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David Samson: Trading Miguel Cabrera was necessary for Marlins

The former Marlins president rehashes the negotiations leading up to the unpopular blockbuster trade that sent the perennial All-Star to the Tigers.

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Phillies v Marlins

There have been countless “defections” from the Marlins fanbase through the years. Many of them simply lost patience with the consistent struggles at the major league level (16 straight years without a postseason berth, 10 straight with records below the .500 mark). Others were irked by the process of publicly funding and constructing Marlins Park and how former owner Jeffrey Loria treated his constituents and business partners. Along the way, there have also been landmark transactions so notoriously bad that they pushed fans to drop their support cold turkey in defiance of those running the franchise. The most offensive of them all was trading Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers in December 2007.

Wednesday on the local hour of the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, David Samson—the longtime Marlins president under Loria—dusted off his notes from those negotiations and explains his side of the story.

He set the scene by crying poor. As a perennial NL All-Star selection and one of the league’s most powerful and durable hitters, Cabrera earned a substantial $7.4 million salary the previous year in his first trip through the arbitration process. He was on course to earn a raise into the $11 million range heading into 2008, which Samson insists made him unaffordable for the small-market Marlins:

“We knew very well that we had no ballpark deal, we had no prospects of increased revenue. The only chance we had of keeping the franchise going was to cut the payroll. And in order to cut the payroll and try to be competitive, you had to have young players playing really well making $300k-400k.

“It was simple—it was not even a big discussion because it was a non-starter to keep Cabrera through his next year because he would lose value each year.”

Despite having Cabrera in the heart of their lineup, the Marlins were getting minimal fan support at Dolphin Stadium.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Even before the 2007 season ended, Samson and his front office were preparing to shop their 24-year-old phenom. General manager Larry Beinfest notified every other MLB team about Cabrera’s availability. However, only a handful of them emerged as serious suitors because the Marlins insisted on a package of at least three major league-ready players in return. Samson had no illusions about replacing Cabrera’s production, but the Fish needed immediate contributors to provide “political cover” so that they could spin this as an acceptable baseball decision.

The Angels, Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox were the most likely landing spots, Samson says. The Tigers? Not so much. Dave Dombrowski—Beinfest’s predecessor—was in charge over there and didn’t have a cordial relationship with the Marlins, who had attempted to downplay his role in laying the foundation for the 2003 World Series championship team.

Talks with the Red Sox never progressed to the point of exchanging individual player names, while the Yankees were uncharacteristically squeamish about forfeiting their top prospects. But Samson still had the Los Angeles teams in the mix, both of them determined to make sure Cabrera didn’t become their crosstown rival. Pre-arb talent like Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, James Loney and Matt Kemp (Dodgers), and Nick Adenhart, Ervin Santana and Howie Kendrick (Angels) intrigued the Marlins. Multiple reports from the time confirm that each of these players were discussed (h/t Fabian Ardaya, The Athletic).

Samson wanted to resolve the negotiations at the MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee. The Marlins went around the league soliciting each team’s best and final offer when Dombrowski and the Tigers suddenly entered the fray—Detroit’s owner Mike Illitch was motivated to get Cabrera by any means necessary. But Dombrowski didn’t cave easily and balked at Florida’s request for Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. Both had ranked among Baseball America’s top 10 overall MLB prospects entering 2007.

The Marlins turned their focus to the Angels, and Samson claims a trade was in place for Santana, Kendrick and Jeff Mathis. Better than nothing though far short of the original asking price.

They went back to Dombrowski, giving him the opportunity to beat that package by including Maybin and Miller. The Tigers agreed...if Dontrelle Willis was involved. From there, marginal pieces were added to Detroit’s package—Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Mike Rabelo and Dallas Trahern—to balance things out.

After that, Samson says the Marlins re-engaged the Dodgers and lied to them, making them believe that the Angels were on the verge of acquiring Cabrera. They tried to pressure the Dodgers into trading Billingsley and Kershaw together. It didn’t work, partially because then-owner Frank McCourt was reluctant to pay Cabrera market value on a long-term extension.

Even so, the Marlins were satisfied with their haul, according to Samson.

“The reality is that in our room in Nashville,” he says, “when Dombrowski agree to Maybin and Miller, there was an ovation—an OVATION—by the major league and minor league staff that we had Maybin and Miller.”

And well...we know how that worked out. Neither prospect reached their true ceiling though they have both had long, lucrative careers since leaving the Marlins a few years after this blockbuster. At his peak from 2010-2013, Miggy was the world’s best right-handed hitter, winning the AL Triple Crown and back-to-back AL MVP awards. He has led the Tigers to four total postseason berths and made himself a look for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Without Cabrera, shortstop Hanley Ramírez helped the Marlins remain relevant in the late 2000’s. Fast-forward to the 2011 Winter Meetings, the Fish finally began bidding for top-tier free agents (thanks to the influx of cash from getting their own stadium). Then in 2014, they locked up Giancarlo Stanton to what was the most expensive contract in MLB history.

However, Samson never truly filled the Miguel Cabrera void, and it has proven difficult for new Marlins ownership to earn back the trust of those fans who lost their beloved slugger 12-plus years ago.