Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Reason #23: The Owner.

Yes, the owner.

Yes, that owner. David Glass. The Wal-Mart guy. The cheapskate, meddling, know-nothing owner with the equally meddlesome son.

Or should I say, the owner who used to be a cheapskate, who used to be meddling, who used to know nothing, and who used to let his son interfere with baseball operations.

Two months ago, the Detroit Tigers made the boldest move of the offseason, trading their top two prospects (Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin) and four other players to the Florida Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The Tigers were drenched with universal praise, and those plaudits landed first on their owner, Mike Ilitch, for entrusting general manager Dave Dombrowski to make such a bold deal, and for signing off on the increased payroll that the deal required. The sentiment was expressed by many writers that Ilitch was one of the best owners in baseball.

If you look at the events of just the last two years, you’d be hard-pressed to argue. Only six weeks before the Tigers had traded two other prospects to land Edgar Renteria. The Tigers were able to draft Maybin and Miller in the first place because they were willing to spend significantly over slot (and risk the ire of the Commissioner’s office) to sign them. The Tigers also left a tack on Bud Selig’s chair by using the 26th pick in the 2007 draft on the consensus #2 player available, Rick Porcello, and acceding to his demand for $7 million.

The Tigers went to the World Series in 2006, they finished just out of the playoffs in 2007, they have a fearsome lineup, a pair of lightning arms in the rotation in Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, a productive farm system (albeit one that’s been mined clear of prospects this winter), one of the most-respected GMs in the game, and an owner whose main contributions to his team are to let his people do their jobs and open his checkbook when they ask him to.

Two years ago, if you had suggested that Mike Ilitch was one of the game’s best owners, you would have been either laughed out of the room, beaten to a pulp, or incarcerated.

Mike Ilitch purchased the Detroit Tigers from fellow pizza baron Tom Monaghan at the end of the 1992 season. Let’s take a look at how the Tigers fared over the next 13 years, shall we?

In 1993, the Tigers had their last gasp with an offense filled with old guys that stood at the plate waiting for either a pitch they could drive, or ball four. Tony Phillips. Mickey Tettleton. Cecil Fielder. Rob Deer. Kirk Gibson. Throw in the 2030 Veterans Committee Hall of Famers, Trammell and Whitaker, and the young Travis Fryman (who, at the end of that season, looked like a good Hall of Fame bet himself), and you had an offense that was slow, boring, and scored runs by the bushel. A weak pitching staff held them down to 85 wins, but they drew 765 walks and scored 899 runs, both totals the most by any team in 40 years. (This really doesn’t have anything to do with my point; I just loved that team, and felt compelled to mention them.)

In 1994, they finished under .500 at 53-62. In 1995, they finished 60-84, and Mike Moore went 5-15 with a 7.53 ERA. The worst was yet to come. Sparky Anderson retired after that season, and was replaced by – wait for it – Buddy Bell.

In 1996, the Tigers lost 109 games, the most in baseball in 17 years, and the most by a non-expansion team since 1952. The team gave up 1103 runs, the most in American League history. Todd Van Poppel joined the team in August and allowed 51 runs in 36 innings for the Tigers, which I only bring up because two of those starts came against the Royals. In the first one, he allowed three runs in six innings. In the next, he threw a complete-game shutout. Yeah, the Royals were pretty bad then as well.

The team improved the next year all the way to 79-83, and the Tigers were convinced the worst was over, they were a team on their way up, next stop was first place. Then they lost 97 games in 1998, and at the end of the year traded Luis Gonzalez to Arizona just in time to watch Gonzalez impersonate a first-ballot Hall of Famer for the next five years. (But they did get Karim Garcia back. So that’s something.)

