Now that they're in first place with little more than seven weeks left in the regular season, they'll head into the thick of the pennant race with renewed job security for their brain trust.
The Tigers took the uncertain futures out of the background on Monday by announcing contract extensions for general manager Dave Dombrowski, his assistants and manager Jim Leyland. Dombrowski received a four-year contract through 2015. Leyland received a one-year extension through next season.
Vice presidents Al Avila, David Chadd, Scott Reid and John Westhoff also earned contract extensions. It doesn't remove the win-now theme that has surrounded the Tigers all year, but it removes the running story that had followed the guys in charge.
"I don't think it has been a distraction," Dombrowski said during a Monday afternoon conference call. "We're in a position where we're four games in first place and the guys have played well. But it always has the potential to be a distraction, and not from our perspective, but in the sense that it constantly is brought up. You're aware that it's out there. If you can avoid it, you try to avoid it. And in this situation, we were able to do that."
The extensions ensure that Dombrowski and his support team will go into a second decade running the club both on and off the field. Together, Dombrowski, Avila, Reid and Westhoff have overseen a rebuilding process that took the Tigers from back-to-back 100-loss seasons from 2002-03 -- including a American League-record 119 defeats in '03 -- to a team expected to contend every year. Detroit leads the AL Central in August for the fourth time in the past six years; the Tigers, who have not won a division title since 1987, might have their best chance this year.
Add in the development of the farm system, and Dombrowski sounded particularly upbeat about the state of the franchise.
"I think we're in the best place this year since I've been here," he said.
Team owner Mike Ilitch sounded a similar tone.
"Dave has built a solid foundation for this organization and assembled competitive teams that give us a chance to win, year in and year out," Ilitch said in a statement. "We have a lot of confidence in his continued leadership of the Detroit Tigers."
Dombrowski said he and Ilitch talked about his situation around the All-Star break and branched out to Leyland's situation from there.
"We had yet to get contractual language and all that stuff ironed out," Dombrowski said, "but it didn't take very long for us to get that done."
Dombrowski has also been in charge on the Tigers' business side, which has seen a turnaround of its own. What was once a difficult task, to draw fans after the first season at Comerica Park, has become one of Major League Baseball's better success stories, with consistently strong attendance figures over the last six seasons.
Detroit has drawn more than 2.4 million fans in each of those years, ranking in the top six among AL clubs in attendance each season. The Tigers have sold out eight games this year, including three on their recent seven-game homestand. Their average of 30,621 fans per game this year is an uptick from last year.
Since 1946, only Jim Campbell, the Tigers' general manager from 1962-83, has held the post longer than Dombrowski. The fact that Dombrowski's top assistants have been around for virtually the entire time makes the front-office team a relative rarity in baseball.
"I'm very excited to be signing this extension and remaining a part of the Detroit Tigers organization," Dombrowski said. "I'm very thankful to Mr. I for putting his support with me, and I'm particularly thankful for all the people in the organization that helped me all along the way. ... We have a very good organization and work together well, and I'm very, very fortunate to be part of that organization. We look forward to continuing it, and we also look forward to to hopefully bringing a world championship."
The last six seasons have been under Leyland's leadership at manager, the longest run by a Tigers skipper since Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson's tenure. Leyland led the Tigers to the World Series in 2006, losing to the Cardinals, and has put them in contention to get back to the playoffs almost every year since. He owns a 485-440 record as Tigers manager, including 61-53 this season.
"I know Jim shares our desire to deliver a winner," Ilitch said. "We're pleased to have him continue leading the Detroit Tigers on the field."
Leyland is in his 20th season as a Major League manager and is looking for his sixth spot in the postseason. The 66-year-old former Tigers farmhand, who got his managerial start in Detroit's farm system in the 1970s, has said he would like to manage for several more years.
Dombrowski said he and Leyland did not discuss a multiyear extension.
"He did not ask me for more than that," Dombrowski said. "We offered him that and he gladly accepted."
Dombrowski added, "I hope Jim not only signs for next year, but we hope that he's here for a long long time."
By doing this part now, Leyland has some security for the stretch run.
"I want to thank Mr. Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski for the support and confidence they have shown in me," Leyland said, "and I look forward to managing the Detroit Tigers in 2012. Also, my many thanks go out to generations of Tigers fans who have supported the Tigers through the good times as well as the tough times. I'm proud to take the responsibility to assure Mr. Ilitch, Dave and our many fans that we will never fall short of doing everything we can to maintain the pride of our organization and our fans."
Though the Tigers have been at or near the division lead for much of the season, the contract status for Dombrowski and Leyland -- and the pressure to win now -- has accompanied the club all season. The Tigers made a midseason coaching move last month by changing pitching coaches from Rick Knapp to Jeff Jones, trying to get more production out of a pitching staff that had its ups and downs, aside from Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander.
Detroit also has had its share of trades aimed at this year, from the May swap of Scott Sizemore for David Purcey to the Trade Deadline acquisitions of Wilson Betemit, Doug Fister and David Pauley. Fister is the potential long-term exception, giving Detroit four starters under contractual control for the next three to four seasons.
Dombrowski said he and his assistants had been talking about long-term planning with the roster, but that some things had been on hold as far as implementation.
"You're always prepared for [the future], but of course, if you're not signed for 2012 or beyond, you're not going to start implementing different thoughts and ideas for that. Now that doesn't affect our team is run on the field. We still have a budget off on the side through 2014 and our player projections ... But also there's times that you're planning long-term that maybe you're thinking about it, but you haven't put it into effect because until you know that you're going to be there, you really can't do that."
So far, the Tigers have responded to the pressure, heading into a crucial three-game series at Cleveland on Tuesday with a four-game lead in the division. The last time Leyland was in a contract year, a fast start in 2009 earned him an extension by midseason before the Twins eventually beat out the Tigers for the division title in a one-game tiebreaker. It took much longer into this season, but Dombrowski and Leyland have their status taken care of for now.
"One thing you don't want to be is a distraction, and Jim never wants to be a distraction either," Dombrowski said. "The focus is on the field. We both believe in that a great deal. We're making the announcement today. We don't want to make it tomorrow because we have a game tomorrow."