Deal of lifetime: How Tigers landed Cabrera in '07, changed everything

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press
Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera takes batting practice during spring training at Joker Marchant Stadium on Feb. 28.

MIAMI – Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch hardly ever called Dave Dombrowski’s house phone. So when he did around Thanksgiving time in 2007, the former Tigers general manager knew his longtime boss had something important to say.

“I remember him calling and he says, ‘Well, I see this guy’s available. Do you have interest?’ ” Dombrowski said.

Dombrowski said he’d love to have Miguel Cabrera on his baseball team.

But before that trade that brought Cabrera from Miami to Detroit, the Tigers of yesteryear were still a long way from morphing into the Tigers of today, a club that carries a payroll close to $200 million with an owner who continues to chase an elusive World Series championship with a nearly open checkbook.

The Tigers, once upon a time, had financial limitations. And heading into the off-season in 2007, a couple of weeks before the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., they were near those limitations, Dombrowski told him.

“And he basically said, ‘Well, why don’t you see what we can do.’ ”

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Going home to Miami

Miguel Cabrera returns to his old home today, hitting cleanup and playing first base for the Tigers, a team he will, in all likelihood, end his career with. When that career is over, he will, in all likelihood, wear their hat into the Hall of Fame.

Cabrera, who turns 33 in a couple weeks, is the best hitter in baseball.

He was on the precipice of becoming the best hitter in baseball back in 2007, as a 24-year-old third baseman with the Marlins who was named to the National League All-Star team in each of his first four full seasons.

The Marlins’ front office, which had signed Cabrera as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in 1999 when Dombrowski was with the team, was well aware of the potential he carried. The Marlins couldn’t foresee him becoming a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, or winning baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years — which he did in 2012 — but, recalling his first sights of Cabrera swinging the bat, Dombrowski said recently, “He was doing things with the bat that people at 16 don’t do.”

Tigers general manager Al Avila, who helped the Marlins sign Cabrera in 1999, said simply: “Special. Very special.”

So when word spread throughout the baseball world that the Marlins, then a penny-pinching team, were seeking to trade Cabrera, then two years removed from a lucrative free-agent contract, Ilitch made note — perhaps as early as September of the previous season — and with the Tigers nearly maxed out on cash, told Dombrowski to see what he could do.

“He thought maybe we could push things in this case for a player like this,” Dombrowski said. “And that’s what really pushed it along.”

Then-general manager Dave Dombrowski talks with Miguel Cabrera before an interleague game in 2014.

‘We better be right’

Tigers scout Mike Russell was standing in line, waiting to check into the Opryland Hotel and Resort on the eve of the 2007 winter meetings when he felt a tap on the shoulder.

It was Dan Jennings, the Marlins’ assistant general manager.

They were said to be deep in negotiations with the Angels at the time. They had talked to the Dodgers, too.

“He said, ‘Hey, you got a minute?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘You know, I think the thing with the Angels fell apart, do you think you guys would be interested?” Russell recalled. They would be, Russell said, but he wasn’t going to send the information up the ladder if it wasn’t real interest. Jennings assured him it was, the Marlins people got in touch with the Tigers people — first, Avila talked with Marlins assistant general manager Mike Hill, then Dombrowski talked with Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest — and soon thereafter, holed up in the team’s hotel suite at the beginning of a two-day lockdown marathon, swapped names.

“The six names they gave us were the six names we gave them,” Dombrowski said.

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When Avila received those names from Hill, “I felt it was a fair ask for Miguel Cabrera at the time,” he said. The Tigers’ two top prospects, left-handed starting pitcher Andrew Miller and centerfielder Cameron Maybin, both ranked among the best prospects in baseball, would have to be included. The other names: Pitchers Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie de la Cruz, and catcher Mike Rabelo.

After establishing such common ground early, things picked up speed quickly, unbeknownst to the rest of the baseball world, who rummaged about in the resort, Cabrera still the hot topic at the time.

“We didn’t want other people and other clubs to then get involved,” Dombrowski said. “Because we weren’t even a well-known club that was involved in it at the time because everybody really had been reading about the Angels and other teams.”