Then things got really bad. Justin Thompson got hurt. The farm system dried up. They traded six guys to the Texas Rangers for Juan Gonzalez (and our good buddy Gregg Zaun, who was traded to KC without ever playing for the Tigers). They then offered Gonzalez a 7-year, $140 million contract that Gonzalez, showing the wisdom for which he would later earn great acclaim, turned down. Bell made way for Larry Parrish, who made way for Phil Garner, who made way for Luis Pujols, who in less than a full season was easily the worst manager I have ever witnessed – he made Bell look like Joe McCarthy. Then the Tigers decided to start ruining the legacy of their own great players and hired Alan Trammell.

The Tigers bounced back to 79-83 again in 2000, then amazingly saw their record drop by at least 10 games for each of the next three years. They lost 96 games in 2001, 106 games in 2002, and 119 games in 2003, the most losses in American League history. Royals fans remember 2003 fondly as the year the Royals were in first place for four months and finished over .500 for the only time in the last 12 years. We couldn’t have done it without the Tigers: KC went 14-5 against Detroit, 69-74 against the rest of baseball.

And you thought David Glass had a bad resume?

At the end of the 2003 season, Mike Ilitch had a case for being on the short list of the worst baseball owners of all time, not the best. But a funny thing happened: he changed. He had already changed, in fact. He stopped being cheap – he had seen how the money he spent on his beloved Red Wings came back to him with interest. He stopped meddling in baseball decisions, and he had hired one of the best baseball men in the business, Dave Dombrowski, to run his team.

What happened next I’ve documented here. Suffice it to say, the Tigers have since made one of the most impressive franchise turnarounds in the game’s history.

David Glass, in the spring of 2005 – about the time he had announced that Allard Baird’s time as GM was over but before he remembered to actually fire him – was regarded much the way Mike Ilitch was a few years before. And like Ilitch, Glass finally figured out (or had it drilled into his head by the near-riot in his team's fan base) that the way to run a successful baseball team is the same way you run a successful business in other pursuits: hire the right people, let them do their jobs, stay out of their way.

Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski. Glass hired Dayton Moore.

Dombrowski rebuilt the franchise from its foundation, made some incredibly shrewd trades, was aggressive in free agency, and built the team into a perennial contender. Ilitch allowed him to do so by staying out of the sports columns, and authorizing a substantial increase in both payroll and the scouting budget.

It’s too early to say if Moore will be as successful as Dombrowski was, but he’s certainly trying the same things. And Glass, like Ilitch, has essentially disappeared from the sports pages. This is a good thing. No, that’s not strong enough: it’s a Good Thing. He’s also shed the penurious ways of his past; Wal-Mart David has disappeared. The Royals didn’t draft Porcello, but they spent $4 million on the next guy on their list, Mike Moustakas. They built a new academy in the Dominican and gave five different Latin players six-figure signing bonuses last summer. They spent $55 million on Gil Meche, and $36 million on Jose Guillen. This stuff doesn’t happen with a cheap owner – you didn’t see Carl Pohlad spending his money like a drunken sailor this winter.

Owners, like players, have good years and bad years. Glass’s friend Drayton McLane was a terrible owner when he first purchased the Houston Astros – he spent big money on Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell almost immediately, then after a year wanted to release them before his baseball people reportedly told him that, sir, uh, actually those long-term contracts are guaranteed.

Then McLane backed off, stayed out of his people’s way, let them spend his money, and the Biggio/Bagwell/Berkman/Oswalt Astros went to six playoffs and a World Series in nine years. Now McLane is back to being Mr. Cheapo, the Commissioner’s pet, who refuses to spend money in the draft or internationally, while he simultaneously refuses to believe that his team needs to rebuild, scapegoating a fine GM (Tim Purpura) and hamstringing new GM Ed Wade. Predictably the Astros appear to be at the start of a very dark period – they may well have the worst record in baseball by 2009 or 2010.

Glass could go bad as quickly as he went good. But for now, I hope all Royals fans support me in wishing the new Glass all the best. Let’s hope that he has a splendid view of the game from the owner’s box. Just so long as he stays out of the general manager’s box.


Dave Hogg said...

