by | Dec 5, 2007 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Jim Leyland says he went to the winter meetings figuring he’d “get a little exercise.”

“And then …” he laughs, “boom!”

That boom is the sound of an early Christmas present crashing down the Detroit chimney. Miguel Cabrera, a four-time All-Star and one of the premier young hitters in baseball, and Dontrelle Willis, one of the top left-handed pitchers in the National League, are now Tigers.


Imagine what they might have done if they were looking for a trade.

Folks, this is a huge deal. An expensive deal. A bold deal. It’s the kind of deal that less nimble teams watch from the sidelines, wringing their hands like Hamlet.

But the Tigers are only interested in “to be” these days, not “not to be.”

“We came here thinking we’ve got a nice team, we’re not gonna do a lot,” Leyland said, “and all of a sudden this popped up.”

They grabbed it. Give him, Dave Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch credit. Yes, it’ll cost a chunk of dough, and, yes, they gave up a lot. Among the six young players surrendered in Tuesday’s trade were the Tigers’ top pitching prospect, Andrew Miller, 22, and their top hitting and outfield prospect, Cameron Maybin, 20. They represent the Tigers’ top picks in the 2005 and ’06 drafts. They could grow into stars.

But the key word is “could.” Miller and Maybin, as gleaming as their futures are, have yet to do what Cabrera and Willis already have done – stand out at the major league level.

Besides – and this is the key to the whole thing – Cabrera, 24, is only four years older than Maybin, and Willis, 25, is only three years older than Miller.

Boom. The purpose of prospects

“It’s a big one, no doubt about it,” Leyland said by phone from Nashville, Tenn., trying to quell his excitement, “but we don’t think 24-year-old superstars come along very often. You can wait a lifetime to get a player like Cabrera.

“We gave up a lot, but you’re supposed to give up a lot to get a superstar.”

Exactly. Look. There is a natural tendency to fret over trading young prospects. Ever since Doyle Alexander came for John Smoltz in 1987, Detroiters chew their fingernails whenever a prospect packs his bags.

But you’re looking at it the wrong way. Prospects are like money. You earn money through hard work – in this case, good scouting and good player development, which the Tigers finally have – and then you take that money and spend it. You spend it now or you spend it later.

Having prospects is what allows you to trade for guys like Cabrera, Willis and, earlier this fall, shortstop Edgar Renteria. In many ways, prospects are a better currency to have than star players, because moving a star for a star is often harder than moving one for a gaggle of prospects. Teams looking to move stars often are trying to save money or build for the future. To take on a new, expensive superstar in place of an existing one is often a foolish move.

So the Tigers have been rich – prospect rich – and they just spent a good deal of their “currency” to build a team that can win now.

That’s OK. It’s what you do.

It’s especially what you do when the players you are getting are in their mid-20s.

Boom. A lineup with zing

Here is a snapshot of Cabrera. Since his 22nd birthday, he has not hit less than .320 a season, not driven in fewer than 114 runs and averaged 31 home runs. That’s the kind of trajectory he is on. He’s a third baseman, and if there’s a knock on him at all it’s that he has a tendency to put on weight. “I’m not too worried about that,” Leyland said.

For one thing, reports are he has lost a chunk of it. Besides, you know the guys who balloon up in weight? They’re usually guys playing on teams that are out of it.

The Tigers plan to be in the thick of it. With good friend Carlos Guillen in the clubhouse, and the generally good team chemistry a Leyland clubhouse provides, Cabrera should have subtle pressure from teammates – not to mention renewed enthusiasm.

Remember, taking a player off the Marlins these days is like throwing him a life preserver.

As for Willis? He was rookie of the year in the NL four years ago. Two years ago, he led the majors with 22 victories and was runner-up for the Cy Young Award. His high-kicking style makes his deliveries even tougher for batters to read. He’s fun to watch. And if he has broken down late in the season in previous years, well, he won’t be asked to carry the load in Detroit the way he might have been in Florida.

So it’s a big deal. A huge deal. But if you want to play with the big boys for whom money is not an issue (if the Yankees sign Johan Santana, they may give out nearly a half-billion in salaries this off-season), you have to make big deals.

The Tigers’ lineup – with Cabrera, Renteria, Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Placido Polanco, Pudge Rodriguez, Jacque Jones and Curtis Granderson – is shaping up to be a brick-smasher. And with Willis, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and recently re-signed Kenny Rogers, well, nothing shabby about that rotation.

“It’s a feather in the cap of the farm systems that we could make this trade,” Leyland said. “To me, the scouting director is the hero of the night.”

But that “boom” is the memory of it. Happy early Christmas, Tigers fans.

How long until April?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will discuss his latest movie, “For One More Day,” today on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (4 p.m., Channel 7 in Detroit). The movie debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC (Channel 7). He will sign books for the holidays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills, 7:30 p.m. next Thursday at Borders in Farmington Hills and 8 p.m. next Friday at Barnes & Noble on Monroe Street in Toledo. www.freep.com/mitch.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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