Tiger Trade With Teeth

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At one-thirty in the afternoon on Dec. 4, while the rest of baseball was failing to live up to expectations of an active trade market, Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski was one phone call away from locking up the blockbuster of the season, an eight-player megatrade with Florida constructed from start to finish in a whiz-bang 17 hours. From suite D6090 of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Dombrowski dialed Tigers owner Mike Ilitch at his office in Detroit. The call was routed to Ilitch at his home.

"Mr. I," Dombrowski began, "are you sitting down?"

There was an excited chuckle on the other end from Ilitch, who took Dombrowski's caution literally.

"Wait, let me sit down," Ilitch replied, adding after a pause, "I thought you might give me a call like this. Go on...."

"We have a deal with Florida to get Miguel Cabrera," Dombrowski said, "and Dontrelle Willis."

Precisely two weeks earlier, Ilitch had called up Dombrowski at home after hearing reports that the Marlins intended to trade Cabrera, their 24-year-old four-time All-Star third baseman. Though the Tigers already had plenty of offense, Ilitch was interested in more. "If there's something you can do," Ilitch had told his G.M. then, referring to Cabrera, "maybe we push our situation and see if we can make it work."

But Cabrera and Willis? The third baseman and lefthanded pitcher would add about $20 million to Detroit's payroll, sending it near $120 million, a 26% jump from last season for a team with little room for revenue growth from ticket sales. (The Tigers sold 95% of their available tickets last season.) Additionally, the trade would cost them their first-round picks from the 2005 and '06 drafts, outfielder Cameron Maybin and lefthanded pitcher Andrew Miller, respectively, in whom the Tigers had invested a total of $6.1 million in bonus money.

What happened at the end of last week's phone call served as a reminder that doing business in the AL these days is like playing at a high-stakes baccarat table: You better bring a strong stomach and piles of cash. ("What's happening in the American League now," says one AL G.M., "is that when one of the big teams makes a move, you have to respond if you want to keep up.") Ilitch, 78, just pulled up a chair with the Yankees' Steinbrenner family, the Red Sox' John Henry and the Angels' Arte Moreno, whose teams ranked 1-2-3 in AL payrolls this year.

"Let's find a way to do this," Ilitch said.

The makings of the deal were hatched only late the previous night, when Detroit's assistant G.M., Al Avila, called Florida G.M. Mike Hill to inquire about Cabrera. When the Marlins asked for Miller and Maybin, the Tigers insisted that Willis be thrown into the mix too. By 9:30 the next morning Florida president Larry Beinfest had given Dombrowski a list of six names he wanted for Cabrera and Willis: Miller, Maybin, catcher Mike Rabelo and minor league pitchers Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz and Dallas Trahern.

There were about 20 team officials in the Tigers' suite then, including manager Jim Leyland, as Dombrowski and Avila prepared to leave for a two-hour G.M.'s meeting. Dombrowski instructed his staff to debate the merits of the deal while he was gone. Leyland even asked people in the room to draw up potential batting orders on a whiteboard. "All you experts put your lineup up now," he said, "because I know you're going to second-guess me when I make up mine."

When Dombrowski returned to the suite, he found such strong support for the deal that he never bothered dickering with Beinfest on the lesser prospects. With Ilitch's support, he agreed to exactly what Beinfest wanted, the almost unheard-of baseball version of no-haggle pricing. The Detroit contingent remained in D6090 for the rest of the day to ensure a self-imposed silence until all medical reports were exchanged. "Felt like a prisoner locked up," Leyland says.

The deal was announced the following day. In the next 36 hours the Tigers sold 750 new full season tickets, representing roughly a $2.5 million boost in revenue. Detroit will draw between 3.2 and 3.4 million fans next year to watch a lineup that should threaten the franchise record of 958 runs that has stood since 1934.

Since the end of last season, when it scored 887 runs, Detroit has replaced third baseman Brandon Inge and first baseman Sean Casey with Cabrera and shortstop Edgar Renteria (whose acquisition from Atlanta moves Carlos Guillen to first) for a net gain of 28 home runs and 51 RBI. Cabrera has raised concern among scouts with his defense and corpulence, but he is a bona fide masher at the plate. Through 720 career games his hitting (138 homers, 523 RBI, .313 average, .388 OBP and .542 slugging percentage) is comparable with that of Alex Rodriguez, when A-Rod was that age and had played a like number of games (169 HR, 533 RBI, .311/.372/.559). "I'm going to be in the best shape of my life," vows Cabrera, who said he already has dropped 15 pounds from last season's playing weight of 255.

History, however, suggests a high-horsepower offense won't be enough. Eleven teams since 1940 have scored 950 runs in a season, but only one of them, the '98 Yankees, won the World Series. Of the other 10 teams, four did not make the playoffs and the other six were 1-6 in postseason series.

Dombrowski, though, has confidence in a rotation in which each starter -- Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Kenny Rogers and Willis -- has thrown 200 innings in either, or both, of the past two seasons. Willis, with no known physical issues, bombed last season while losing velocity off his fastball. His 5.17 ERA was the fourth-worst in NL history by a lefthander with 200 innings. The Tigers, however, believe that Willis will benefit from increased run support, a superior defense and shedding the burden of having to be a No. 1 starter.

"He's pumped up," Leyland says. "He said he'd do absolutely anything we want him to do -- appearances, marketing, being active in the community, anything."

When the Tigers won the pennant in 2006, they were helped by about $25 million in revenue sharing that they'd received at the end of the previous season. "There's no question they are a success story of the revenue-sharing system," one AL G.M. says. "It kept them afloat."

Ilitch, who declined a request to be interviewed by SI, told Business Week in August that the pennant-winning 2006 season marked the first year he had made money since buying the team in 1992. Emboldened by his spend-money-to-make-money success, and by a taste of winning, Ilitch -- whose teams lost more games than any other from 1993 through 2005 -- has plowed more money into the franchise. Last August, he angered fellow owners when he stepped out of baseball's unofficial "slotting" system for draft bonuses and forked over a record $7.285 million for high school pitcher Rick Porcello, the 27th pick in the draft. Ilitch and the Tigers were convinced that the Yankees, holding the next pick, would have snapped up Porcello and paid a similar sum had Detroit played by commissioner Bud Selig's rules. "When you give up someone like Miller," says Dombrowski, "it helps to know you have someone like Porcello right behind him. His upside is as good as it gets -- a true Number 1, like a Verlander."

Just four years removed from a 119-loss season, the Tigers are a reflection of Ilitch's will to win and an economic and competitive force in baseball. That much was apparent at 6:15 Friday morning at a Detroit coffee shop. Dombrowski walked in and was greeted with handshakes and congratulations by a small crowd. Baseball at the crack of a winter's dawn in Detroit? Just the way Mr. I wants it.