Commentary

Tigers have mastered art of decisive dealmaking

Originally Published: December 5, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE -- Out there in the rest of the baseball universe, it seems as if nobody can make a trade. Then there are the Detroit Tigers.

Give them a few hours, and they're sure capable of doing more than just ordering room service.

They can pull off one of the epic trades in winter meetings history.

Oh, they needed the help of the Florida Marlins, of course. Without them, the Tigers' staggering acquisition of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis wouldn't have been possible.

[+] EnlargeDombrowski/Leyland
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonTigers GM Dave Dombrowski, left, has provided manager Jim Leyland with all the pieces to succeed.
Not without avoiding federal kidnapping charges, at least.

But of all the stunning ingredients that went into this extravaganza, none is more shocking than how little time it took.

A few hours. That's it. Half of Tuesday morning. Part of the afternoon. Done deal.

How can it be that easy? How can anything this complicated possibly have happened that fast? Heck, Manny Ramirez can barely make it down the first-base line that swiftly.

And if it's that simple, how come nobody else can do it?

"Maybe we give up too many players," laughed Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, after finally announcing this blockbuster Wednesday. "I don't know."

Yeah, it's true the Tigers did indeed give up a minivan full of players in this deal -- headlined by the two centerpieces, center fielder Cameron Maybin and pitcher Andrew Miller. But Dombrowski says he can't understand why anybody would think he should have done anything less.

"I know there's a thought process in today's game -- and I agree to an extent -- that you can't give up prospects," the GM said. "But I don't necessarily agree with that. If you don't give players up, you aren't going to get players. I don't know where this thing started, where you're going to get players who are good players and not give anything up. It doesn't happen."

Boy, what a concept. You want good players, so you actually trade away good players? Amazing. What are the odds a goofy idea like that can ever catch on?

WHAT'S THE DEAL?
Get the inside scoop on what's happening at the winter meetings in Nashville. Blog
"You might get criticized," Dombrowski said. "But that's the way it goes. I think it's more important what you get. ... If you're happy with what you get, then you've got to make moves like that."

Well, here we are, a few weeks before Christmas, and let's just say Santa won't have to worry about reading an extensive 98-item wish list from that team in Detroit. The Tigers appear to be somewhere between happy and euphoric with what they've gotten -- not only in this particular deal but in this whole, action-packed offseason.

They've done this fall what Dombrowski does best -- zero in on what he thinks he needs and do it. Not mull it and ponder it and debate it and float it and reflect on it. Just do it.

So about 30 seconds after the World Series ended, he traded for Edgar Renteria. Then he re-signed his closer, Todd Jones. Then he traded for outfielder Jacque Jones. Then he re-signed starter Kenny Rogers.

And that was before he headed for the winter meetings. Where the Tigers' delegation apparently envisioned themselves mostly playing gin, watching game shows and hanging out at the Pam Tillis Christmas Dinner Party nightly -- because, in Dombrowski's words, "I thought we were done."

Whoops. Maybe not.

All thanks to a phone call the GM got from his owner, Mike Illitch, a couple of days before Thanksgiving. Seems Illitch had been reading the sports page and saw something about how this guy Miguel Cabrera was available.

Illitch picked up the phone and did something his GM said Illitch had never done in the six years he'd worked for him.

"He called me at home and said, 'You know, that's a good name,' " Dombrowski recalled Wednesday. "And I said, 'Yeah, that's a good name.' And he said, 'Well, I just had to mention his name, because he seems like he'd be a great player for us.' And I said, 'Yeah, he would be.' "

But Dombrowski also thought he'd better mention something else -- that the Tigers had kind of hit their payroll ceiling already. And that Cabrera probably wasn't going to be willing to work for 10 bucks an hour.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen
Kyle Terada/US PresswireVenezuelan natives Carlos Guillen and Miguel Cabrera are old friends -- and new teammates.
To his great surprise, Illitch replied: "Well, maybe we could come up with some way to see if we could make this work."

Which the GM thought was a terrific sentiment, obviously. But even then, in the back of his mind, "I didn't think it was realistic."

By Monday night, however, as the Tigers' brass began kicking ideas around, they were starting to wonder if it was growing more realistic by the minute.

