It's not like president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and his staff knew they had a World Series team on their hands this year. Much as they might have felt it was possible, nobody expected this, the Tigers included. What they believed, however, was that the rebuilding project they'd undertaken since 2002 would make the team progressively better -- not just this year, but for the long run.
As it turned out, they're pretty good already.
"You come in with a plan," said John Westhoff, Tigers vice president and legal counsel and part of Dombrowski's management team. "You stick to it. You don't listen to your critics. You just keep on plugging away. It doesn't always work, but it's great when it does."
The low point -- and, in some way, the impetus for change -- came in 2003, when the rebuilding phase had begun a year earlier. Dombrowski arrived after the 2001 season, having left Florida in the wake of the shakeup that changed ownership of the Marlins from John Henry to Jeffrey Loria and his Expos front-office group.
Dombrowski arrived in Detroit with the titles of president and CEO, leaving the day-to-day duties to general manager Randy Smith. Six games -- and six losses -- into the 2002 season, Dombrowski dismissed Smith and added GM to his list of titles. It was a controversial move coming so early in the season, with many asking why he didn't just take over the post when he came on board. Dombrowski countered that he spent the offseason learning about the organization and finding out what they had.
"My assessments," he said at the time, "were if we were going to become a championship organization, we were going to have to make some changes."
To Smith's credit, seven players that he brought into the organization -- Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe, Mike Maroth, Fernando Rodney, Jamie Walker, Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago -- have all played important roles in the Tigers' success this year. As for the rest, changes were coming.
"It really was an all-out effort to go try to find more talent and depth," Dombrowski told reporters on Saturday. "There was a lot that was done, and I tip my cap to our people."
Once assistant general manager Al Avila came on board soon after Dombrowski's move, joining Westhoff and Scott Reid, the front-office group was in place. After Dombrowski evaluated the farm system, the talent influx began.
Dombrowski traded the one coveted commodity that he had in the big leagues, staff ace Jeff Weaver, to Oakland for Carlos Pena, Franklyn German and a hard-throwing teenager named Jeremy Bonderman. The guy who took over as ace after Weaver, Mark Redman, was dealt the next winter for a package of pitchers that included Nate Robertson. Meanwhile, the Tigers made three picks in the Rule 5 draft and ended up trading for another by the end of Spring Training.
Most of the veterans who weren't under long-term deals were either let go or dealt. What was left was a combination of veterans under contract and prospects that the Tigers decided they wanted to see. The results weren't pretty, but it set the direction two-fold: first, it gave the club a chance to evaluate what was there, and second, it prompted moves to start filling in the holes.
|A WINNING ASSEMBLY LINE|
Major transactions by the Tigers since Dave Dombrowski became their general manager in 2002 (bold=currently on playoff roster):
"When we had that tough year in 2003, we knew we needed to do some things," Dombrowski said. "Of course, we'd already done some things behind the scenes with the acquisitions of Bonderman and Robertson and the drafting of [Joel] Zumaya and [Curtis] Granderson [in June of '02]. But at that point [in 2003], I think, [Tigers owner Michael Ilitch] said, 'OK, let's go out and be aggressive.'"
Zumaya and Granderson were both picks under former scouting director Greg Smith, whose final first-round selection in 2004 turned out to be the reward for the 119 losses Detroit endured in 2003. Nobody in the organization imagined that hard-throwing college hurler Justin Verlander would be ready so soon, but he fit the mold of the Tigers' drafts. Detroit went for hard throwers on the mound and multi-tooled athletes in the field.
Still, to build completely from within wasn't going to be possible. To kick up the improvement, the Tigers were going to have to get back into the free-agent market. And to do that, they'd have to attract players who would consider Detroit.
It wasn't easy. After hitting and missing with some mid-level signings -- Rondell White and Fernando Vina -- the Tigers, who were unable to lure shortstops Miguel Tejada and Rich Aurilia, turned one such loss into their biggest gain. When the Mariners beat out the Tigers for Aurilia, they set Carlos Guillen loose by dealing him to Detroit for Santiago and a prospect. In doing so, Detroit found arguably its most valuable all-around player.
The other candidate came a few weeks later, when the Tigers finally landed their biggest free agent. Ivan Rodriguez, largely ignored on the market by the rest of baseball, opened eyes by signing a four-year deal. Ilitch, meanwhile, opened Pudge's eyes by telling him that he'd make this team good again.
"To me, the real start was when Pudge came on board," Dombrowski said, "because that was the first player who chose Detroit in a long time. It made us a better ballclub, and it also opened some eyes in Detroit."
Rodriguez's arrival led to closer Ugueth Urbina a few weeks later, but it also paved the way for Troy Percival and Magglio Ordonez the following offseason. Urbina led to Placido Polanco in a trade with Philadelphia last year, turning another underrated infielder into a prize for the Tigers. With the big pieces in place, the Tigers became more selective on the market last winter, choosing shorter-term deals with Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones over big-name pitchers.
But the biggest signing of the process, by many accounts, was in the manager's office. By luring Jimmy Leyland back into the game, Dombrowski rebounded from the scrutiny of dismissing Alan Trammell by bringing in one of the most highly regarded skippers in the game. Moreover, he brought in somebody known for getting the most out of star players.
"I think he was a significant difference," Dombrowski said. "I think with all the things falling into place, with the signings of Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones, with youngsters like Verlander and Zumaya, I think [Leyland] was the final piece [of the puzzle]."
With that combination, Dombrowski felt like he had the makings of a good team. He didn't imagine this good, this soon, but the intention isn't for success to be fleeting. How they play next year, and the year after, will determine how well the rebuilding project worked. But it's certainly better than where they had started.
"You set the philosophy, you have good people with you, and you make the decisions," Dombrowski said. "Not every decision works, but you have to continue with that philosophy. And then you're in a spot where you believe in your people. I know we have a lot of good people here. I think people recognize that, and then you just hope it comes together quickly enough for you.
"But there's no sense in shortcuts, because the actual goal is not just to get there, but to get there for a lot of years. We have a chance to have a good club for a long time. We have good, young players. We have a great market, a great organization, a community here that supports it. This is a great franchise, and you can see it's [been] rejuvenated."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.