This Day In Marlins History: Cabrera, Willis traded to Tigers

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On this day in team history, the Marlins shipped off lefty Dontrelle Willis and slugger Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers for a six-prospect package. It was the latest in a series of trades that moved players set to receive an increase in salary. The two were the last remaining players from Florida's 2003 championship team.

Given the way the last six years have played out, it stands as one of the bigger disappointments in franchise history. On this date, December 4, 2007, the Marlins traded young stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers for a prospect-laden package headlined by Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. Needless to say, the deal did not exactly work out in Florida’s favor.

Cabrera and Willis both were rookies in 2003, and their unexpectedly strong contributions were a big reason for the Marlins’ surprising run to their second World Series title. Cabrera, the skinny, baby-faced 20-year-old, was a top prospect, and he flashed his potent hitting abilities in his initial half-season; he essentially became an elite power hitter almost immediately, combining for a .947 OPS and an average of 32 home runs per season from 2004-07, still young at 24. Willis similarly exploded onto the scene; less touted than Cabrera, he nevertheless put up a strong performance, posting a 3.30 ERA and captivating fans with his funky delivery en route to taking home Rookie of the Year honors in 2003. He was a bit uneven over the next four years, posting ERAs of 4.02, 2.63, 3.87 and 5.17, but was also still young at 25 years old and thus still boasted potential.

But for all they had already contributed and promised to contribute into the future, Willis and Cabrera were both due to earn significant raises in arbitration. The status of Florida’s potential future new ballpark was still up in the air, and ownership didn’t want to commit to high salaries with that being the case. So, like many other players in the post-’03 era, Willis and Cabrera were let go as soon as their salaries were about to escalate. Several teams pursued the pair, especially Cabrera, but in the end, Detroit won out with its package, led by Maybin and Miller.

Maybin was one of the game’s top prospects at the time. A five-tool outfielder, he made it to the majors with the Tigers in 2007 at the age of 20 and was rated a top-10 overall prospect by Baseball America in each year from 2007-09. To date, though, Maybin hasn’t been able to fulfill his lofty promise, struggling for three years between the minors and majors with the Marlins before the team traded him to San Diego before the 2011 season. Miller, a power-throwing lefty, was also a top-10 prospect going into 2007, but he never reached his considerable ceiling as a starter, posting a combined 5.89 ERA in 58 games and 41 starts from 2008-10. Florida traded him to Boston before 2011, and Miller has made somewhat of a career comeback by posting good numbers with the Red Sox as a reliever the last two years.

Out of the remaining players Florida received, only Burke Badenhop has amounted to anything, carving out a career as a reliever with the Marlins, Rays, Brewers, and now the Red Sox after he was traded last week. Dallas Trahern never made it to the majors, Mike Rabelo hasn’t played in the bigs since 2008, and Eugenio De La Cruz hasn’t played in the majors since 2011. Neither of the latter two made a significant impact with Florida when they did play.

On the other end, it ended up that Willis’ best days were indeed behind him. Beset by injuries, the lefty made just 22 starts for Detroit before being traded to Arizona in 2010; after a brief revival with the Reds in 2011, Willis hasn’t been back to the majors since. But all baseball fans know what happened with Cabrera. While he has had off-field issues stemming from alcohol abuse, and considerable weight gain has turned him into a below-average defender, Cabrera has developed into the game’s best slugger. Highlights include winning the AL Triple Crown in 2012 and taking home back-to-back MVPs in 2012 and 2013; his combined OPS the past four seasons is 1.037, and he has averaged 39 home runs per year in that span.

Put simply, Cabrera is the game’s most feared hitter since Barry Bonds and the best offensive player of his generation. The Marlins didn’t exactly miss out on future production from Willis, but this trade stings in part due to the fact that the players received amounted to little for Florida. But the deal hurts more because the franchise traded away a player in Cabrera who has become the most powerful offensive force in baseball. Six years later, that certainly makes the trade with the Tigers a sore spot in team history.

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