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The Marlins should have had their own Dwyane Wade

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Miguel Cabrera’s face was destined to join Wade’s on the South Florida sports Mt. Rushmore. Instead, the club traded Miggy before he even reached his prime.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It was arguably the most important week in South Florida sports history.

Entering June 20, 2003, the Marlins were floundering. They neared the midpoint of the regular season with a 35-39 record, slightly improved with interim manager Jack McKeon at the helm, but only on the fringe of the National League playoff picture. That’s when an expensive, veteran team added top prospect Miguel Cabrera from the Double-A Carolina Mudcats. The second-youngest player in the entire majors for much of that summer, Cabrera immediately secured a spot in the everyday lineup en route to a first-ballot, Hall of Fame-caliber career.

The following Thursday night (Jun. 26) marked the end of what had been the worst season in Pat Riley’s illustrious NBA head coaching career. The Miami Heat’s reward for going 25-57 was the No. 5 overall draft pick. Unfortunately, there were only four names in the top tier of available players—LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh—and then a whole lot of uncertainty.

In recollecting his evaluation process, Riley told ESPN that Marquette’s Dwyane Wade got his attention during a game against Kentucky in March. That prompted the Heat to invite Wade to a private workout.

“He had a horrible workout. He was very nervous. I remember shaking his hand and thought the only time I ever shook a hand of a rookie that came in that had more sweat on his palm was James Worthy. He couldn’t make a shot. But that wasn’t going to sway us.”

Trusting his gut paid off gloriously. After playing critical roles in each of the franchise’s three NBA titles (2005-06, 2011-12 and 2012-13), then spending brief stints in Chicago and Cleveland, Wade returned to Miami in a trade on Thursday afternoon.

“It was a sad day when Dwyane left and it’s a beautiful day that he’s back,” Riley says.

These two superstars are more alike than you might realize.

In the midst of his 15th professional season, Wade is a 12-time All-Star and the 31st-ranked scorer in NBA history. With 15 MLB seasons complete, Cabrera has amassed 11 All-Star selections and ranks 35th in career runs batted in. Both were homegrown players—Wade as a Heat lottery pick, Cabrera originally signed by the Marlins out of Venezuela at age 16. And both are on the short list of the greatest athletes ever at their respective positions.

Wade and Cabrera in 2003.
Photos by Getty

But only Wade is considered one of South Florida’s sports icons, racking up countless accolades before changing uniforms. Despite Cabrera contributing to the Fish’s 2003 World Series championship, maintaining an offseason home in Miami and frequenting local businesses, he ultimately played the majority (and peak) of his career with the Detroit Tigers. He will be inducted into Cooperstown wearing the Old English D.

As a reminder, this is what Miggy did through four major league seasons. Totally unprecedented production at the time for a Marlin, and when considering his age, he had few comparables in all of baseball history:

Miguel Cabrera with Marlins, 2003-2006

Year Age G PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Year Age G PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
2003 20 87 346 12 62 .268 .325 .468 106 0.8
2004 21 160 685 33 112 .294 .366 .512 129 2.3
2005 22 158 685 33 116 .323 .385 .561 146 5.1
2006 23 158 676 26 114 .339 .430 .568 153 6.3
Source: FanGraphs

He was a durable, special hitter who was still improving. Those kind of players always get paid.

It’s fair to wonder whether the Marlins ever had a chance to keep him long term. Fish Stripes’ Michael Jong noted that the uncertainty surrounding their stadium situation would’ve made it difficult to extend Cabrera on a market value contract and assemble a competitive supporting cast. If that wasn’t enough adversity, owner Jeffrey Loria accelerated the club’s descent into mediocrity. He received minimal compensation for several 2003 heroes who departed as free agents, while pressuring his front office to slash payroll by trading the other key contributors for prospects.

Cabrera became eligible for arbitration for the first time entering the 2007 season. Sabotaging whatever hope there was for a harmonious relationship, the Marlins 1) took him to an uncomfortable hearing rather than settling on a one-year deal in advance, and 2) publicly ripped him for missing offseason promotional events, according to the Associated Press. The cherry on top: the arbitration panel ruled in favor of Cabrera, setting his salary at $7.4 million.

There have been transactions where teams make up for the departure of a star in the aggregate, but this wasn’t an example of that. Pairing Cabrera with left-hander Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins received six players in return from Detroit in December 2007. The most significant of those assets—left-hander Andrew Miller and outfielder Cameron Maybin—are best known for their performances with subsequent employers.

Cabrera celebrates clinching the American League pennant with the Tigers in 2012.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the Marlins are about to begin spring training with literally dozens of new faces. New ownership spent the winter cleaning up Loria’s messes in a familiar way: trading core pieces for unproven kids and financial flexibility. They succeeded in building a baseball-only stadium, but it will have plenty of empty seats in what’s projected to be a last-place season.

And the fans still don’t have their own Dwyane Wade. American Airlines Arena will be sold out on Friday night for Wade’s #R3TURN, even though the Heat aren’t seen as Finals contenders. It could be years until any game at Marlins Park has that kind of electric atmosphere.

The excuses that Loria used more than a decade ago are now obsolete. Derek Jeter and his fellow investors have every opportunity to build a strong organization from the farm system up, and the revenue streams to lock up top talent through their prime years.

If they are fortunate enough to develop the next Miguel Cabrera, don’t let him get away.