Team Building, One Player at a Time

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In late October, the Detroit Tigers were preparing to face off against the San Francisco Giants in Major League Baseball’s World Series. In 2002 and 2003, the Tigers had two of the worst seasons in baseball history, losing a combined 225 games. But through years of calculated decision making and negotiations, team president Dave Dombrowski and his staff rebuilt the team from the ground up, writes Noah Trister of the Associated Press.

Following the disastrous 2002 and 2003 seasons, the Tigers scored what turned out to be a major coup, choosing pitcher Justin Verlander in the MLB draft. According to Trister, Verlander became “a foundation for everything the team is accomplishing now.” Verlander went on to pitch a complete-game shutout in the 2012 American League Division Series (ALDS) against the Oakland Athletics.

In 2005, Dombrowski brought in a new team manager, Jim Leyland, who took the Tigers all the way to the 2006 World Series, where they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. “At that time,” reflected Dombrowski, “you were trying to add talent to get you over the hump and keep you out of the way.”

The 2007 season was a disappointing one for Tigers fans, with the team winning only 88 games. But the franchise made long-term strides, recruiting several soon-to-be key players through the draft and trades. In the most notable deal, Dombrowski traded six players to the Florida Marlins in exchange for ace hitter Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. Speaking of Cabrera, Dombrowski told Trister that the Tigers knew they were “getting somebody that was an All-Star player, young, and still had his prime ahead of him.” To lock in Cabrera, the Tigers extended his contract through 2015.

2008 was another disappointing season, with Cabrera failing to live up to expectations, but the Tigers did add two more players who would turn out to be long-term assets: catcher Alex Avila and outfielder Andy Dirks. The Tigers improved in the 2009 season but lost the American League (AL) Central title to the Minnesota Twins. That year, in a somewhat risky three-team deal with the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, Dombrowski swapped Tigers fan favorite Curtis Granderson and pitcher Edwin Jackson for four players, including pitcher Max Scherzer and outfielder Austin Jackson. Both players went on to make strong contributions in the 2012 season that helped launch the Tigers into the World Series.

More smart draft picks and trades in 2010 and 2011, including outfielder Delmon Young, helped the Tigers reach the ALCS, which the team lost to the Texas Rangers. Young, the Tigers’ designated hitter, went on to be named ALCS’s MVP in 2012.

The Tigers made a bold move in January 2012, signing slugger and first basemen Prince Fielder to a $214 million, 9-year contract. Trister describes the deal as “the ultimate win-now move – owner Mike Ilitch opening his wallet to make a run at the World Series title.” As the Tigers competed with the Chicago White Sox to win their division, Dombrowski traded three players for pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante. Both players made key contributions to the Tigers’ defeat of the Yankees in the ALCS. As for Cabrera, the Tigers’ gamble on him paid off in spades, as he was named the MLB’s first Triple Crown winner (the league leader in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in) in 45 years.

Dombrowski attributed his team’s success to a combination of factors: home-grown talent, free agency, and trades. The personnel decisions and negotiations made by him and his staff also illustrate that, to reach your goals (whether it’s to play in the World Series, acquire a company, or meet sales targets), you may need to engage in a series of negotiations rather than just one.

In his article, “Which Comes First? How to Handle Linked Negotiations” in the January 2005 issue of the Program on Negotiation’s Negotiation newsletter, Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler explains how negotiators in all realms succeeded at linked negotiations, or those in which your ultimate success depends on carefully timing and executing a series of negotiations.

Here’s Wheeler’s summary of his advice on managing linked negotiations:

Don’t assume you must nail down one deal before starting the next.

  • Look for hedging opportunities. For instance, if a person sells his current boat before finding a good replacement, he can rent something else for the summer.

Invest most of your effort in the area upon which your ultimate success hinges.

  • Usually one negotiation will have a bigger upside than the other.

Craft a strategy that allows you to adapt as the process unfolds.

  • If you’ve done your homework carefully, you’ll be better prepared to grab opportunities that you might not have foreseen.

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One Response to “Team Building, One Player at a Time”

  • It was a great privilege to have participated in this Award winning program. If you want to learn from top notch professors of Law and Business and encounter top notch business executives from all around the World, the Program on negotiation is the ideal one. JTF.

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