Miami Marlins History: Reflecting on the Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis trade

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the week, the Miami Marlins released the last vestige of the pieces of the infamous Miguel Cabrera trade to the Detroit Tigers. Yesterday was the anniversary of the deal, and it is worth reviewing the disaster of the deal.

Earlier in the week, the Miami Marlins non-tendered two players from their roster who were scheduled to earn arbitration. Both held significant roles in the history of the Marlins franchise. Chris Coghlan was the 2009 Rookie of the Year, owing that award to a monster second half that included two record-setting hit months. He then was a disappointment for the remainder of his career while being shuttled around the outfield.

In a way, Ryan Webb was a disappointment as well, but for a different reason. The released reliever never developed into the shutdown late-inning guy that the San Diego Padres initially expected. The Marlins never got to use his tantalizing 95 mph sinker because, by 2013, it had dropped to 92 mph. He had his weaknesses, particularly left-handed hitters, and that would always limit him to a setup or worse role.

But Webb's biggest disappointment is one that he carries all the way back to 2008. Webb was the last Major League vestige (I suppose minor league catcher Jake Jefferies is still in the organization) of the infamous Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis trade to the Detroit Tigers before the 2008 season. Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the move, though for Marlins fans it seems like it has been a decade of disappointment since Miami's ill-fated trade.

This Day in Marlins History: Cabrera-Willis Trade

The Marlins' trade had all the right reasoning behind it, insofar as anyone can reason that trading a superstar talent right before his prime years was a good idea. Cabrera was about to get very expensive, and the Marlins' stadium situation was still up in the air. The team had just recovered from a major fire sale after the 2005 season and was not ready, according to owner Jeffrey Loria, to pony up $10 million and then likely at least $15 million to Cabrera for his last two seasons with the team. Extension talks with him were going nowhere as well. All of the same could be said about Dontrelle Willis, the former Rookie of the Year who had been struggling for two seasons straight.

Miami had no chance of signing either player to a long-term extension by the time trade talks heated up. Trade talks had to happen. And you know what? Miami did not get a bad haul. What happened after they received the haul was terrible.

The Trade

Miami was receiving offers left and right. The deals included hefty numbers of top prospect talent. The Los Angeles Dodgers were said to be offering some combination of Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, and Andy LaRoche. Before 2007, Kershaw was the 24th-ranked prospect in baseball by Baseball America. Before 2008, he was at eighth. Kemp was batting .342/.373/.521 in a short Major League stint in 2007.

The Los Angeles Angels were said to be on the verge of a deal including Howie Kendrick (12th-best prospect in 2006, .322/.347/.450 in the majors in 2007), Jeff Mathis (60th-ranked prospect in 2006), and a set of pitchers including Nick Adenhart (34th-ranked prospect in 2007). Three of these players would have been a great haul for Miami given their situation with Cabrera.

The Boston Red Sox apparently got involved with potentially trading Jacoby Ellsbury (33rd-ranked prospect in 2007) and (51st in 2007).

Miami "settled" for a prospect platter filled with top-10 prospect talent. The deal included Cameron Maybin, who was the sixth-ranked prospect in baseball in 2007 and was then ranked in the top 10 in each of the next two seasons, and Andrew Miller, who was the 10th-ranked prospect before 2007. For that plus a slew of players among the Tigers'  top 10 (Eulogio De La Cruz and Dallas Trahern were in the organizational top 10 before the 2007 season), Miami gave up Cabrera and Willis in a surprisingly fast-evolving move.

And they were right to consider a trade and right to consider the return a success at the time. Maybin was a top-10 prospect talent, Miller had been the same a year before, and the Marlins were giving up the last two seasons of team control of a star player and a pitcher who had two bad seasons in a row. Willis probably held less trade value than his pedigree suggested, as he was slowly losing control and strikeouts two years running. Cabrera was the ultimate highlight of the deal, but even as a six-win player, Miami would have been happy to have a top-10 position player and pitching prospect back.

All of the moves seemed close to equivalent at the time, and I could find no poor reactions to the trade from the Marlins' prospect perspective at the time.

The other trades, only in retrospect, seem like better deals, and it is difficult to tell where each team was at the time with regards to accepting those trades. Did the Dodgers really come close to saying "yes" to Kemp and Kershaw? Would the Angels, after weeks of believing they were close to a deal, have given up four top-100 prospects for Cabrera? All of the moves seemed close to equivalent at the time, and I could find no poor reactions to the trade from the Marlins' prospect perspective at the time. It is very likely that Detroit "won" the trade on account of getting the right to sign Cabrera to a long-term extension, but that option was never on the Marlins' table and the team could not use it as a negotiating ploy.

The Development

However, once Miami received their large haul of talent, the development of that talent went downhill. Miami played it smart by playing Maybin in Double-A for the majority of 2008, but after his successful season there, the team had no idea what to do with him. They started him on Opening Day in 2009, but when he started the season poorly, they let him simmer in Triple-A. This was a reasonable move in 2009, when he had not proven himself at that level yet and was only 22 years old. It was not, however, a reasonable move in 2010, when the Fish lost patience again and sent him to the minors. Miami jerked Maybin's playing time around significantly, and it may have deflated his confidence level.

