I've run hot and cold on the tenure of Dave Dombrowski. I believe that the contract he gave Miguel Cabrera (8 yrs./$152 Mil.) may turn out to be one of the best and most value-driven nine-figure contracts in the game's history. But that value has been more than offset by excessive contracts handed to Carlos Guillen, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis, among others.
I railed against the trading of Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson last winter, but Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer gave Tigers fans lots to be optimistic about this season. They're both young and inexpensive, and both showed flashes of brilliance. Meanwhile, both Granderson and E-Jax had down years. For now, it looks like Dombrowski bested both the Yankees and the D-Backs. However, he turned around and made a predictably disastrous play for Johnny Damon. Again, bad decisions offset good decisions.
Now, with Magglio Ordonez, Robertson, and Willis finally coming off the books, Dombrowski has more payroll space than he's had since the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006. Dombrowski is one of the most active GMs every offseason, but this year he's taking it to a new level. The Giants had barely finished their parade before the Tigers had announced half a dozen offseason moves. Most notably, Dombrowski quickly resigned shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, and third baseman, Brandon Inge. Then he snapped up free agent reliever, Joaquin Benoit. And, most recently, he tabbed switch-hitting backstop, Victor Martinez.
V-Mart is easy to love. He's one of the top five hitters at his position, possibly higher (only Joe Mauer is clearly better). He's beloved by his teammates. He's utterly consistent (OPS+ between 122 and 130 in every season except injury-plagued '08). He's got a strong reputation as a game-caller and field general. However, his age and his inability to control the running game in recent seasons suggest he is probably destined to be a first-baseman or DH by the end of this contract, at which point his production will merely be league-average for his position.
Benoit was arguably the best reliever in the American League last year. However, $16.5 Million is a lot of money for a 33-year-old reliever who's coming off his best season, is only a year removed from a major injury, and isn't even your closer. Dombrowski wasn't willing to go to $15 Million for Brandon Lyon last year, even though Lyon was significantly younger, had a better track record, and more closing experience.
In general, there seems to be an inconsistency of philosophy in Detroit's front office. In '07 and '08 they spent wildly on offensive-minded players like Cabrera, Guillen, Edgar Renteria, and Gary Sheffield. Then they reversed course and went with slick fielders like Adam Everett and Gerald Laird. Now they've once again hired Iron Gloves at key defensive positions. In every case, they've overpaid slightly for what they're prioritizing. It's a hard pattern to get behind.
All this activity will promote speculation that the Tigers have moved within striking distance of the White Sox and Twins, both of whom have been utterly quiet thus far. The division-leading Twins lost nearly their entire bullpen to free agency, as well as their winningest pitcher, their second baseman, and their beloved DH. The Sox also lost a couple of key relievers, as well as their most productive hitter and their longtime catcher. Plus Chicago still has question marks at third, in right, and at DH. Until the offseason shakes out, we won't really know how much of the gap Dombrowski has closed.
That said, if he plans on making a serious run, not only at the AL Central title, but at a pennant, there is still a lot of work to be done. The pitcher staff is very promising. Justin Verlander, Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Armando Galarraga comprise a youthful, high-upside rotation. An additional innings-eater would certainly be nice, but shouldn't be Detroit's top priority. The bullpen, led by Benoit and Jose Valverde, and supported by young power arms like Daniel Schlereth, Ryan Perry, and Joel "Cross Your Fingers" Zumaya, should also be a strength. And V-Mart, combined with perennial MVP candidate, Cabrera, make for a legit middle-of-the-order tandem.
The rest of the regulars, however, provide cause for concern, both offensively and defensively. The Tigers outfield situation is very uncertain. Both Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch had nice rookie campaigns, but their underlying stats suggest they are prime candidates for sophomore slumps. Jackson's .293 average was boosted by a frankly unsustainable .396 average on balls in play. His defense should keep him on the field, but he may struggle to be a competent tablesetter. Boesch's production fell off the table in the second half of 2010, to an extent which suggests his hold on a starting position in 2011 is hardly guaranteed. The other options currently at Dombrowski's disposal are no more encouraging. Utilityman, Ryan Raburn, and September call-up, Casper Wells, both played well in limited exposure, but neither profiles as anything more than replacement level at a corner-outfield spot.
The infield defense, especially up the middle, where lead-footed veterans Carlos Guillen and Jhonny Peralta are expected to play, could be among the worst in the AL. Inefficiency at converting outs could be dangerous for young arms like Scherzer and Porcello, not to mention frustrating for all involved. As such, Dombrowski may be interested in a slick-fielding second-baseman like Orlando Hudson, which would allow Guillen to be the primary DH, which might help him stay healthy. Other options could be resigning Magglio Ordonez or another, similar outfield/DH option who could come at a reasonable price. Vladimir Guerrero, Lance Berkman, Pat Burrell, and Hideki Matsui are some free agents who might fit the profile. Earlier in the week I also suggest Josh Willingham could be a trade target on the Tigers radar.
As busy as Dombrowski has been early in the Hot Stove season, I think he's still two or three moves away from contending with teams like the Rangers, Yankees, and Rays.