ANAHEIM -- Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, arguably the two best players in the game, launching missiles in the same Angels lineup? Believe it or not, it could have happened.
"I thought I would be here," Cabrera, the 2012 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner and AL Triple Crown winner, told MLB.com during a frustrating weekend at Angel Stadium for his reigning AL champion Tigers, who were swept by the suddenly alive and kicking Angels.
We take you back to the winter of 2007. Trout was a sophomore at Millville (N.J.) High School, about to give up running the quarterback option to focus his energies on baseball -- a very wise decision, it turns out.
A World Series champion with the Marlins as a 20-year-old rookie in 2003, Cabrera, at 24, had just wrapped up his fourth full season in Florida, hitting .320 with 34 homers and 119 RBIs. The great Tony Perez, a front-office consultant with the Marlins, was calling the strapping Venezuela-born Cabrera "a once-a-lifetime hitter, like Hank Aaron."
Cabrera was getting considerable attention on the open market. The Marlins, who had paid him $7.4 million in his first year of arbitration, were seeking the best package available before he became eligible for free agency.
The Angels were considered front-runners in many quarters -- including those called home, in the Miami area, by Cabrera, as he worked out with Halos catcher Mike Napoli, now with the Red Sox.
"Napoli was telling [Raul] Ibanez the Angels were going to be better [in 2008] with me," Cabrera said. "A week later, I was going to Detroit."
The Angels had an abundance of talent coming off a 94-win season that ended abruptly in a Red Sox sweep in the AL Division Series. In search of a power source after getting shut down by the Red Sox, the Halos were in a position to offer the Marlins as many as five quality players, including two pitchers.
Starters Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders were in the Cabrera conversations. Pitcher Nick Adenhart and shortstop Brandon Wood were high-end prospects coveted everywhere. Howie Kendrick was a rising star at second base. Kendrys Morales, two years removed from breaking out as a slugging first baseman, center fielder and leadoff man Reggie Willits (fifth in the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year Award voting) and catcher Jeff Mathis could have been part of a package.
The Marlins were bent on including Dontrelle Willis, and the $7 million he was owed for 2008, in any Cabrera deal. It's hard to imagine Angels owner Arte Moreno, given his appetite for winning, letting Willis' contract stand in the way of acquiring the game's most desirable young hitter.
On Dec. 5, 2007, Florida accepted an offer presented by Detroit. The Tigers' general manager, Dave Dombrowski, had strong ties to Florida. He'd been the Marlins' first GM, constructing the foundation that led to their World Series titles in 1997 and 2003.
The Detroit package featured promising southpaw Andrew Miller and athletic center fielder Cameron Maybin. Also coming to Florida were pitchers Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz and Dallas Trahern and catcher Mike Rabelo.
The Angels were convinced money, not talent, was the deciding factor. The Marlins were taking on no significant salaries in what turned out to be a Tigers jackpot.
Six years later, the Marlins have reliever Ryan Webb, part of a deal that sent Maybin to the Padres after the 2010 season, and Triple-A catcher Jake Jefferies to show for Miguel Cabrera.
Maybin, never approaching his perceived potential, hit .257 in 144 games across three seasons in Florida before he was shipped to San Diego for Webb and reliever Edward Mujica.
Miller was 10-20 with a 5.89 ERA in three seasons before getting dealt to the Red Sox for Dustin Richardson, who was waived in 2011 without playing for the Marlins. Badenhop had four solid seasons in Florida's bullpen, going 13-15 with a 4.34 ERA in 151 games. He was sent to Tampa Bay for Jefferies. Robelo hit .202 in 34 games for the Marlins in 2008 before he was granted free agency. De La Cruz appeared in six games for Florida in 2008 before he was purchased by the Padres. Trahern never reached the Majors.
"When my agent called and told me I was going to Detroit, I was surprised," Cabrera said. "I think Dontrelle Willis [being in the deal] might be why I ended up in Detroit."
At 30, Cabrera is coming off a season of historic proportions, edging Trout in the MVP balloting. A third baseman with Prince Fielder's arrival in Detroit, Cabrera can only imagine how differently things might have been if the Marlins had taken the Angels up on their offer.
Cabrera has 10 homers and 30 RBIs in 41 postseason games. The Angels would have been empowered when it counted with that brand of production in the heart of their lineup.
"They've had some great teams here," he said. "Torii came [in 2008] as a free agent, and now we're teammates here. He's a great player. We have a team here that can win a championship."
With Chone Figgins at third, Cabrera would have been the Angels' first baseman. Slotted in the heart of a lineup with Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu and Garret Anderson, and now with Trout, Mark Trumbo and Co., Cabrera could have made the Halos so lethal -- and successful -- they might have felt no need to invest so heavily in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Hunter might still be an Angel, among other things.
The Angels came within two wins of reaching the World Series in 2009, falling in six games to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series. Cabrera could have been the missing piece for a run or two over the past five years to match the Halos' 2002 World Series title.
"We had great teams in '08 and '09," Hunter said. "It hurt bad that we didn't win it all. I really thought we had the talent to do it. Things just didn't go our way."
In his sixth season in Detroit, Cabrera has hit .324 with 185 homers and 618 RBIs in a Tigers uniform. His on-base percentage is .401, his slugging mark .577. The Tigers have reached the postseason the past two seasons, taking the ALDS both times before getting knocked out by the Rangers in the 2011 ALCS. They swept the Yankees in the 2012 ALCS before the dream season ended with a crash in the Giants' World Series sweep.
Cabrera has no regrets. But he does, on occasion, wonder how swimmingly things might have been with Trout, in Southern California.
"He's a great player," Cabrera said. "I love how he plays."
The sentiment is mutual.
"Cabrera's a great player -- and a great guy," Trout said.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com.