DETROIT -- The Marlins could make the biggest deal at next week's Winter Meetings if they trade Giancarlo Stanton. It still might not match their biggest deal at a Winter Meetings.Ten years ago this week, the Tigers went to the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., with all the appearances of
DETROIT -- The Marlins could make the biggest deal at next week's Winter Meetings if they trade Giancarlo Stanton. It still might not match their biggest deal at a Winter Meetings.
Ten years ago this week, the Tigers went to the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., with all the appearances of a team tying up loose ends, having made big deals earlier in the offseason. Instead, they walked out of Opryland Hotel a few days later with Jose Cabrera.
What happened between was a combination of opportunity and intrigue.
"We'll look at any opportunity where we think we can get better," then-president/GM Dave Dombrowski said beforehand, "but I don't think we have a gaping situation we have to address. We'll talk to people. We'll explore. We'll see what makes sense."
By the time of those remarks, Dombrowski had already received his directive from owner Mike Ilitch, who had read reports of the Marlins putting their young slugger on the trade market. Ilitch had already invested heavily to turn around the Tigers, mainly in free agency with the signings of Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers.
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Ilitch didn't have the World Series ring he wanted, but he had a contender. But he also coveted a star player, an MVP-type hitter to pair with blossoming starter Justin Verlander. Rodriguez and Ordonez were still All-Stars, Ordonez having won a batting title in 2007, but they were aging. That type of hitter wasn't in Detroit's farm system, though Cameron Maybin had the makings of an athletic outfielder with speed and power.
Cabrera was that hitter, having batted .313 with a .929 OPS and three 30-homer seasons over four full years in Miami. He was also just 24, and his best years were still to come. For that type of hitter to be available in a trade was a rarity, and Ilitch wanted Dombrowski to explore if it was feasible.
Other teams, of course, had the same thought, which is why the Marlins were willing to put Cabrera on the market two years away from free agency to try and maximize their return. The Angels, behind similarly aggressive owner Arte Moreno, were heavily interested and viewed within the industry as Cabrera's likely destination. As former MLB.com columnist Lyle Spencer chronicled, the Angels had young starters to offer in Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders, and coveted prospects in Nick Adenhart and Brandon Wood.
Unlike Stanton, Cabrera didn't have a no-trade clause, having never signed a long-term contract in Miami. It was a true bidding war, and the best offer was going to win out. The Tigers had one of their deepest farm systems in years led by former top picks Maybin and Andrew Miller. Just as important, they had Ilitch's deep pocketbook.
Still, it was far from a certainty.
"It was a funny thing. Going into the meetings, we had never talked about it," former Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "The first meeting [there], it was never mentioned. I think it was a total shock to everybody. I don't think there's any way, shape or form that Dave Dombrowski went to those meetings thinking we were going to get Miguel Cabrera."
They made their interest known in classic Dombrowski fashion, with one scout talking to another. Also in classic Dombrowski form, they didn't waste time.
"My wife and I walked into Opryland Hotel," said Dan Jennings, then an assistant to Marlins GM Larry Beinfest, "and [Tigers scout Mike] Russell just so happened to be waiting right at the check-in desk."
The Tigers wanted Cabrera, and they wanted his teammate, Dontrelle Willis. The Marlins, in turn, wanted Maybin and Miller. With those concepts agreed upon, the trade had its foundation.
The Tigers not only offered up Maybin and Miller, they threw in four Minor Leaguers, including Double-A power sinkerballer Dallas Trahern, hard-throwing reliever Frankie De La Cruz and Arizona Fall League prospect Burke Badenhop.
Once Dombrowski believed they had the makings of a deal, he sequestered Tigers officials in his hotel suite, fearful word of their interest would spread and other teams might jump in. The old-school image of scouts and GMs mingling in the lobby gave way to phone conversations and sneaky walks down hallways. Even then-manager Jim Leyland was limited to smoke breaks and one dinner with good friend and then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. The rest of the Tigers' contingent ordered room service.
They were shut in for two days.
"We literally ran out of toilet paper," Russell recalled.
Exactly what made the difference depends on who you ask. Some say the Angels' refusal to include promising young infielder Howie Kendrick doomed them. Others claim the Willis inclusion was the difference. But by the last full day of the meetings, the Marlins and Tigers had an agreement, and Ilitch had his superstar.
Monday marked the 10-year anniversary of the deal. As the Tigers begin to rebuild around young talent, Cabrera has not only become the face of the franchise, but arguably the legacy of Ilitch, who passed away in February without the World Series title he passionately pursued. Cabrera has a Triple Crown, four batting titles, two American League MVP Awards and seven All-Star selections in Detroit. Willis went 2-8 with a 6.86 ERA over 24 games, walking nearly a batter an inning, before being traded to Arizona in 2010.
"We got one of the best young players in all of baseball, who's obviously been a great player for the past 10 years and one of the real impact guys in all the game," Leyland said. "He's probably going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That's a huge trade."
Jennings sees the similarities between Stanton and Cabrera in terms of buildup. But he sees Cabrera in a class of his own. Every time Jennings visits Lakeland, Fla., in Spring Training, he tries to say hello.
"This is my 30th year in the game," he said, "and Miguel Cabrera is still the best hitter I've ever seen. Just a special kid. Fun to watch where he started and where he went."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.