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The Detroit Tigers Acquire Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
December 4, 2007
Two years ago, the Boston Red Sox sent a handful of prospects to the Florida Marlins in exchange for two of the cornerstones on the Marlins 2003 World Championship team, Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett, and Lowell and Beckett led the Red Sox to a World Series Championship of their own in 2007. The Detroit Tigers hope to replicate this feat, having pulled off the biggest trade of the off-season, and possibly several seasons, yesterday by sending another handful of prospects to the Marlins in exchange for the last two remaining stars from that 2003 team, Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. Willis and Cabrera will join forces with former Marlins teammate Ivan Rodriguez and try to lead the Tigers to the World Series for the second time in three years, while the Marlins continue to try to build a major league roster with minor league stars.
The big story here is Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera turns just 25 in April of next year, but already has 720 big league games, in five big league seasons, under his belt, along with a World Series title, three 100 runs seasons, four 110 RBI seasons, a career .313/.388/.542/.930, and 138 career homeruns. Cabrera is one of the truly great young hitters in baseball, and could presumably become the next great Detroit Tiger in the line of Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, Hank Greenberg, and Al Kaline. Cabrera is the type of talent that only injuries can stop, and assuming that the Tigers move him from third base, where he is a mediocre to bad fielder, to left field, he will team up with Curtis Granderson and Magglio Ordonez to pose one of the fiercest outfield combinations in the league.
Of course, there are already some rumors that, with the acquisition of Jacques Jones as a platoon with Marcus Thames, Cabrera may actually be playing third base for the Tigers next season in place of Brandon Inge. It would certainly appear as though the Tigers have a plethora of outfielders, and Inge may be better suited as an off-the-bench role player next season (see his .236/.312/.376 from 2007). I think this would be a mistake - Inge is a significantly better fielder than Cabrera, and the offensive loss of batting Inge over Jones or Thames would not off-set the defensive loss of having Cabrera at third instead of Inge.
Dontrelle Willis, on the other hand, is a gigantic question mark. Like Cabrera, Willis has racked up tons of major league experience at a young age. He turns 26 in January, but he has already amassed over 1000 innings, 68 wins, 757 strikeouts, and 162 games started in five seasons. Willis is a classic inning eater, having averaged over 200 innings per season, but he has been mightily inconsistent. My brother Andrew calls him Dontrelle “Every other year” Willis because he tends to pitch very well in odd numbered years (2003, 2005), and then very poorly in even numbered years (2004, 2006). The only problem is, he was due for a good year in 2007, and had his worst season to date. He ERA topped 5.00, he gave up 29 homeruns, and his K/BB ratio fell way below 2:1 after peaking over 3:1 in 2005.
There are several good reasons to be optimistic about Willis, however. First, as noted above, he is an inning eater, and shown himself to be a durable pitcher. This season, he was the only player in major league baseball to start 35 games, and he leads the majors with 103 starts over the last three years (Of course, this could also mean he is due to blow himself out, but we’ll have to wait and see). These days, having a pitcher who can go 200 innings each season is quite valuable, so Willis will payoff for the Tigers on that premise alone.
In addition to his durability, there is also reason to believe that Willis hasn’t been as bad as his numbers would indicate the last few years. Willis peaked in 2005 with a 2.63 ERA, seven complete games, five shutouts, and a K:B ratio over 3:1. He has since declined significantly each year, managing to be mediocre in 2006 before being awful in 2007. It is important to note, however, that in 2005, he was being backed up defensive by second baseman Luis Castillo, shortstop Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins, third baseman Mike Lowell, and centerfielder Juan Pierre. In 2006 and 2007, all of those players were gone, and replaced with second baseman Dan Uggla, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, Cabrera at third base, and a combination of Reggie Abercrombie and Alfredo Amezaga. In short, Willis went from a solid to very good defense to one of the worst defensive infields in baseball and an inconsistent outfield. The defense’s impact on Willis and the Marlins pitching staff as a whole was clear – in 2007, the Marlins ranked dead last in the National League and second-to-last in all of baseball in team runs allowed per game.
