Deal makes Tigers more of a contender

Tigers more of a contender now

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's a genuine Winter Meetings blockbuster, that also makes the Detroit Tigers an even more genuine contender.

With a preliminary trade agreement, pending review of medical records, the Tigers hit the daily double in this winter's market, landing third baseman Miguel Cabrera and lefty Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins. The price was steep, including two of the Tigers most prized young players, outfielder Cameron Maybin and lefty starter Andrew Miller, not to mention a backup catcher and three prospects.

If the trade holds up it would add an impact run producer to an already imposing Detroit lineup, and give the Tigers another frontline starter. Not only are Cabrera and Willis impressive talents, but they are still young talents. Cabrera will be 25 by the start of next season and Willis will be 26.

The Tigers in this offseason had already added an impressive veteran shortstop, Edgar Renteria, while planning to move the incumbent, Carlos Guillen, to first base. The addition of Cabrera could mean that Brandon Inge, a fine defensive third baseman, might have to move to left. Or the Tigers could move Cabrera to left, since he played the outfield earlier in his career with the Marlins. Or, figuring that Cabrera's long-term future is probably at first base, they could put him there and make Guillen the third baseman.

In any case, the deal would do two things. It obviously makes the Tigers immediately better. The pursuit of Cabrera, once it was known that the Marlins were making him available, was the second biggest story coming into the Winter Meetings, overshadowed only by the pursuit of Johan Santana.

Cabrera has been a consistent run producer since emerging as a rising star with the 2003 Marlins, a team that eventually won the World Series. He has driven in no fewer than 112 runs in each of the last four seasons. His on-base percentage has been over .400 the last two seasons. He services were widely sought and the Tigers can be considered winter winners for landing him.

Willis was another rookie sensation in the 2003 championship season, going 14-6. He was a 22-game winner in 2005. It is true that he is coming off his worst season -- 10-15, 5.17 ERA. But given his career track, that season looks like the aberration. And given his age it is very unlikely that he has entered an irreversible decline.

Willis, Cabrera

It might appear that the Tigers are becoming Marlins North, with now five former Marlins players -- Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria and Ivan Rodriguez the other three -- joining manager Jim Leyland, another former Marlin, in Detroit. But in fact if this trade resembles the typical operating pattern of another organization, that organization would be the New York Yankees.

Packaging every prospect in sight for the immediate help of big-name players has been a typical Yankee move. This trade puts the Tigers in a definite win-now mode. They were not far out of that mode, anyway, since they were the American League pennant-winners in 2005. But this sort of trade is only made by a club that feels an urgency to win and win now.

The saving grace in this deal is that the Tigers have not traded for big-name players who are in the fading phase of their careers. They have traded for big-name players who are in their mid-20s. If this trade is completed the Tigers will be considerably thinner in the prospect department. But by getting players who were both young and established, they still have the theoretical possibility of both winning now and winning later.

Landing Miguel Cabrera in itself would have been a coup. Also landing Dontrelle Willis in a market desperately short of frontline pitching makes this a Winter Meetings landslide for the Tigers. If the deal is finalized, they will look like front-runners in the AL Central, not that they looked much worse than that before the deal. But this trade, which simultaneously improves them in both halves of the inning, makes them look like a team very capable of playing as far into October as the law allows.

Winter Meetings

On the other side of the deal, this trade would be business as usual for the Marlins. They have specialized in rebuilding by trading established players they determine they will not be able to afford for a host of young and indisputably talented players.

This is a skill the Marlins have demonstrated before, and with Maybin and Miller it is obvious that they have not lost their touch.

The problem they have is larger than what occurs on the field. For an organization still trying to find public financing for a new ballpark, the trade of two more substantial players will probably not move that process toward a happy ending. After this deal, the much happier baseball public will be the one in Michigan.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.