Dombrowski said to his group that even if they had already done everything they'd set out to do, he was going to throw some new ideas out there -- and "they might sound crazy, but let's see if we can get better." And it was in that session that Cabrera's name came up again.

They knew the Marlins' deal with the Angels had blown up. So one of Dombrowski's most trusted assistants, Al Avila, called one of his counterparts with Florida, Mike Hill, to ask what it would take to trade for Cabrera.

Hill mentioned the names of Miller or Maybin. Avila said the Tigers didn't particularly want to trade them, let alone both of them.

But the dish was simmering by then. So the next morning, the Marlins -- another team that has mastered the art of making decisions (and deals) -- called back and proposed an eight-player trade:

Which turned out to be the exact deal -- miracle of miracles -- that these teams would wind up agreeing to a few hours later.

And when the Tigers got back to them in the afternoon, they didn't maneuver. They didn't play games. They didn't try to substitute some name from the Florida State League for some other name from the Eastern League.

They just said yes. They'd do it.

Pardon us while we get out the smelling salts.

Can it really be that easy?

OK, not always.

"You know, my son is 7 years old," Dombrowski said. "And he said to me last year, 'Hey, daddy, I wish the Tigers would get Albert Pujols.' And I said, 'Oh, that's great.' And he said, 'I think you should trade Ramon Santiago for him.'

Jim [Leyland] says all the time that there's good pressure and bad pressure. Well, this is good pressure.

--GM Dave Dombrowski

"Now no [disrespect] to Ramon, because I like him a great deal," Dombrowski chuckled. "But I said, 'Landon, if you can make that deal, you go ahead and make it.' "

Well, Landon Dombrowski couldn't go ahead and make that one, naturally. And neither could his dad (though he did run it by then-Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty). But there's a moral to that story:

If you just have a feel for what it takes to make a trade, for what you need and for what the other team can afford, it is possible to make one. Just like that.

Dombrowski knows he has weakened his farm system, both with this trade and the deal with the Braves for Renteria. And he's "not happy about it," either, he admitted.

"Look, I wish we had the same club and also had the same prospects," Dombrowski said. "But that's not possible."

What was possible, though, was pulling off a trade that makes the Tigers one of the two or three best teams in the whole sport.

With arguably the best lineup in the whole sport.

With five starting pitchers who have thrown 200 innings in at least one of the last two seasons.

With a manager (Jim Leyland) who has proven he can weave together a high-profile roster like this as well as any manager alive.

And with an owner who now hopes to spend what it will take to keep the new 24-year-old, four-time All-Star third baseman around for a whole slew of years to come.

So to those who say the Tigers made this deal to try to win now, or before this mythical two-year window closes, Dombrowski responds: "We did make this trade to win now. I mean that's obvious. We built this club to win. ... We have acquired Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. And we haven't traded one player we thought would be on our major league club this coming year to start the season. That's not easy to do. ...

Magglio Ordonez
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonExpect to see Magglio Ordonez and Co. doing a lot of celebrating in 2008.
"However, I don't buy the thing that you're in a position where you're only going to win for a couple of years. You might only win with the makeup of this club for a couple of years. But it doesn't mean that this piece can't lead to that piece. And once you're successful and you have a revenue source, you can replace players. People are open-minded to sign with your club. ... So it's a year-to-year situation."

And ohbytheway, Dombrowski added, "We made this trade and got younger."

Oh, right. Cabrera is just 24. Willis is only 25. They're not exactly senior citizens.

So now that they're around, are the Tigers guaranteed to win it all? Well, no. Are they guaranteed to win their division? Well, no. Are they guaranteed to do anything other than show up and see where it all leads? Well, no again.

But think about where Illitch, Dombrowski, Leyland and their cohorts have already taken this franchise. A year and a half ago, the Tigers hadn't had a winning season since 1993. Now they're the Yankees of the great Midwest.

And they have no fear of all that entails, either -- just as they had no fear of making an eight-player megadeal in a few crazy hours.

"Jim says all the time that there's good pressure and bad pressure," Dombrowski said. "Well, this is good pressure."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and now is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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