Cabrera, Willis propel Tigers into AL elite

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Love never dies, no matter the distance between, and in the case of Miguel Cabrera and his gentleman callers, the Detroit Tigers management team of general manager Dave Dombrowski and assistant GM Al Avila, nearly 1,500 miles nor the demand of a half-dozen ballplayers could dampen it.

The Tigers pulled off baseball's coup of the offseason, acquiring Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins on Tuesday night for star prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, plus three minor-league pitchers and catcher Mike Rabelo. It was a win-now move, Detroit nailing its future to a crucifix for two years of unabashed competitiveness: Come on, Boston, and let's go, Cleveland, and bring it, New York, and try to stop this, Los Angeles.

Detroit's lineup is now chock full of alpha dogs, and its rotation is frightening too, all because Dombrowski – previously the Marlins' GM – had not only the ingenuity but the chutzpah to ship off the 20-year-old Maybin, a center fielder who is one of the five best prospects in baseball, and Miller, a 22-year-old left-hander who throws 95 mph and snaps off sliders with more tilt than a pinball machine on a crooked floor.

Only a handful of GMs would consider trading a player of Maybin's caliber, though Dombrowski is hardly your paint-by-numbers executive. In four years, he has turned the Tigers from a 119-loss laugh track to a perennial World Series contender, and this move only strengthens their cause.

For the next two seasons they get Cabrera, a 24-year-old third baseman with four All-Star games under his belt, and Willis, 25, who two years ago finished second in the NL Cy Young vote. Though neither hits free agency until after the 2009 season, they will cost a hedge fund's profit in salary arbitration. No matter to Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who since Dombrowski's arrival has jacked the payroll from $49 million to $95 million last year, and probably more like $135 million this season.

Over the last two days, as baseball's winter meetings soldiered on with lots of talk and little action, the Tigers maneuvered like fighter pilots, doing all their work in back channels. Early Tuesday their manager, Jim Leyland, did slip a bit, approaching a Marlins executive in the lobby and whispering, "We want Cabrera."

Bluster it wasn't. The Tigers knew the Los Angeles Angels dilly-dallied too long in the Cabrera sweepstakes and that once they agreed to surrender Maybin and Miller, he was theirs to lose. And losing out on baseball's best young hitter alongside Albert Pujols was a feeling with which they refused to acquaint themselves.

Nine years ago, they almost had. Avila, then the Marlins' scouting director, frothed over what he saw in Maracay, Venezuela: A chunky 15-year-old hitting the ball like a man twice his age. Puberty had barely struck, and Miguel Cabrera already caused a frenzy. When he turned 16, the Marlins offered him $1.8 million to sign. Another team countered $2 million. Cabrera rebuffed the offer, confident in Florida's ability to produce young players, and less than four years later, barely 20, he smashed an 11th-inning walk-off home run in his first major league game.

Since then, it's been more of the same, even as Cabrera's waistline expanded like a helium balloon. Who cares about a Pillsbury body when the guy hits .320, slugs 30 home runs, drives in 115 and draws 80 walks, even if he's a butcher at third base and might move to left field? Anyway, a handful of people around the game this week have vouched for Cabrera's conditioning program this offseason, with hopeful suitor Ozzie Guillen saying Monday, "Whoever gets this guy is going to have a heck of a ballplayer with a different mentality."

Too bad for Guillen that he manages the Chicago White Sox, Detroit's AL Central foe. Now his pitchers must deal with a lineup topped by the great Curtis Granderson, with the underrated Placido Polanco second, Cabrera third, MVP runner-up Magglio Ordoñez fourth, Gary Sheffield fifth, Carlos Guillen sixth – sixth! – followed by Edgar Renteria, Pudge Rodriguez and, depending on whether they shift Cabrera, either Gold Glove-caliber third baseman Brandon Inge or a left-field platoon of Jacque Jones and Marcus Thames.

Lest we forget about Willis. His herky-jerky motion has gone topsy-turvy over the last two seasons, with his earned-run average rocketing to 5.17 last season. Still, the Tigers tried to acquire Willis before the 2006 season and understood this was their chance to add him to a rotation that already includes Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson.

And so it meant surrendering Maybin, long and strong, fast and smart, owner of his first big-league home run off Roger Clemens and the perfect player for the Marlins to nurture for four years until he gets too expensive and trade. Gone, too, is Miller, the best player in the 2006 draft who dropped because of signability issues. Consider the $3.55 million bonus money well spent.

Along for the ride are Rabelo, a Tigers backup who could be the Marlins' everyday catcher, hard-throwing reliever Eulogio de la Cruz and starters Dallas Trahern and Burke Badenhop. After the Tigers acquired Renteria earlier this offseason for two other top prospects, outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and starter Jair Jurrjens, it seemed as though they might fall short.

No way. The Tigers are silly in love. With winning their first championship since 1984 and with that lineup and rotation and most of all with Miguel Cabrera, the one they love too well.

Whether it was wisely, they'll know soon enough.

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