Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers spent the past weekend battling the Los Angeles Angels in a repeat matchup between last year's MVP candidates. Cabrera and Mike Trout were on opposite sides of the MVP race, but when questioned, Cabrera wondered what it would be like to play for the Angels, given that he was so close to doing so back in 2008.
"I thought I would be here," Cabrera, the 2012 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner and AL Triple Crown winner, told MLB.com during a frustrating weekend at Angel Stadium for his reigning AL champion Tigers, who were swept by the suddenly alive and kicking Angels.
"When my agent called and told me I was going to Detroit, I was surprised," Cabrera said. "I think Dontrelle Willis [being in the deal] might be why I ended up in Detroit."
This is an interesting question from both sides. On Cabrera's side, he could have been the anchor to one of the more competitive teams in baseball over the last few years, a club that would have also had Vladimir Guerrero in his later years mashing alongside Cabrera. As the clock turned to now, he could be hitting in a lineup right next to Trout, and the Angels could be locked into a far more favorable All-Star first baseman deal than the one they got for Albert Pujols.
But here at Fish Stripes, we are interested in the other side of the story. The Marlins received a package highlighted by elite prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, along with a slew of players including Burke Badenhop, Mike Rabello, Eulogio de la Cruz, and Dallas Trahern. The organization, in the end, retrieved almost no value for these players, despite the fact that Cameron Maybin is being pseudo-successful elsewhere.
But what might have been had the Marlins sent Cabrera to the Angels? The Fish and Angels were discussing a number of top prospects.
Starters Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders were in the Cabrera conversations. Pitcher Nick Adenhart and shortstop Brandon Wood were high-end prospects coveted everywhere. Howie Kendrick was a rising star at second base. Kendrys Morales, two years removed from breaking out as a slugging first baseman, center fielder and leadoff man Reggie Willits (fifth in the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year Award voting) and catcher Jeff Mathis could have been part of a package.
The names involved here were interesting indeed. The Marlins were definitely looking at a package highlighted by former top prospect and promising second baseman Howie Kendrick, and the names of Nick Adenhart and Brandon Wood were definitely mentioned as other pieces. If the Marlins were considering Santana (5.76 ERA, 5.13 FIP in 2007) or Saunders (4.44 ERA, 4.26 FIP), they were doing so as filler talent to replace Dontrelle Willis, whom they would inevitably trade as well.
What kind of package could we have built out of the players listed here? The Marlins were clearly in need of elite talent, and any trade would almost certainly include Kendrick (likely necessitating a move to third base by Dan Uggla) and Wood or Adenhart to start. Given that the Marlins only needed one infielder, let's assume the team would use Kendrick and Adenhart as their trade anchors. Adenhart was the 24th-ranked prospect in 2008 by Baseball America, and he was on the rise prior to the 2008 season. He had previously held his own with a 3.65 ERA as a 20-year-old in Double-A the year before, so he was on the right track to success.
Kendrick was ranked 12th by Baseball America before the 2006 season, and he had hit .306/.332/.435 (.331 wOBA) through parts of two years with the Angels. The odds were that he had accumulated about one season's worth of service time and that the Marlins would have five more years of team control of a player who looked like a league average player now and who could only get better as the years advanced.
Who else would fill out such a hypothetical trade for the Marlins? Morales and Willits were mentioned and the Marlins had needs in both first base and center field, but the first base needs were less apparent, so let's plug in Willits into this trade. Of the two starting pitchers that were mentioned, let's assume the Fish went with the player with more team control available to them, which would have been Saunders based on the innings both pitchers threw before 2008. This goes against the Marlins aiming for talent, but in such a case, the Fish just want playable, team-controlled guys who would not cost the Marlins much. I estimate that Saunders probably had four years of team control left, one of which was a pre-arbitration season.
How would a Kendrick, Adenhart, Willits, and Saunders package, plus or minus possible minor league filler, worked out for the Fish? It is an intriguing question because of the unknowns involved. Two of the players listed became known commodities around the league, and at this point it is hard to imagine them changing from what they became. Kendrick never really turned into a star and remained a league average player for years; his best season came in a year in which defensive metrics saw him as a Gold Glover, but he also owns a career .296/.328/.426 (.328 wOBA) that showed no improvement over his first two years. Saunders was a meandering fifth starter who remains a meandering fifth starter. He is still a decent commodity to have as an innings eater, but not the type of player you would expect as a return for Cabrera.
The other two are interesting because their careers were cut short by ineffectiveness or a more tragic event. Adenhart died in a car crash in 2009 at just 22 years of age. We can never know how good he would become because of the saddening turn of events, but would that have changed had he been in Miami instead of Los Angeles? This too is impossible to tell, and it is a question better left alone.
As for Willits, he racked up 519 plate appearances in his rookie season, and he hit fairly well (.293/.391/.344, .338 wOBA), but he was then straddled to the bench for the next few years before being out of baseball. Willits had zero power but an intriguing skill set at the plate, including what turned out to be a career 12.7 percent walk rate. He stole 27 bases in 35 attempts in 2007, so he had some speed and had the on-base skills to play at the top of the lineup. What could have happened if Willits were given the center field job and a chance hitting in front of or behind Hanley Ramirez full-time?
Ultimately, this trade is difficult to evaluate because of the unknowns involved, but the Marlins could not have been too happy if we do not consider production from Adenhart. Willits may have been just a bench player with an oddly interesting skill set. Saunders is what he is and likely would have been the same in Sun Life Stadium. Kendrick never became a star, but would have at least manned second base for some time before the Marlins eventually sent him away. Had the Fish gone for the better prospect in Brandon Wood instead of Adenhart, they might have been witness to the same massive bust the Angels eventually saw.
Of course, there is no guarantee that all of these players would have developed the same way, so who knows what could have happened? Taking what we know, however, it is difficult to see the Angels' potential package as any better than what the Fish got from the Tigers, especially when you consider this without the benefit of hindsight.