On Wednesday the Detroit Tigers clinched their third consecutive American League Central division championship and fourth playoff birth overall since 2006. A lot of things have to go right in order to accomplish this, especially after the 2003 season. That season, Detroit finished with not only the worst season in baseball, but they threatened the 1962 New York Mets as the all time worst. They were worse than the this year's Houston Astros. Yes, that bad!
I believe that were three moments that led to the turnaround and sustained success. The first of which was the hiring of general manager Dave Dombrowski by owner Mike Ilitch. Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 and had very mediocre results for about a decade. For much of the time, Randy Smith called the shots in personnel and did a poor job. Drafting a closer(Matt Anderson) first overall in the MLB draft is the epitome of his failures. Smith was let go in 2002 and Dombrowski was hired as his replacement.
If you don't know much about Dombrowski prior to his Detroit hiring, I will fill you in. He was the GM for Montreal Expos from 1988-1991. He build up the farm system and by the time of the 1994 player strike, the Expos(who had the best record in baseball) were made up of good amount of players Dombrowki had acquired.
In November of 1991, the Florida Marlins hired Dombrowski as their first GM. During his tenure there, he constructed a team that won the 1997 World Series championship. Soon after winning it all, he was told by ownership to sell off the high priced talent. The loss of talent led to mediocre Marlin teams and end of Dombrowski's job. But he stockpiled enough talent in Florida that led to the 2003 World Series Championship. Players he acquired included pitchers Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, A.J. Burnett and hitters Juan Pierre, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Derrek Lee and a young Miguel Cabrera.
Dombrowksi, by the time he was hired in Detroit, had a nice track record of player evaluation and knew he had to build up the talent base. He did this by trading away some major leaguers for younger players even if meant hurting attendance and the win/loss record. He still needed the big free agency signing to show all of baseball that the Tigers are in it to win it. Randy Smith tried to get that big name when trading for Juan Gonzalez. Needless to say, it didn't work out.
The second key moment was Dombrowski signing Ivan Rodriguez prior to the 2004 season. Tigers were coming off 119 loss season while Rodriguez led the Marlins to a championship. Rodriguez showed enough faith in Dombrowski and signed a multiyear deal in Detroit. The Rodriguez signing led to the willingness of other players to come to Detroit and got the ball rolling in the right direction.
The final moment has nothing really to do with baseball. It was NHL's lockout season of 2004-05 and subsequent salary cap. It forced Ilitch (who also owns the Detroit Red Wings) to spend less on hockey and more on baseball. For example, instead of overpaying for a backup goalie(Curtis Joseph), he could use those funds for building the Tigers into winners.
Of course there are other player personnel moves that were made that led to the current success of the Tigers. But I believe these three key moments allowed the others to happen.
And if I had to pick a fourth moment, it would be the Tigers move from the AL East to the Central in 1998. It is much easier to compete with Kansas City and Cleveland than New York and Boston. Because it happened a good number of years prior to the current run and because of the added wildcard and the elimination of steroids, it has less of an impact. So, I left it off.