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Dombrowski: The Montreal Years

Dave Dombrowski is the man in charge of the Tigers’ future. His title is the ever-so-grand President, CEO, and General Manager, meaning that he is in charge of well, everything, except perhaps which kind of pizza pizza is sold at the Comerica Park concession stands. Dombrowski came to the Tigers three-and-a-half years ago with one of the jazziest resumes in baseball, building both the Montreal Expos and the Florida Marlins into contenders, and even prematurely breaking them down at the behest at management. But what player personnel decisions did he make? Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, which moves showed foresight, which moves were duds? This post begins a four-part series looking back on Dombrowski’s major transactions. This week, the Expos years.

Dombrowski joined the Expos organization from the Chicago White Sox in 1986. In 1988, he was named general manager. At age 32, he was the youngest top exec in baseball history. UPI named him baseball’s top exec in 1990, and the Expos won awards as baseball’s top organization in 1988 and 1990.

When Dombrowski took the reins for the 1988 season, he inherited a team that had won 91 games, and was led by a core of Dennis Martinez, Tim Raines, Tim Wallach, and Andres Galarraga, all of whom were in their prime, and all of whom (save Raines) would stay with the team until after Dombrowski left.


–Otis Nixon signed as a free agent. He got slightly less than the average salary, which is good, because he was never an average hitter, but boy was he fast. He was not going to be the answer in center.

–Traded Jeff Reed, Herm Winningham and Randy St. Claire to Cincinnati Reds in
exchange for Tracy Jones and Pat Pacillo. Dombrowski got the young players in this trade, but they didn’t pan out, and he gave up three borderline major leaguers to get them. A minor failure.

–Traded Mitch Webster to Chicago Cubs in exchange for Dave Martinez. A nice trade. Martinez was six years younger, cheaper, and immediately a better player, logging 1400 or so at bats for the Expos over the next few years, and he shunted Nixon right to the bench. Both players lasted a long time; Martinez played until 2001 and appeared for 10 teams.

–Traded Casey Candaele to Houston Astros in exchange for Mark Bailey. Candaele was a much better major-leaguer, but he was tiny and not particularly fast, and he played the outfield. The key stats for this trade: Candaele: 5’9″ 165, Bailey: 6’5″ 195. A reasonable risk for Dombrowski, even if it didn’t pan out.

–Traded Floyd Youmans and Jeff Parrett to Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Kevin Gross. A minor coup. Youmans was done in the majors and Parrett had a career as a mediocre relief pitcher ahead of him, but Kevin Gross would become a league-average starter for a long time, even if he’d get priced out of the Expos’ range by 1991.

–Traded John Dopson and Luis Rivera to Boston Red Sox in exchange for Spike Owen and Dan Gakeler. A small win. Owen would hold down shortstop for the Expos for the next few seasons, albeit without much hitting. Gakeler made his only ML appearances for the Tigers, and pitched about as you’d expect.


–Traded Mark Bailey and Tom O’Malley to New York Mets in exchange for Steve Frey. Dombrowski gave up on the physically-impressive Bailey and foisted him, along with, O’Malley, a career AAA player, on the Mets for Frey, who became an effective lefty reliever. A good job of getting something for nothing.

–Traded Neal Heaton to Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Brett Gideon. A good job of getting nothing for something. Heaton, though never a star, had a few good years left; he’d spend them pitching in Pittsburgh. Gideon never really made it.

–Traded Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris to Seattle Mariners in exchange for Mark Langston and a player to be named later; Montreal Expos received Mike Campbell. Finally, Dombrowski’s first big move. The Expos would later be known for all the star players they sold off to other teams and it’s easy to forget that in 1989 they were buyers. At the time of the trade on May 25, 1989, the Expos sat at .500, only three games out in the NL East, and they had the worst pitching staff in the National League. Langston was already a star, coming off great years in 1987 and 1988. In one respect the trade worked: Langston had a 2.39 ERA with the Expos, and their pitching improved to the middle of the NL pack. In a bunch of others it didn’t: the Expos finished at .500, exactly where they were at the time of the trade, Langston would sign a free-agent deal with the California Angels at the end of the season, and the Expos had to throw in a young player named Randy Johnson. No one knew Randy Johnson would become RANDY JOHNSON — he had the strikeouts, but he was wild, wild, wild. Still, no one could hit him, even then, even if they could watch ball four sail by with surpassing ease. Brian Holman was a good young pitcher whose shoulder fell apart, and Harris was never any good. A bold move by Dombrowski, but not one that history looks at kindly.

–Traded Sergio Valdez, Nate Minchey and Kevin Dean to Atlanta Braves in exchange for Zane Smith. Things looked good for a while after Langston was in the fold. When the Expos made this deal in early July of ’89, acquiring Smith (who one of my friends insists is the ugliest baseball player of all time) for very little, they were in first place. Smith would also pitch well down the stretch, before Dombrowski parleyed his giant (for the time) $2m salary into a great young outfielder the next season.

