The Detroit Tigers are fighting for their playoff lives, hoping an impressive in-season transaction will be enough to wash out the ill effects of an off-season move they never should have made. The Seattle Mariners are chasing a Wild Card berth, thanks in part to one big off-season move on which they did not pull the trigger. The two teams played three games over the weekend, with Seattle winning two, and the most interesting story line wasn’t that the Mariners’ center fielder came to them as part of the Tigers’ big make-up move. It was that the Tigers only won one game–and it was the one their new addition started.
There are some fools who will try to bake their preconceptions about a given franchise, or a given executive, into their analysis of a transaction. That’s a great way to get way off track. Your opinion of any particular executive’s acumen should be an accumulation of opinions about the deals they transact; a new transaction should be a data point moving your opinion one way or the other. That can’t happen if you’re letting the previous data draw your conclusion toward the cluster.
I mention this because of Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ GM and one of the most widely respected GMs in baseball. Dombrowski rarely makes a misstep, rarely gives away a prospect he ends up missing and often lands improbably talented players, whether by being the guy who gets the ‘yes’ in a free-agent hunt or by trading from a stash of spare parts afforded him by a deep well of organizational resources.
That’s why it was so surprising when, over the winter, he made a colossally dumb series of mistakes that endangered the Tigers’ defense of three consecutive AL Central titles. He traded Doug Fister, an underrated, modestly expensive and very talented starting pitcher, for a utility infielder whose Tigers tenure would prove shorter than a diet-pill free trial; a lefty reliever; and a pitching prospect whose loftiest reasonable dream may be to one day become Doug Fister. With the salary that bonehead move saved, Dombrowski signed veteran reliever (veteran, perhaps, being an understatement) Joe Nathan at an eight-figure salary.
Fister did have injury issues at the start of the season, which had Dombrowski’s disciples genuflecting in solemn admiration, but since his return, he’s been sensational, walking 13 in 111-plus innings of 2.34-ERA ball. Meanwhile, Detroit has seen nagging injuries continue to nag Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander become more albatross than ace and Robbie Ray (the aforementioned prospect acquired for Fister) pitch miserably. It was Ray, in fact, on whom the Mariners put a thorough whupping en route to an easy win on Sunday. Joe Nathan has been so bad that the Tigers traded for Joakim Soria and signed Jim Johnson off the scrap pile, desperately trying to finally build a reliable bullpen.
To make up for the loss of Fister, of course, Dombrowski acquired David Price at the end of July. Price was the one who won Saturday’s game, the tightest of the three rather tedious contests between the teams. This is why Dombrowski is great: He remained aggressive even in the face of failure, and made a bold addition that might just keep the Tigers around into October, after all. He did it, too, without giving up a whole lot. Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and Willy Adames got the job done, which permitted the Tigers to take a step forward in their pursuit of a playoff spot without mortgaging the future. The sum of Dombrowski’s decisions in this particular decision tree is:
- GAINED: Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, David Price, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria
- LOST: Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly, Jake Thompson, Corey Knebel
That’s a poor deal for the Tigers, if we just treat it as one deal, especially in the long term. It might just be a slight positive in 2014, though, and if it is, then Dombrowski has done his job for now, and has definitely papered over his off-season gaffe.
Again, we need to carefully articulate the situation: Dombrowski did screw up, in a pretty big way. This chain reaction was not part of a good, coherent plan. However, he’s done very well in making up for the mistake. Only one team can win each division each season. The Tigers have been that team in their division for the last three. There’s no shame in their not being that team this year, if that be the case. One thing about the Price move, though, is that it essentially doubles down on the present, and leaves Dombrowski hanging even further out in the wind if things go badly.
Dombrowski hopes Price will turn around his season, but for now, let us ask Price to pivot only this conversation, to the Mariners.
Rumors swirled during the winter, especially after Seattle spent the net worth of Bleacher Report on Robinson Cano. All the whispers had the Mariners ready to deal Taijuan Walker, one of baseball’s best pitching prospects, to Tampa Bay as the centerpiece of a Price trade. The only hangup was that Tampa apparently preferred a deal built around a position player, and were continuing to look for one. Seattle went into Spring Training not only without Price, but seemingly without half a rotation. Sure, they had Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of that unit, but the rest of the names were ugly. They spent camp frantically mixing and matching names, dredging up long-abandoned reclamation projects like Randy Wolf and Scott Baker. Nothing was working. On the eve of Opening Day, they grabbed Chris Young, presumably because at six-foot-ten, Young made the easiest target for the metal claw that could lift him out of the mass of cheap castoffs all around and deposit him into the prize bin.
Young won his 12th game on Sunday, shutting out the Tigers over six innings. He allowed four hits and a walk, and struck out four. He’s surpassed his innings total (even counting the minor leagues) for every season since 2007. At first, he was having success, but it looked like smoke and mirrors. Since July 1, though, Young has made nine starts, pitched 55.1 innings, struck out 45 opposing batters and walked just 12, en route to a 2.93 ERA. He’s just throwing junk, a mid-80s fastball that he can locate at the top of the zone and a curveball he’s comfortable and proficient throwing above the belt, too. Still, here he is, and his terrific work thus far is a big reason for the Mariners’ success.
The point is, sometimes it’s the move you don’t make, and sometimes it’s the second move you make. Baseball Prospectus gives the Tigers a 68.6-percent chance to make the playoffs, and pegs the Mariners at 46.2 percent. ESPN essentially flips that, with Seattle at 72.3 percent and Detroit at 43.1 percent. Both teams wanted David Price. One was, ultimately, willing to move Heaven and Earth to get him. The other looks in better position to reach the postseason, at least for now. Either way, the choices the two teams made on their way to this point make them interesting case studies in both team building and priorities.Next post: Shutting Up About the Pace of Game Problem, and Fixing It, Too
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