Luis Pujols, who in less than a full season was easily the worst manager I have ever witnessed

And you were there the day that Tony Muser said that doubles were better than homers.

Pujols was so bad that he made it possible for Marty Mornhinweg to not be the worst coach in town.

I hope gets his proper place in history. He at least deserves an essay in the next Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Anonymous said...

WOOH! #2, baby!

(the article, not my reply)

Anonymous said...

I will forever remember 2003 fondly. My son was 10, and I thought he might finally get to feel the thrill of an exciting baseball season, just as I had grown up with. But, alas it wasn't to be.

Still... Runelvys, Lima, Relaford... Thank goodness for those Tigers. It was a fun year.

Rany said...

Of all the articles I regret *not* writing for Baseball Prospectus, the one I regret most was a game recap of what I expected to be a routine game at Comerica Park on May 22nd, 2002. I was a dermatology resident at the time, and with the assistance of a patient of ours who was an Indians scout, had managed to procure tickets for the entire department. It was to be a fun, relaxing, meaningless ballgame.

Until Jeff Weaver started flirting with a no-hitter. Into the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the fans were in on every pitch, everyone knew what was at stake...and everyone's eyes were on right field, where Craig Paquette - yes, *that* Craig Paquette - was stationed for the Tigers. The man couldn't field at third base, and was playing out of position - surely Luis Pujols would get a real outfielder out there with a no-hitter on the line?

The top of the eighth came. Paquette was still in right field. With two outs, the legendary Chris Magruder launched a flyball to deep right. Paquette broke the wrong way. He made a valiant effort to correct. The ball tipped off his glove. Double.

The Indians wouldn't so much as sniff a hit the rest of the way, but by then I was already in my car headed home. I was too angry to stick around. And by the time I got home I was too emotionally spent to write about it.

Anonymous said...

Great points, Rany. Glass is hated by some. Others, like me, are cautiously optimistic about him and his willingness to shut up and spend more. He has started down the right path since hiring Moore. It is my strong feeling that with some money coming off the books (sayonara, Angel) and more revenues rolling in through the gate and from MLB, the Royals will make a splash again this next offseason and sign a genuine top tier free agent. They have the money, and I think Glass has the will.

AusSteveW said...

I am also one of those fans that believe that Glass has turned a corner as an owner. It started with the hiring of GMDM and continues with his letting GMDM do his job.

Having sad that, I thought I would throw this one out there just for a kick. If the Glass family really want to demonstrate that they have turned that corner... let GMDM post a REDICULOUS number to get the rights to Yu Durvish when he gets posted by the Ham Fighters. We surely could use THAT guy!!!

Go Royals!!! C-ya, AusSteveW

Anonymous said...

Not only are the Royals continuously getting more and more talented at the ML level, they're also increasing depth in the minors. But it's quality depth. Especially in the SP category.

The minor league arms that the Royals have is impressive. They are spending more money in the draft and have shown a focus on pitching. We are finally getting some good pitching depth in the minors, so I think we'll sort of switch to trying to take some good high school bats this year...maybe I'm wrong though.

We'll still take more pitchers, but I think you could see a guy like Tim Beckham taken with our first pick. Sort of similar to how we took Moustakas, I think we're looking for high upside bats. Now that Gordon and Butler have reached the ML level, there's little in terms of high upside bats in the minor leagues.

Heath said...

Well said again Rany. I'm with for the next 4 years, firmly behind Glass....but 2011, 2012, 2013 when Billy Butler and Alex Gordon should be getting very large contracts to stay in Kansas City and continue what should by then be a 4 year run as serious playoff contenders...I think that's what everyone is worried about...Everyone remembers Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermain Dye...and they're afraid that Gordon and Butler will follow them and we'll be left with Teahan as our Mike Sweeney..the good player we promote as great because we let the great ones go. So color me cautiously optimistic on the Glass front.

kcghost said...

