Following the 2007 season, Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski told anyone who would listen that the Tigers had no big plans for the offseason. A few tweaks here and there, yes. Big free agent signings or blockbuster trades to help the Tigers climb back into first? No. Then the Winter Meetings commenced, the Florida Marlins Miguel Cabrera became available and the Tigers stealthily swooped in to complete a trade for the 24-year old third baseman. Once again, Dombrowski, a man whose public pronouncements and private intentions often don’t square, had pulled off a major coup—and no one saw it coming.
Seven years later the trade for Cabrera remains Dombrowski’s signature move in the 13 years he’s been the Tigers GM. The trade is a central reason (not the only one, mind you) the Tigers have continued winning, racking up multiple division titles and a pennant, and are a still a threat to win it all. And as Cabrera’s great seasons pile up one starts to wonder where this deal ranks among the all time most favorable trades in Tigers history. Indeed, is the trade for Cabrera the most lopsided deal in favor of Detroit in Tigers history?
Before moving ahead I want to make a distinction between best trades and most lopsided ones. Some trades that end up losers in the long run can still be deemed good or even great. The 1987 Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz deadline deal is an example. Atlanta destroyed the Tigers in this trade when taking the long view. But Alexander went 9-0 for Detroit in ’87, posting a 1.53 ERA and 4.4 WAR in just 88 innings and helping the Tigers win the division. To my thinking, any trade that materially contributes to a title (division, pennant, World Series) is in the discussion for all-time good to great trades. Same for trades in which both sides end up with productive players. The Scherzer-Jackson-Granderson deal comes to mind. Lopsided trades, on the other hand, are akin to winning the lottery. You fill a hole or add a key component and give up nothing, or at least something you no longer really need (whether you knew it or not). Demolishing your opponent in a trade is just pure gold, because it often leads to a period of sustained success.
So, back to the original question: Is the Cabrera trade the most favorable Tigers trade of all time? Well, not yet, although it’s moving in that direction. What follows are the 10 most lopsided trades in favor of Detroit in franchise history. To create this list I used Baseball Reference’s wins above replacement method to determine a net WAR for each trade. One assumption here: that the trade to the Tigers helped Detroit re-sign the given player to a long term contract, when applicable.
10. OF Rocky Colavito for OF Harvey Kuenn +12.6 (Indians, April 1960). A star for star trade that ultimately tilted heavily in Detroit’s favor. Google “the day baseball died in Cleveland” and this trade will pop up. Indians fans still turn red in the face at the mention of Frank Lane, the GM who sent Colavito to the Tigers. Tribe fans consider the trade the trigger event in the franchise’s three-decade residency in the abyss. Immensely popular in Cleveland (he was voted the Indians most popular player ever in a 1976 Cleveland poll), Colavito reached 300 career home runs faster than all but four players at that time. It was with the Tigers, however, whom he had his best year ever, hitting 45 home runs and collecting 145 RBI in 1961. Kuenn, a former shaky fielding SS moved to the outfield in 1958, was coming off of a batting title in 1959. Quiet and unassuming, the 1953 Rookie of the Year gave the Tigers seven strong seasons. In Cleveland, however, the fans never forgave him for not being Rocky Colavito. Booed regularly at Municipal Stadium, Kuenn still hit .308 in 1960 but was moved to San Francisco the next season. He closed out his career in non-descript fashion while Colavito continued to rake for the Tigers until he was traded to Kansas City in 1964.
9. 3B George Kell for OF Barney McCosky +15 (Athletics; May 1946). A solid if unspectacular outfielder for a future Hall of Famer. That kind of trade will appear on a lot of these sorts of lists. Kell, of course, went on to make Cooperstown. He spent seven seasons in Detroit, hitting .325 and winning a batting title in 1949. Kell had a reputation as a skilled defender, although advanced metrics suggest his glove was fairly ordinary. But the famed future Tigers broadcaster could hit, certainly for average, and he finished among the top 16 in MVP voting in five straight seasons. McCosky was no slouch. For the Tigers he hit .312 in five seasons. In parts of four seasons for the A’s he actually topped that mark, hitting .322. But while Kell remained a force at the plate for the Tigers, McCosky’s career skidded to a virtual stop in 1949. Hence the wide difference in WAR.
