5 years ago today, on December 5, 2007, the Tigers made one of the biggest moves in the history of the franchise. Detroit acquired third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins in exchange for a big chunk of their farm system.
We all know that Willis did not work out – though at the time we at least hoped that he would provide decent rotation depth. The problem there wasn’t so much that Willis was bad (though he obviously was) but since he hardly pitched that Dombrowski immediately signed him to a contract extension that went up in smoke. It’s also safe to say that Willis was a throw-in to save the Marlins money and that his inclusion did not force the Tigers to give up more in the way of prospects. We also know that Miguel Cabrera did work out – as should have been expected. After all, he was only 24 at the time of the deal and coming off three consecutive seasons with an OPS between .947 and .998. The incentive for the Marlins to move him was primarily financial – though he was only a second-year arb eligible guy he made $7.4 million in 2007 and would get a raise to $11.3 million for 2008. It’s also worth mentioning that there were some who were concerned about Cabrera at the time: specifically about his conditioning, ability to continue to play third base and ability to hit at a high enough value to be a top tier first baseman (as opposed to a third baseman). In a nutshell that he would be a 4 win guy paid like a 6 win guy. These grumblings got louder after a (relatively) weak 2008 which saw Cabrera produce only 2.8 WAR despite leading the AL in total bases. Those grumblings have, of course, long since been silenced.
One of the toughest things to accomplish in running a baseball team is to get star-level talent and pay it only what it is worth. That is to say, no paying a 3 win guy $25 million per year. Most free agents are 30 or older and the best guys want the longest deals – which inevitably push them well past their prime. Cabrera has not been cheap, but he has been well worth what he has cost Mike Ilitch: according to Fangraphs calculations he has been paid $86.7 million over his 5 years in Detroit but has added value (in terms of wins) equal to $126.2 million.
There was also some criticism at the time of the trade about the steep price that the Tigers paid. They were forced to sacrifice top prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller as well as Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Mike Rabelo and Eulogio De La Cruz. Prior to the 2007 season, pitcher Eulogio De La Cruz was considered to be the Tigers #6 prospect (and he had a decent 2007 in Erie & Toledo at age 23). Dallas Trahern was the Tigers #8 prospect, a late-round pick who had a solid 2007 in Erie’s rotation (12-6 with 3.87 ERA). Neither Trahern (who never made the big leagues) no De La Cruz (with a big league ERA over 8) has amounted to anything at all. Mike Rabelo was a big-league backup catcher at the time of the trade, he’s out of baseball now. Burke Badenhop was not such a highly touted prospect, a guy who had a decent season for himself as a starter for the Whitecaps in 2007 – but was a little too old for that club. The Marlins quickly converted him and he has had a decent career for himself as a middle reliever.
Those guys were, of course, the quantity of the trade as opposed to the quality. The Marlins are probably disappointed that the ultimately provided so little value, but not by any means surprised. The quality of the trade was Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, the Tigers top two prospects. Prior to the 2007 season (and the prior-to-2008 rankings had not come out yet at the time of the trade) Miller was the BA #10 prospect and Maybin was the #6 prospect, making these two among the best Tiger prospects of the past few decades and not just 2007-2008. Hence the criticism for the high cost of the deal… For contrast, Nick Castellanos was BA #45 and Jacob Turner was BA #22 – which makes a cost of Miller/Maybin look significantly higher than a cost of Turner/Castellanos (a cost most Tigers fans considered – prior to 2012 – wholly unacceptable no matter who might be acquired). Justin Verlander peaked at #8, so we can split the difference and say that (in addition to the quantity) that deal looked like getting Cabrera in exchange for two Verlanders.
Oh what a difference five years can make… Andrew Miller never really put it together at the big league level. He developed some control problems not apparent as of 2007 (in which he put up a 2.73 ERA between 3 levels) and has averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings as a minor leaguer and 5.3 per nine in the bigs. In three years (off-and-on) in the Marlins rotation Miller went 10-20 with an ERA close to 6. In 2012 he had something of a renaissance as a member of the Red Sox bullpen (with a 3.35 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning) but while the book is not yet closed on Miller that Marlins chapter has.
While Miller simply flopped, Maybin has been something more of a success – though perhaps not commensurate with his prospect status prior to the trade. The fact is, he was young when he was dealt and he’s still young (25) now. From 2008-2010 he played the equivalent of one full season for the Marlins and gave them about 2 WAR worth of value – absolutely nothing wrong with that. The Marlins, apparently, got fed up with waiting or just got cheap and dealt him to San Diego for Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb. As a Padre, Maybin has produced 7 WAR in two years – as a center fielder who is slightly above average with the bat but quite good in the field. Mujica is a solid if unexceptional big-league reliever, as is Webb. All together, I’d have to say that not only did the Marlins get burned in trading FOR Cameron Maybin they also got burned in trading AWAY Cameron Maybin.
In the end, this was a pretty fantastically good deal for the Tigers – despite the fact that Maybin has actually materialized as a near-star and still potential future star (so it isn’t as though none of those prospects panned out). The Marlins lost in part because (as is so often the case) most prospects didn’t end up being very good major leaguers, but also because they didn’t actually have the patience to wait for them to contribute to the big league club.