Miller, I fear, may have been a lost cause from the start. He had gobs of talent but a control issue that left him raw coming out of college. He was promoted too quickly up the Tigers' system, showing up in the majors in 2011 for 64 ugly innings after never dominating in one minor league pit stop. Miami acquired him and let him work in the rotation immediately, except he showed in 2007 that he was not ready for the job. He then spent time hurt and shuttling between Double-A and the majors, all the while showing that he was still lacking control.

Miller may have been a product of the Tigers' fast promotion. Maybin may have been a product of Miami's own inconsistent approach with him. Neither player worked out for the Fish as well as they would have liked, though Maybin was probably better than Miami gave him credit for. Only one of the four other prospects stuck in the majors, as Burke Badenhop became a fixture in the Marlins' pen. The rest of the pieces failed, and before the 2011 season, Miami traded both to different teams.

The Shipping Off

The problem was that the trades were not great moves either. The Miller trade was unavoidable; he had provided no value to Miami in two seasons and was clearly not going to fetch a significant return. Miami dealt him to the Boston Red Sox, where he eventually returned to the majors as a lefty specialist.

But the Maybin trade is a sore spot in the continuing failing legacy of this trade. Maybin was dealt to the San Diego Padres for relievers Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb. The Marlins felt the need to trade Maybin because they had Chris Coghlan "ready" to move to center field to make room for Logan Morrison in left field. You can see why this is already devolving into a terrible statement, but it is worth noting the following interesting comparison.

PLAYER, THROUGH 2010 PA AVG OBP SLG WOBA AVG WAR
Chris Coghlan 965 .299 .367 .428 .351 3.2
Cameron Maybin 557 .257 .323 .391 .317 2.4

Maybin's batting line, contrary to popular belief, was not terrible through 2010. Coghlan's was better, but Coghlan was also a poor defender in center field, while Maybin was mostly considered at least an average one with a chance at excellence given his range. After Coghlan's poor 2010 season, Maybin was good enough that, had he received Coghlan's playing time, he would have outperformed the 2009 Rookie of the Year.

And for what turned out to be five more years of team control of a 24-year-old former top prospect, Miami received two good relievers. Not shutdown ace closers (though there was potential in Webb), just good relievers. The history of the franchise's frustrations with Maybin clouded their judgment, allowing them to let him go for pennies on the dollar. Maybin was a flawed player, and still probably is, but he had significantly more talent than either Webb or Mujica, and Miami gave up on that upside and talent to pursue relief help.

The results were quite unfortunate. Webb never developed into that shutdown closer, Mujica was as good as advertised, and the pair provided an average WAR of three wins for the franchise over three seasons. Maybin bypassed that mark in his first year with the Padres, when he put up a four-plus win campaign in 2011 thanks to a solid bat and plus defense. Overall, he has provided 6.3 average WAR for the Padres in the last three seasons, and that was with him missing almost all of 2013.

In 2.5 times the plate appearances as Maybin has had in three seasons, Miami's collective outfield contingent that has sniffed center field has produced 55 percent of Maybin's win total.

Meanwhile, the Marlins have had nine players start more than 30 games for the Fish in center field since 2011. Marlins players who have played center field have collectively put up 3.5 wins in 3081 plate appearances in the last three years. In 2.5 times the plate appearances as Maybin has had in three seasons, Miami's collective outfield contingent that has sniffed center field has produced 55 percent of Maybin's win total.

Cabrera: The Superstar

None of this would have be so significant, however, if Cabrera had simply been an All-Star caliber player the likes of Matt Holliday or Scott Rolen. But of course, Cabrera became the best hitter of his generation. And we should have known this would happen. Grant Brisbee mentioned it just last year in this Baseball Nation article.

Cabrera was going to get better, of course. We probably should have seen that coming because he was so good at such a young age. When a player hits like a Hall of Famer at an age when a lot of players are being shuttled between Triple-A and the majors, he can get even better.

Of course Cabrera would develop into an all-time great. No matter his struggles in other areas, he would always have that bat. No matter his conditioning concerns, he would always have first base to fall back on. No matter his off-field indiscretions (and there were plenty, more than Hanley Ramirez certainly had), he would always be the best hitter on the Tigers. So of course Cabrera would have plenty of time to develop into the best hitter of his generation, and of course that would always make Miami's trade look more silly in hindsight.

So of course Cabrera would have plenty of time to develop into the best hitter of his generation, and of course that would always make Miami's trade look more silly in hindsight.

The Fish were never going to get enough prospects for Cabrera. With his trajectory as a ballplayer, it was always going to look lopsided five or six years into the deal. The fact that our return never panned out was awful, but Cabrera was always going to make Miami look stupid for trading a once-in-a-generation talent.

Conclusion

There is a reason why, in retrospect, the Cabrera trade is held in such high infamy. Very little of it, of course, has to do with the return for Miguel Cabrera. But once that return hit the teal pinstripes, Miami's long trek towards failure began. It was not enough that Cabrera was an otherworldly talent who would become the best hitter in the game. Miami had each and every part of this trade fail. The prospects the team got back never panned out to their liking. Miami's trades of the prospects themselves rubbed more dirt into the wound.

Six years later, Miami looks like a hobbled mess without a third baseman or a first baseman upon whom they can rely. Detroit has won three straight division titles and made it to a World Series since 2008. The two teams' fates are irrevocably tied to this trade. While Detroit has flourished with two-time MVP Cabrera, Miami is still trying to find a player whom they can call their own Cabrera after letting their first one go.

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