8. C/1B/DH Mickey Tettleton for pitcher Jeff Robinson +15.7 (Orioles; January 1991). The only trade on this list executed by the revolving door of Tiger GMs between the highly respected Bill Lajoie and the baseball arsonist Randy Smith. Joe MacDonald orchestrated the under-the-radar deal that brought the lightly regarded switch hitter to Detroit. In just four seasons with the Bengals, Tettleton bloomed, posting a 14.8 WAR. Hitting fifth or sixth in the lineup, he swatted 31, 32, 32, and 17 home runs respectively while averaging 108 walks a season. The early 1990s Tigers put the fear of god in opposing pitching staffs, and Tettleton was in the middle of it all. Alas, the pitching and defense was as bad as the offense was good and the Tigers never could get over the hump. Jeff Robinson shined in 1988 before succumbing to a season-ending injury. He never regained his form, posting a negative WAR with the O’s before more injuries forced his retirement in 1992.
7. 2B Damion Easley for pitcher Greg Gohr +17.9 (Angels; July 1996). A trade deadline heist that couldn’t have been more misleading. Tiger fans remember Randy Smith, the man who hoodwinked the Angels in this deal, about as fondly as they do the final day of the 1967 season. The trade for the underappreciated Easley may have been the shrewdest thing Smith did in his seven seasons as Tigers GM. But lined up against all of his other moves it was probably just a case of dumb luck. With the Tigers, Easley suddenly developed power, averaging 20 home runs during his four peak years in Detroit. A slightly above average infielder, he made the All-Star team and became one of the few watchable players during the mostly unwatchable years from 1996-2002. Greg Gohr was a former first-round draft pick of the Tigers in 1989. He was just another first round bust, collecting a .04 career WAR.
6. 2B Placido Polanco for infielder Ramon Martinez and pitcher Ugueth Urbina +19.4 (Phillies; July 2005). The first deal engineered by Dombrowski on this list. It’s a surprise to see the trade so high, but for five seasons Polanco owned the second base position in Detroit. That freed up management to focus on filling other holes. Polanco hit .311 and fielded his position expertly. Martinez and Urbina, who had once been the Tigers’ closer, faded quickly in Philadelphia and beyond. Dombrowski won this one in a rout.
5. Pitcher Joe Coleman, pitcher Jim Hannan, 3B Aurelio Rodriguez, SS Eddie Brinkman for pitcher Denny McLain, OF Elliot Maddox, pitcher Norm McRae, and 3B Don Wert +19.5 (Senators; October 1970). A classic con job. The Tigers had just completed their first losing season since 1963, their star pitcher had fallen off the rails, and the core was aging fast. Old school but cunning GM Jim Campbell knew that he had to shake things up. In Washington, the franchise was tottering, once again, and ownership was desperate to put fannies in the seats. In service to this idea, a big name acquisition seemed like a wise idea. And that’s how former 31-game winner Denny McLain ended up in Washington. And also how the Tigers completely snookered the Senators and staved up rebuilding for a few more years. The 24-year old Coleman developed into a strong number two behind Mickey Lolich, winning 20 games twice and 19 once in his six seasons in Detroit. Brinkman, a wizard with the glove, hit just enough to end the Tigers’ shortstops issues, which had bedeviled the franchise for years. Rodriguez did the same at third baseman while providing a little power and masterful defense. All three helped the Tigers recoup from the dip of 1970 and were instrumental in Detroit’s division title in 1972. Only Hannan failed to provide value. The Senators got nothing from three of the four players they acquired, including McLain. The former two-time Cy Young winner battled injuries and off-the-field distractions and never regained his form. After posting a negative WAR in 1971 he was out of baseball by the end of 1972 at the age of only 28. Wert and McRae were equally ineffective. Maddox is what keeps this trade from being ranked higher. He gave the Senators (who became the Texas Rangers a year later) two solid seasons (3.9 WAR) before moving on to the Yankees, Orioles, and Mets. In 11 seasons Maddox posted a WAR of 14.9. If you assess this trade on what value the Senators actually received themselves the Tigers net WAR margin climbs much higher to 28.8.
