a World Series, and it just never quite aligned for the Tigers.
That’s not really the fault of Dombrowski. But failing to build a bullpen, struggling to maintain a strong starting rotation, and having difficulty growing in-house talent all do. Dombrowski was an excellent leader in Detroit for many seasons, and deserves a great deal of gratitude from everyone that was involved or has a rooting interest in the success of the Tigers. But, when you look at it objectively, you can see that it probably made sense that it was time to move on.