I didn't find Glass penurious in his early, but more like inconsistent. One year he would spend and the next year he wouldn't. Allard was never able to set a plan and work toward a goal.

As for GMDM we will see. He has yet to make a trade for a position player that has really improved the club. We could sure use the gift like the Tigers got when the Mariners donated Jose Guillen to them.

Certainly snagging Bannister and Soria were nice moves.

The farm system is still an absolute mess. In two recent rankings of the Top 100 prospects in baseball the Royals had three names mentioned and only one of them was in the top 20 (Moustakis). And as is our luck Moose is at least two years away. Hochevar isn't even considered a top 50 guy by either of those services.

Jurgen said...

Great points, Rany.

My girlfriend grew up a Tigers fan but kinda loss track of the team through the nineties (she was living in Montreal at the time--god, can MLB ever be a bitch!), but it's been fun these past two years making the case to her that Detroit is now one of the best run teams in baseball because of Ilitch. (Given their on-field success, obviously, it isn't a hard case to make, although no real Tigers fan will ever forgive moving out of Tigers Stadium or the canning of Harwell.)

I don't mean to be a Richard Griffin booster, but I've wondered long and hard what could have been if Rogers had hired Dombrowski instead of Ricciardi...

Anonymous said...

Yu Darvish would be a bad idea. For the amount of money it would take to get him (huge posting fee + huge contract), we could get two top tier free agents. For a small market team with limited resources, this would not be a smart way to go. Actually, it would only make sense for the largest market teams with the most money (Yankees, Mets, Angels, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs).

Would you rather get two top tier free agents or one Yu Darvish? I'll take what is behind door number one.

Anonymous said...

"The farm system is still an absolute mess. In two recent rankings of the Top 100 prospects in baseball the Royals had three names mentioned and only one of them was in the top 20 "

I don't think that's a fair criticism. If the Royals were good, Gordon and Butler would have spent last year in AAA... They've had to graduate more players. While the farm system is certainly no great shakes, I wouldn't call it a "mess," either.

AusSteveW said...

Just for clarity... my original Yu Durvish comment was intended to be "tongue-in-cheek". Yes, I'd rather have two star-caliber players for the price of one any day. But... it never hurts to dream a bit either does it?

Go Royals!!! C-ya, AusSteveW

ASMR Review said...

Do you think Glass this summer will say "screw it, we're spending money" this year on the draft? Seems like he's wanted to help Bud take a hardline against draft picks by refusing to pay over-slot, but I sensed some frustration when the Tigers landed Porcello.

I'd love to see Glass say screw it and pay over-slot in the first few rounds on guys with "signability" issues.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think that's a fair criticism. If the Royals were good, Gordon and Butler would have spent last year in AAA... They've had to graduate more players. While the farm system is certainly no great shakes, I wouldn't call it a "mess," either."

Though a lot of talent was introduced to the lower wrungs of the farm system (unfortunately, it's mostly pitching instead of a good and promising mix), a lot of the upper talent had regression years: Lubanski, Maier, Lumsden. There were four graduates. Hochevar didn't perform as well as expected. Huber was hurt and didn't walk as much as he previously did. A lot of BA's Top 30 from last year, upper wrungs or not, didn't perform up to task: Fisher, Braun (who is almost ancient). Taylor did whatever Taylor did. Sanchez was hurt. Cordier unfortunately turned into Pena. The Royals might be in the Top Twenty as far as systems go.

Anonymous said...

I really don't know that we're actually spending money on the draft. It seems to me that the draft budget is growing in approximately the same increments it grew under Baird. Correct me if I'm wrong, please. I think I read from BA that the Royals spent the seventh that really THAT significant? It would depend on where we've ended up in years past and if the other teams spent as much as they usually do.

Also, is David Glass spending more money because he cares about winning so much or because he has more streams of revenue? I'm thinking that he still pockets the same amount of profit that he has always done.

And I'm not anti-Moore, but I am curious to how Baird would have done had he been given the financial go-ahead that Moore has been given.