–Traded Mike Blowers to New York Yankees in exchange for John Candelaria. By late August, things had begun to slip. The Expos were still playing .540 ball, but had been caught from behind by the streaking Cubs, Cardinals, and Mets. Candelaria, coming off a long and successful career, couldn’t stop the bleeding, and would be released at seasons end. Blowers had a good career as a utility man. A net loss, though a reasonable shot in the thick of an increasingly grim pennant race.


–Oil Can Boyd signed as a free agent. Boyd got a two-year, $1.5m contract to replace Bryn Smith, who signed a much larger contract with the Cardinals after an excellent season. Dennis Boyd would put together a beautiful season in 1990, truly his last hurrah. A good signing for the still-competitive Expos.

–Traded Zane Smith to Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Scott Ruskin, Willie Greene and a player to be named later; Montreal Expos received Moises Alou (August 16, 1990). 1990 was a quieter year in Youppi-land. The Expos were still a decent team with an excellent pitching staff of Martinez, Boyd, Smith, Gross, and Mark Gardner and had added young players like Larry Walker and Delino DeShields to their lineup. Still, the Pirates were unbeatable at the top of the NL East (those were the days), and Smith, an impending free-agent, was sold off for spare parts and a future star slugging left-fielder. Moises was only 23 and had made just 5 major-league at-bats at the time; that he was a PTBNL makes me think Dombrowski got lucky.


–Traded Tim Raines, Jeff Carter and a player to be named later to Chicago White Sox in exchange for Ivan Calderon and Barry Jones; Chicago White Sox received Mario Brito (February 15, 1991). Raines had been the face of the franchise since 1980, the only player left from the Expos glory years, and the biggest star ever to don Expos blue. In 1991, he was only 31, but was coming off two subpar years. His speed was still there, but his power was gone and he was getting expensive, though he would play at a reasonable level until 1988. Calderon would be Tim Raines plus some outs on the basepaths in 1991 but was just as expensive and out of baseball in three years, and Jones was decent out of the pen. Perhaps the trade was a wash at best, but it was certainly an unsentimental move, a lesson that should be kept in mind should the Tigers ever get a reasonable offer for Pudge or Dmitri Young.

–Jeff Fassero signed as a free agent. Fassero was 28 and had never pitched in the majors. He would be a an effective lefty reliever immediately and a good starter by 1994. An inspired move.

–Traded Tim Burke to New York Mets in exchange for Ron Darling and Mike Thomas. By July, when this trade happened, the Expos were seven games under and suffering through their first truly crappy season in years. Darling was still an effective pitcher, but, they had to give up Burke, a decent reliever, to rent him for a couple of weeks.

–Traded Oil Can Boyd to Texas Rangers in exchange for Jonathan Hurst, Joey Eischen and a player to be named later; Montreal Expos received Travis Buckley. A good move to unload free-agent to be Boyd after getting a decent year out of him, even if the prospects the Rangers gave back were middling. Eischen is still left-handed, and still pitching.

–Traded Ron Darling to Oakland Athletics in exchange for Matt Grott and Russell Cormier. This happened not three weeks after the Expos aquired Darling; it had to be some sort of delayed three-way trade, a la Mike Piazza to the Marlins. As far as grand plans go, this one fizzled. Cormier isn’t even the most famous Cormier ever to play in the Montreal organization. Tim Burke, the new Met, turned out to be the best player moved in the Darling shenanigans.


In September of 1991, Dombrowski left to take the reins of the expansion Florida Marlins for more money, more control, and a larger budget. What’s his legacy in Montreal? Effective player decisions within a budget. Dombrowski generally eschewed free-agent signings in favor of building through trades, acquiring undervalued and solid veterans for spare parts. The free agents his organization did sign were generally low-risk and moderate reward. The team was better when he got there than when he left, but that’s most likely a result ever-tighter financial restrictions. Dombrowski’s highest profile move, the acquisition of Mark Langston for Randy Johnson, was his biggest failure, a trade that should get mentioned more often than it does, and certainly more often than the Alexander-for-Smoltz deal (at least the Tigers won the division in ’87).

Not covered above, but just as important for the franchise, was the organization’s solid record in the draft (Marquis Grissom, Rondell White, Gabe White, Cliff Floyd, Mark Grudzielanek, Kirk Rueter) and in signing international players and other minor-league free agents (Miguel Batista, Wil Cordero, Matt Stairs, Antonio Alfonseca, Ugueth Urbina, Mike Lansing, Jeff Fassero). Coupled with solid development of young players signed under other regimes (Walker, DeShields, Galarraga, Mel Rojas), Dombrowski’s organization had built the foundations for what would become the best team in baseball in 1994.

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