Dave Dombrowski constructed a little-known Florida Marlins team into world champions in 1997. Jim Leyland was the manager that guided them there. Six years later, the Marlins did it again -- sans Leyland -- with players mostly acquired by Dombrowski.
The duo has built the Tigers, once one of baseball's worst teams, into perennial playoff contenders in the tough American League. Unfortunately, that's just what the Tigers are -- contenders.
They've rarely delivered in the nine years Dombrowski has been the team's general manager. Leyland took the team to the World Series in his very first season in 2006 as manager, but they haven't made the playoffs since. Instead of becoming one of the AL's powerhouse teams like their 1980s counterparts, the Tigers are known more for their second-half collapses.
Even in that magical 2006 run there were signs of trouble. Detroit started 76-36 but finished just 19-51, losing the American League Central Division crown on the last day of the season. Three years later they spent 146 days in first place only to lose a one-game playoff to the Minnesota Twins.
The second half of 2011 has been a mixed bag so far for Detroit. The White Sox pounded the Tigers in their first two games out of the break, including a healthy beating of ace Justin Verlander, before taking the final game with the Sox and splitting a two-game set with Oakland. If there's one positive, it seems as though they've finally figured out those pesky Twins. Detroit took three of four games in Minnesota, who no longer have the advantage of playing in the Metrodome, and has taken 12 of the last 13 between the two teams.
The Tigers escaped the weekend with a two-game lead over the Indians, the largest they've held this season. The Central Division race is far from over, though. The Tigers now enter the most critical stretch of the season, as 39 of their remaining 61 games are with Central Division opponents (12 against the Indians and nine each against the White Sox, Royals and Twins).
However, unlike past seasons, the Tigers have had their way with division opponents in 2011; the Tigers' 22-11 division record is the best in the AL Central. If the trend holds up, the division is theirs for the taking.
What the Tigers do in the final months of this season will likely decide the fates of Leyland and Dombrowski as both are in the final year of their contracts. It's been widely documented that owner Mike Ilitch badly wants a World Series title to add to his mantle, and at 82 years old that window is closing fast.
The window for some of the Tigers' players is closing fast as well. Right fielder Magglio Ordonez and second baseman Carlos Guillen are both over 35 and have struggled to stay healthy. Third baseman Brandon Inge may already have had his window shut and bolted after being designated for assignment late last week.
If they want to win a title, they'll have to do it right now.
Dombrowski is firmly in the crosshairs in that regard, as 2011 marks his ninth season with the club. He's thrown boatloads of money at free agents like Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez, as well as making the blockbuster trade that landed Miguel Cabrera. It's resulted in a $105 million payroll for this season, 10th among MLB franchises.
But Dombrowski's spending hasn't landed the results that Ilitch and the Tigers' fan base are looking for. Despite a $137 million payroll in 2008 -- third to only the Yankees and Mets -- Detroit finished dead last in the AL Central. Last season, another second-half tumble resulted in the Tigers finishing third in the Central despite trailing the division by a half-game at the All-Star break.
Leyland shares his portion of the blame as well, as he's the one that decides who plays and who doesn't. He makes questionable lineups sometimes and has a tendency to leave pitchers in the game just one batter too long on occasion. He's helped produce some of the more successful Tigers seasons in recent memory, but that's not necessarily something to brag about.
It's clear that Dombrowski is in attack mode to save his job beyond this season. He has already traded a couple low-level prospects for third baseman Wilson Betemit and let the media know that the Tigers are in the market for a starting pitcher to solidify the rotation -- a rarity for the Tigers' head man.
There's still plenty of baseball left in 2011, but if Dombrowski and Leyland can't take this group to the promised land then it's probably time to make a change. There's no reason a club that boasts five or six of the league's best hitters plus an ace like Verlander shouldn't make the playoffs. You have to wonder if this is finally the year the team turns the corner and takes that extra step. If it isn't, then maybe new leadership is needed. One playoff appearance in nearly a decade of work just doesn't cut it.
No matter what happens, it doesn't necessarily mean the Tigers need to clean house. They have a solid core of players in Cabrera, Brennan Boesch, Austin Jackson and Victor Martinez. Sometimes the coach's words don't stick like they used to and a change is needed to kick start the team.
For Leyland and Dombrowski, the clock is ticking. Every loss in this second half will only magnify their need for success.