Commentary

Tigers and Marlins head in opposite directions

Originally Published: December 4, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As word of a staggering eight-player trade reverberated around the walls and halls and dancing fountains of Opryland on Tuesday, it was hard to make your brain comprehend this absolutely true fact:

The Florida Marlins won the World Series more recently -- in fact, much more recently -- than the Detroit Tigers.

But here we are, just four years after Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera and the Marlins unleashed a champagne waterfall inside the visitors clubhouse in Yankee Stadium. And any minute now, there won't be a single teal-clad human being left who can reminisce about one pitch of that World Series.

They'll all be gone. Every one of them. At least they will be as soon as the Marlins get around to announcing that they've traded Willis and Cabrera to Detroit for a six-player package headed by stud prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.

Amazing.

The Tigers? They're now an official baseball superpower.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
John Capella/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesMiguel Cabrera hit 34 homers last season and led all NL third basemen with 119 RBIs.
They're headed for a $120 million-plus payroll. They have a lineup deeper than the Grand Canyon. And they can run five starting pitchers out there who have each worked 200-plus innings in at least one of the past two seasons.

"I'll tell you what," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "There are a lot of American League pitchers [and teams] getting real nervous -- and we're one of them."

But the Marlins? They're about as unrecognizable as any team in America -- maybe even more unrecognizable than the Pawtucket Red Sox.

"What's their payroll going to be?" one baseball man wondered Tuesday night. "Six million bucks? Eight million?"

Hey, excellent guesses. As best we can tell, their highest-paid player next season is going to be closer Kevin Gregg. He made $575,000 this season (less than the Yankees paid A-Rod every four days). And he's actually arbitration-eligible.

Or it might be Miller, even though he's only 22 years old, was pitching for the UNC Tar Heels as recently as two years ago and owns exactly 74 1/3 innings of big league experience.

WHAT'S THE DEAL?
Get the inside scoop on what's happening at the winter meetings in Nashville. Blog
Miller signed a major league contract out of college, so he's scheduled to make $1.325 million if he's in the big leagues next season, which will practically be Johan Santana money compared to the rest of that roster.

"There's no way," one agent said, "that the average salary on that team is even going to be close to $500,000."

That's the state of your 2008 Marlins, folks. Whoever they are.

We need to remember at times like this that the Marlins are a team that always makes great trades, that always makes excellent talent evaluations, that always has a plan. But we also need to acknowledge something else:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Miller
Paul Spinelli/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesLeft-hander Andrew Miller, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 draft, posted a 5.69 ERA in 21 games with Detroit.
That plan now leaves them with virtually zero identity. Let's see now. There's Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla and … uh … OK, we're stumped.

And even more importantly for the future of the franchise, you wonder where this plan will leave their endless campaign for a new ballpark, now that they no longer can say they want to build it for Willis and Cabrera to lead them back to the glory days.

Until Tuesday, it seemed highly unlikely that the Marlins would dare to trade both of those men in the same offseason -- let alone the same deal. But once the Tigers checked in and indicated a willingness to talk about both Maybin and Miller, everything changed.

Just a few hours of haggling later, this deal was done.

None of the four guys heading for Florida who are not named Maybin or Miller is going to be a star. In fact, the most upbeat adjective we heard about any of them from scouts we surveyed was "solid." But here's the good news:

If Maybin and Miller don't turn into stars, something is wrong.

"I've seen Miller since he was in high school," said one baseball executive who has scouted both players extensively. "And I think he'll be a dominant left-handed pitcher. And I love Maybin. He's the kind of athlete you just don't see very often in our game. So I think Florida got two outstanding players."

I'll tell you what. There are a lot of American League pitchers [and teams] getting real nervous -- and we're one of them.

-- Red Sox manager Terry Francona on the Tigers' projected lineup in '08

But they're also two outstanding players who are a long ways from making a monstrous impact. So who knows what names they'll find playing around them once they make their first All-Star team?

In Detroit, on the other hand, they'll pretty much be fielding an entire All-Star team next season. Think about this lineup.

The Tigers will have some combination of Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco and Edgar Renteria to rev up the engines.

They'll have Cabrera, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen to take charge of the run-production assembly line.

And their No. 8 (or possibly 9) hitter, Pudge Rodriguez, will be making $13 million.

"What's the difference between them and the Yankees?" mused White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "You've got to worry about how you pitch every one of them, 1 to 9. And they just added a Hall of Famer."

[+] EnlargeCameron Maybin
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesCameron Maybin, 20, hit .143 with one home run in 24 games with the Tigers last September.
That would be Cabrera, a fellow who has already made four All-Star teams and driven in 523 runs, even though he's still younger (24) than a lot of teams' prospects. As a matter of fact, he's younger than one of the prospects he was traded for: pitcher Burke Badenhop.

So this will be one tough, relentless lineup, packed with smart, experienced hitters who don't do much swinging and missing. The Tigers nearly scored 900 runs this season, with Sheffield hurting, with Rodriguez walking only nine times all year and with very little production out of left field.

Now they've added Cabrera and a shortstop who almost won the NL batting title (Renteria). So this might very well be the best lineup in baseball next season, bar none.

What's a little more uncertain is what to make of the effervescent Willis, who is coming off a semi-disastrous season (10-15, 5.17 ERA) that happened while pitching in the offensively challenged National League, in one of the best pitchers' parks in baseball.

"I think he was hurt, but now I think he's better," Guillen said. "When we played them, I thought there was something wrong with him. He was throwing like 85-84 [mph]. He got it back later, and he was fine. But when we faced him, he was frigging Jamie Moyer without the changeup."

An executive of one team that pursued Willis before the trading deadline said his club checked his medical reports and found nothing worrisome. So he predicted a bounce-back season.

[+] EnlargeDontrelle Willis
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSince going 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA in 2005, Dontrelle Willis is 22-27 with a 4.49 ERA.
"I know a lot of people are down on him, but I actually liked him," he said. "I think he's a guy who could turn his career around on a team like that. He wasn't the same guy. It wasn't the same stuff. But he still competed like crazy. I look at him as a guy who still has it in him.

"The big thing is, he had to be a different guy with the Marlins than he'll have to be with the Tigers. With some of that pressure off, I think he'll be better for it. And I think he's a guy who can really connect in that community."

That, however, is probably a claim no one can make about the Marlins. Any of them. On Tuesday, they found themselves merging into the same lane as the Tigers on the winter meetings highway.

But one memorable winter meetings blockbuster later, one team is roaring off north and the other is heading south -- in more ways than one.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and now is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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