It seems appropriate that, just days after the Detroit Tigers effectively threw in the towel on winning "one for the thumb" after four straight AL Central titles in 2011-2014, they pulled the plug on the architect of those contenders, releasing general manager Dave Dombrowski from his contract after 13 years, and just a few months before his contract was due to end.
If there's a surprise, it's that this happened so soon. Accountability goes with the job, but seeing Dombrowski ousted so soon after it had become apparent a fifth straight AL Central title wasn't likely, instead of waiting until after the season, seems sudden. Then again, when he came to the franchise from the Marlins to take the team president's role after the 2001 season, he waited all of six games in the 2002 season before taking over as the Tigers' GM as well.
Historically, the rap on Dombrowski is that he "bought" his one World Series title with the Marlins in 1997, having helped launch the franchise as its first GM in 1991. That accusation strikes me as singularly stupid: All GMs buy wins to bid on titles, using whatever currency they have at their disposal, whether that's money or players or draft position or even time, and winning -- actually winning the World Series -- is the point of the exercise. Not maximizing wins per dollar or "winning" salary negotiations or "winning" trades, but winning. Dombrowski did it with the means at his disposal, provided for him by an owner who wanted to go for broke (and then bail out of the industry) in Wayne Huizenga, and did it going up against the Braves dynasty. It's easier said than done; Dombrowski actually did it.
In Detroit, he tried to do it again, again utilizing the unique benefits of working with an owner in Mike Ilitch who desperately wants to win on the diamond as well as on the ice with the Red Wings. It was perhaps an even greater challenge than launching an expansion franchise, because Dombrowski came in to clean up one of the game's true basket-case franchises, inheriting the mess left when failed boy genius GM Randy Smith took a team that had already shot its bolt at the tail end of the great Trammell-Morris teams of Sparky Anderson and managed to run it even deeper into the ground.
While Dombrowski didn't deliver a title, he did deliver a team that had it within reach during its recent four-year run, losing in the American League Championship Series in 2011 and 2013, and the World Series in 2012; that's on top of an AL pennant won in 2006. He acquired some of the best talent of a generation to make it possible, trading for Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer. He presided over some outstanding drafts, the best of which was Justin Verlander, but also producing useful talents such as Curtis Granderson, Rick Porcello, Andrew Miller, Alex Avila, Matt Joyce and Cameron Maybin. On Dombrowski's watch, the Tigers became more than just a going concern, they became a model franchise.
Perhaps the less happy part of Dombrowski's ultimate legacy in the Motor City are the twin contract extensions of Verlander and Cabrera, both signed when the two stars were at peak value, in consecutive seasons, Verlander in March 2013, Cabrera in March 2014. Miggy is due another $240 million through 2023 at least, while Verlander has another $112 million coming to him through 2019. It's easy to say that's the cost of doing business, but given the impetus to win now and perhaps get that one title for Ilitch before his clock runs out, perhaps understandable. The bet on Miggy doesn't look all that bad for now, and may not for several years -- if ever -- given his singular talent as one of this generation's greatest hitters. Verlander's deal? Add it to the ever lengthening list of lamentable long-term deals given to pitchers. They're the products of playing for high stakes, and since the Tigers didn't win it all on Dombrowski's watch, they're heirlooms for his successor to work with or around.
Maybe it's a matter of the talented front-office exec losing his ideal partner on the field. Dombrowski and former manager Jim Leyland enjoyed their best success together, and go back to their days together in the White Sox organization in the late 1970s and early '80s. In the history of successful management duos, Dombrowski and Leyland have earned their corner in the game's history. Unless you're especially fond of Leyland's Pirates teams in the early '90s that didn't win the NLCS, it's hard to think of the one without the other when you consider the two men's success, and it seems somewhat natural that here, as in Miami, Leyland left first and Dombrowski followed.
With Dombrowski's departure, his is not the only future to wonder about. You can and should worry about what's next for the Tigers. Ilitch is 85 years old, and there was already a sense that the "win now" clock was ticking for the Tigers. Now that won't happen, not soon, not with the talent on hand or in the farm system, and the ultimate fate of the franchise hangs in the balance. New GM Al Avila is a true baseball lifer with a tremendous background in player development and scouting, in the U.S. and Latin America; in professional baseball he started out working for Dombrowski in the Marlins organization two decades ago. He's an understandable internal choice and a guy you want to see get a full shot at this, but depending on how much longer Ilitch owns the team, he might not get an extended opportunity to do things his way. Much like Dombrowski, he's on short time, Ilitch's time, however long that lasts. Further than that, all bets are off.
As for Dombrowski, it will be interesting to see where he goes next. He has built up an expansion team and won a title. He also turned around one of the worst-run franchises in the game, and turned it into a regular contender. His profile for working with owners who want big results should have him on the radar of teams that aren't getting them and might be frustrated with their current leadership. If Boston is off the table, next stop, Seattle? Or, if the Nats come up short yet again, Washington? Who knows, but if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that Dave Dombrowski won't be on the sidelines for long.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.