4. SS Carlos Guillen for SS Ramon Santiago and SS Juan Gonzalez +25.98 (Mariners; January 2004). The second Dombrowski trade on the top 10 list and a key to the Tigers 2006 resurgence. There was definitely a little more luck involved here than usual. Originally, the Mariners had reached a deal to send Guillen to Cleveland for Omar Vizquel. That trade fell apart when Vizquel failed his physical. Detroit then entered the picture, and the Mariners were eager to dance. They had apparently tired of Guillen’s illness and injury history. I doubt the Tigers expected Guillen to turn into one of the best players in the game, as he was for a 3-4 year period. And here is the kicker: Gonzalez (by the way, not that Juan Gonzalez) never reached the majors and Santiago, as we all know, made his way back to the Tigers as a free agent in 2006. If you combine Santiago’s 7.2 WAR with Detroit since his return and Guillen’s 18.78 as a Tiger you get the whopping number above. And I think that’s fair. If you disagree and want to go with Guillen’s WAR as a Tiger minus Santiago’s WAR with Seattle (which was -0.2) then Guillen falls back to seventh. But really, in terms of just how much Detroit undressed Seattle in this trade, this ranking is more indicative.
3. OF Chet Lemon for OF Steve Kemp +26.7 (White Sox; November 1981). What the heck were the Tigers thinking? Former first pick in the draft. All-Star. Gritty with the ever-present dirty uniform to prove it. Huge fan favorite. And Sparky Anderson cold-bloodedly ordered him traded. That’s what Tigers fans thought about this deal in 1981. Detroit had just narrowly missed the revamped ’81 playoffs and expectations were high for 1982. Then Kemp was shipped off to Chicago for Lemon, a former All-Star himself but a player who seemed a clone of Kemp. What was the point of that, many wondered. The point, as it turned out, was that Lemon could do everything Kemp could do with the bat, but he also excelled in the field. Kemp was a so-so outfielder. Lemon was one of the best. And he continued as one of the best for years, both with the glove and the bat. Kemp did not. His career began a nosedive almost immediately after the trade. He had one good year with Chicago, signed with the Yankees as a free agent, and then suffered a series of injuries that ended his career prematurely. Lemon, of course, anchored the Tigers outfield throughout the rest of the 1980s. Just another data point supporting the hidden genius of Sparky Anderson, I guess (or the Tigers’ cheapness, since they probably had no intention of meeting Kemp’s free agent asking price).
2. 3B Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis for pitcher Dallas Trahern, pitcher Burke Badenhop, OF Cameron Maybin, pitcher Andrew Miller, pitcher Frankie De La Cruz, and C Mike Rabelo. +27.2 The gift that keeps on giving. In time, this trade could surpass number one on this list. Cabrera is putting together a first ballot Hall of Fame career. With the Tigers, he’s already posted a WAR of 36.4. Trahern, De La Cruz, Rabelo, and Willis are all out of baseball. Badenhop and Miller are relievers who could, best case scenario, add a few WAR over the next ten years. Maybin, now 27, is the real threat. His career trajectory and comps, however, suggest he is most likely to post somewhere between 5-12 WAR over the remainder of his career. Let’s assume he adds another 10 WAR. And let’s assume Badenhop and Miller together add 4. Looking at the most lopsided trade on this list, Cabrera will have to add around 30 more WAR as a Tiger to likely unseat it as number one. If he plays eight more seasons in Detroit he would need to average about 3.75 WAR a season. He has so far averaged 6.06 in his six seasons as a Tigers. Even when allowing for age declines that 3.75 WAR average seems within reach.
1. 1B Norm Cash for OF Steve Demeter +52.09 (Indians; April 1960). A more lopsided trade than the celebrated Lou Brock Cubs-Cardinals deal. The poor, poor Indians, getting fleeced again in a trade with the Tigers. The Indians had actually acquired Cash from the White Sox the year before. But, hey, when you’re offered Steve Demeter you really have no choice, do you? Cash spent the rest of his 15-year career in Detroit. Demeter collected five at-bats with the Indians and then settled into his destiny as a trivia question answer. Cash had a near Hall of Fame career, which included a batting title in his second season in Detroit when he hit .361, a mark, incidentally, he never came close to equaling. He became one of the most beloved figures in Tigers history, knocking balls over the short porch in right field, taking a bushel of walks, and providing untold moments of levity and humor.