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December 5, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Big Deal

by Joe Sheehan

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Once again, the big story at the Opryland hotel was the never-ending negotiations over a Johan Santana deal, as Twins' GM Bill Smith sorts through ever-changing packages from the Yankees and Red Sox in an attempt to get maximumů

Oh, thank god for Dave Dombrowski.

In a stunning move that changes the balance of power in the American League, the Tigers dealt away two of their top three prospects to acquire Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins. The deal continues the Tigers' off-season upgrade of their offense, in which they've replaced Marcus Thames and others with Jacque Jones, Sean Casey, with Edgar Renteria, and now Brandon Inge with Cabrera:


Player           2007 BRAR   Avg. BRAR, 2005-07
Marcus Thames        7           9.3
Jacque Jones         8          16.7
Sean Casey          11          15.7
Edgar Renteria      39          28.3
Brandon Inge         5          14.0
Miguel Cabrera      65          62.3

Even projecting decline among the six returning hitters, five of whom are past their prime, and at least three of which are coming off of career seasons, the Tigers should again have one of the best lineups in the American League. The defensive hit they take at third base-where Inge is among the best, and Cabrera among the worst the worst-should be ameliorated by the offensive improvements in left field and at shortstop. Overall, the Tigers' lineup is much improved over last year; recall that last year's team scored 887 runs, second in the league, and won 88 games.

Dontrelle Willis is an interesting player to acquire. I did not expect the Marlins to trade him in the same deal with Cabrera, surmising they could get more value in two deals than in one. By getting him, the Tigers pick up a player whose perceived value runs ahead of his actual value, in part because of Willis' big 2005 season, in part because of his association with the 2003 champions, and in part because he's a face of the game, and a marketer's dream.

He's also a pitcher whose numbers have been going backwards for a while, with '05 standing out as the the only season of his career in which he had a translated walk rate under 2.0 and a home run rate under 0.8 per nine innings. Whether his complex mechanics or his electric stuff, Willis has only contained his walk rate in one of his five seasons, and he's never had high strikeout rates. His performance lags behind his reputation and his stuff, and at 26, he could go either way. There's some Steve Avery potential here; the two have similar records through age 25, and were similarly worked hard in their early twenties.

Working in Willis' favor is that he's leaving behind one of the worst defenses in baseball. The Hanley Ramirez/Dan Uggla combination is just awful, and the Marlins haven't had a legitimate center fielder since trading away Juan Pierre. The Marlins had the worst Defensive Efficiency in the NL last year, and Willis suffered for that. We'll hear a lot about how he's changing leagues, and the potential effect of that switch on his already-high ERA. I suspect that whatever effect exists there will be wiped out by the upgrade in the defense behind him, especially up the middle:


Player                   FRAR   Rate
Dan Uggla                  37    109
Placido Polanco            40    114
Hanley Ramirez             13     95
Edgar Renteria             14     98
Marlins CFs                16     97
Curtis Granderson          40    116

I should note that Uggla's scores in the translations system are higher than they are in most others, and the gap between his value and Polanco's afield is probably bigger than this. The same can be said for the gap between Renteria and Ramirez. If Willis were to have the exact same distribution of events in 2008 as he did in 2007, he'd likely allow 15-20 fewer hits, at minimum, some of them doubles and triples, and knock at least a half-run off of his ERA despite moving to the DH league. He, of all eight players, may be the biggest winner in this trade.

One reason the Marlins made this deal is that they haven't had a center fielder in two seasons, and had no prospect in the system capable of being a major league center fielder (sorry, Brett Carroll). Maybin gives them that, although he is absolutely not ready for the major leagues at the moment. The Tigers rushed him this season because of their need for a healthy, productive left fielder, and the move backfired. Above High-A this year, the 21-year-old Maybin hit .217/.316/.493, most of that a hot week in the Eastern League. He was awful in the majors, striking out in 43 percent of his at-bats. The Marlins have acquired a talent, but if they stick Maybin in their Opening Day lineup, they would be making a significant mistake, and lowering the chance that they eventually develop a superstar.

Miller has been rushed a bit as well. The sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft was in the majors just months after pitching in the College World Series, and he made 13 starts with the Tigers in '07, most spent watching guys walk to first base. Miller has the stuff to be dominant; however, he has 74 1/3 career major league innings and 85 career minor league innings, and needs more of the latter to ensure more of the former. Like Maybin, Miller can be a part of a championship team in Miami, and the chances of his doing so increase if he opens 2008 in Triple-A.

This is a trade that resets two organizations, putting the Tigers, who now have a big gap between their best and second-best prospects, on a two-year horizon to win a championship. It gets the Marlins back to square one, having severed the last ties to the 2003 World Series, and in fact, severed some of the only experience they have. It's almost certain that the Marlins will have not only the lowest payroll in baseball next year-one they can cover if they don't even open the ballpark gates in 2008-but one that may not crack $15 million.

You can see a path to contention in three seasons, but the immediate future is fairly bleak. The Marlins were the least-watched team in baseball when they had a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter and a starting pitcher everyone loved. With those two guys gone, the worst job in baseball is salesperson for the Florida Marlins. The Expos hadn't come close to being this embarrassing when MLB stepped in and coordinated the takeover of the franchise. How far do the Marlins have to fall, how many shots of a few hundred people in the stands does it take, for a baseball franchise to warrant execution?

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming:

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Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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