Now, it is important to note that the Tigers defense didn’t overwhelm anybody last season. While Granderson is a great defensive centerfielder, Placido Polanco and Carlos Guillen were serviceable at best in the middle infield. However, the Tigers have already upgraded at shortstop by acquiring Edgar Renteria (in another move involving one of their top prospects, Jair Jurrjens) and moving Guillen to first base. With a better defense behind him, Willis should be able to make a positive contribution to the Tigers next season.
The Tigers have made out pretty well in this deal. So, the only question is, what did they have to give up?
The Florida Marlins have made quite a name for themselves the last decade or so for turning their stars of today into their stars of tomorrow, and they have done so by making sure that they don’t give up something for nothing. This deal would not appear to be any different, as the Marlins received six players in return for Willis and Cabrera, including two very highly touted prospects, Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, as well as at least two other very solid youngsters.
Miller is a 6’6” 210 pound stud pitcher who was the Tigers number one pick in 2006 after three dominant seasons at UNC. In only 83.0 career minor league innings, he struck out 70 batters and walked 26, while yielding only three homeruns. Miller pitched well for the Tigers last season, a fact which is obscured by his misleading 5.62 ERA in 13 starts. However, Miller has a 3.76 ERA on August 3rd before getting injured and watching his ERA balloon up by almost two runs in his last three starts of the season. A turbo-tanking on August 29th ended the season for Miller. However, if Miller is healthy in 2008, he should be at least as valuable as Willis will be.
A ton has been written about Cameron Maybin, the 20-year-old stud prospect who debuted for the Tigers in 2007 and went .143/.208/.265 with 21 strikeouts and three walks in 24 games. Maybin was made expendable by the emergence of Curtis Granderson and the re-emergence of Magglio Ordonez. His inauspicious major league debut notwithstanding, Maybin looks to have all the tools – in 91 minor league games in 2007, he went .316/.409/.523/.932 with 14 homeruns and 25 stolen bases. He is still very young, but he has a reputation as one of the best prospects in baseball, and on this Marlins team he may actually have the opportunity to break camp as the team’s starting centerfielder.
Burke Badenhop, Dallas Trahern, and Eulogio de la Cruz round out the meat of this trade for the Marlins. Both have been solid minor league pitchers. De la Cruz never ever gives up a homerun, and is capable of striking out a batter per inning, while Trahern is built like a stud (6’3” 190) but has been inconsistent in the minors and walks more batters than one would like. Badenhop (6’5” 220) is even more built for the part than Trahern, has given up 12 homeruns in over 400 minor league innigs, and has posted a nearly 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio (269/94) in three minor league seasons. Humorously, Badenhop is the least touted of these three, but has had the better numbers in the minors so far.
And lastly, there’s Mike Rabelo, a career minor leaguer who played 51 games for the Tigers last year and, most notably, had six walks and 41 strikeouts. Rabelo may be the Crash Davis of this group, but he won’t likely figure into the Marlins future plans.
Overall, it is a tasty haul for the Marlins, as they have secured the top two prospects in the Tigers farm system for two players they weren’t going to be able to resign, one of which has questionable value. Scout.com's 2007 Baseball Prospects Guide ranked Maybin and Miller as prospects number one and two in the Tigers organization, while Trahern and de la Cruz were numbers nine and 19. In fact, Maybin and Miller came in at nine and 25 in Scout.com's overall 2007 rankings as published in May. This could be the first time ever that two of the top 25 prospects in the nation were included in a single trade - and the Marlins got three quality pitching prospects along with them.
You know the whole phrase, “make sure you don’t give up the farm”? In acquiring Miguel Cabrera, one of the best hitters in baseball, and Dontrelle Willis, a very solid pitcher, it appears as though the Detriot Tigers may have done just that.
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.