Whether he's trading fan favorite Curtis Granderson or coming out of nowhere to sign Prince Fielder, Dombrowski is willing to buck convention every once in a while.
So maybe it wasn't all that surprising that Dombrowski hired Brad Ausmus over the weekend to manage the Detroit Tigers. Ausmus faces immediate pressure, taking over a team with high expectations after eight years under Jim Leyland, but his lack of managerial experience didn't deter Dombrowski.
"I think he has a chance to be a very good big league manager for a long time—and to help us win right now," Dombrowski said.
It's no shock that Ausmus is managing in the big leagues. His name also surfaced in connection with the Chicago Cubs' opening, and the Dartmouth-educated former catcher has been working in the front office with the San Diego Padres.
But the Tigers have won three straight AL Central titles. If continuity was their main objective, they could have turned to Lloyd McClendon, a member of Leyland's staff who has managed in the majors before.
Instead, it will be Ausmus. He managed Israel's team for the World Baseball Classic, but his main experience in the dugout still stems from his playing career. It's certainly a break from the more traditional path in which a manager might serve as a coach or minor league manager for a while before being hired to run a major league team.
"There's parts of having an 18-year career that would be more beneficial for you than spending a year or two managing at the minor league level," Dombrowski said.
The Tigers are certainly not the first team to hire a young former player with little managerial experience. After winning the World Series in 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to replace Tony La Russa. Matheny is even younger than the 44-year-old Ausmus, but the Cardinals kept right on winning.
Robin Ventura had never managed at any level before being hired by the Chicago White Sox before the 2012 season. Before last season, the Colorado Rockies hired Walt Weiss, asking him to make an immediate jump from high school coach to big league manager.
It would be easy to attribute this new trend to the sabermetric movement—younger managers being in high demand because of their comfort with new stats—but that might be a misnomer. Ausmus was noncommittal when asked about sabermetrics during his introductory news conference with the Tigers.
"I think there's some value to some of that. I can tell you that players do not like to be inundated with numbers. They don't want to know what a pitcher's . what percentage of fastballs he throws on a 2-1 count," Ausmus said. "I think if you can take some of that statistical information and grind it down into a useful piece of information that you can hand off to a player, I think that can be important."
Dombrowski described what he feels is a change in the manager's job over the last couple decades: Communicating with players is increasingly important, and so is dealing with the media.
Leyland received high marks in those areas, but Ausmus' playing experience—he appeared in 1,971 games from 1993-2010—may have prepared him better than any managing stint at a lower level would have.
"If you, let's say, manage one year at the Double-A or Triple-A level nowadays, it doesn't prepare you for managing at the big league level like it did years ago," Dombrowski said. "The game is so different."
So there's less of a need for seasoning in the minors, and some former players who become aspiring managers seem happy to skip that step.
"A lot of the players, who are paid substantially more than they used to be, sidestep that managing in the minor leagues," Dombrowski said. "They don't really do that, but yet they're still involved in the game in a special assistant capacity."
Ausmus does have one thing in common with the man he's replacing. Like Leyland, he's a former catcher, and there are certainly plenty of those in the major league managerial ranks. It's that playing career that Dombrowski hopes has prepared Ausmus for the challenges ahead.
"You come to leadership in different ways in today's world," Dombrowski said. "This happened to be 18 years as a respected big league player that played hard."