The team didn’t want their scouts in the lobby, accessible to reporters or other teams who might be privy to their accelerating talks to land Cabrera.

“It was a situation where we were very conscientious of not opening ourselves up where other people might jump in on us,” Dombrowski said.

But by Monday morning, the Tigers were all-in on the Cabrera sweepstakes.

“We sat around and talked and some people said, maybe we shouldn’t, I don’t want to give up this guy or I don’t want to give up that guy, and I remember at the time listening to everybody talk,” Dombrowski said.

One of those guys was chief legal counsel John Westhoff, who remembered thinking, “We’re giving up six guys here. We better be right.” The trade taught Westhoff a lesson: “It’s not always quantity, but quality.”

There were differing opinions — none strong enough to say they shouldn’t trade for Cabrera — and as they talked, Dombrowski spoke up.

“I said, ‘You know what? This is too big of a deal and we like this guy too much and we’ve got a chance to get him,’ ” he recalled. “Let’s not make this complicated. Let’s just tell them we’ve got a deal.”

Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera singles on a line drive during an exhibition game at Joker Marchant Stadium on March 1.

A big payroll ahead

The deal, which was verbally agreed to sometime on Monday, didn’t come without complications. The biggest of which was the superstar slugger’s contract status.

Cabrera was eligible for free agency two years later, and the Tigers weren’t trying to trade for a two-year rental. They were trading for a franchise player.

Once negotiations had gotten to the point where a deal seemed imminent, the discussions between Dombrowski and Ilitch picked up.

They were numerous, in private, inside his bedroom in the team’s suite.

They were trying to put numbers together, how much salary they were taking on and how much attendance could increase to support those numbers, and most important, what a contract extension for Cabrera would look like.

The Tigers were also required to take on lefty starter Dontrelle Willis, who, like Cabrera, was due a big payday soon. The potential move would represent the second latest move in the organization’s progression to becoming a big money player in baseball.

When those financial figures were ironed out, with their future franchise player within an arm’s reach, “Go for it,” Ilitch told Dombrowski. “Let’s do it.”

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‘It took a lot of guts’

The Tigers officially acquired Miguel Cabrera on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007.

The mood inside the team’s suite, which had served as the front office’s home for that two-day period, was “ecstatic,” Avila said.

“I think needless to say it was a very happy moment,” Russell, who now works for the Diamondbacks, said. “Maybe a little bit of disbelief that we were able to do it and a relief.”

That moment of landing a once-in-a-generation type player, still years away from his prime, in which he performed at a level higher than anybody’s high expectations, was, “Just one of those moments,” Dombrowski said.

“I’m thinking to myself, we’re getting one of the best players on the continent for Christ’s sake,” former manager Jim Leyland said.

They jumped up and down and high-fived each other and shook hands. They were overdue for a stiff drink at the hotel bar and when they arrived, there was a buzz around the Tigers front office men who stealthily swooped in and traded for Cabrera.

“It took a lot of guts for Mr. I to believe us, because he had to know that we were going to re-sign this guy to a major contract,” Russell said.

The Tigers signed Cabrera to an eight-year extension that spring, worth $153.3 million. After another lucrative, long-term extension in 2014, he is now signed for $178 million until 2021.

“Mr. I was more than willing to do whatever it took to make him a Tiger for as long as he could, and that’s what he did,” Russell said. “He stepped up.”

And today, Ilitch’s efforts will be once again on full display as Cabrera steps into the box to start the next chapter of his career, the one-time Marlin taking his swings in a Tigers uniform, after the owner called his general manager’s house and asked him to see what he could do.

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Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera throws his bat towards the dugout after being walked during an exhibition game against Florida Southern at Joker Marchant Stadium on Feb. 29.

Baseball returns

Season opener

Matchup: Tigers at Miami Marlins

When: 7:10 tonight

Where: Marlins Park

TV: Fox Sports Detroit

Tigers starting pitcher: Justin Verlander

Home opener

Matchup: Tigers vs. New York Yankees

When: 1:10 p.m. Friday

Where: Comerica Park

TV: Fox Sports Detroit, Channel 2 in Detroit

Tigers starting pitcher: Jordan Zimmermann