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Tigers, A.L. just got tougher

Cabrera becomes centerpiece of powerful lineup

Posted: Tuesday December 4, 2007 10:33PM; Updated: Wednesday December 5, 2007 8:15AM
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Miguel Cabrera adds another big bat to a potent Tigers lineup.
Miguel Cabrera adds another big bat to a potent Tigers lineup.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
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NASHVILLE -- If the Minnesota Twins had some thoughts about keeping ace Johan Santana through his walk year to compete in the American League, the Detroit Tigers just sent them a little memo: forget it. The Tigers, who scored more runs last season than any AL team this side of the New York Yankees, have added Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cabrera to their lineup without giving up any parts from what they planned to be their Opening Day team.

Consider the reaction Tuesday night of two different GMs, one from the AL and one from the NL, upon hearing that Detroit gave up six young players, headed by stud outfielder Cameron Maybin and lefthanded pitcher Andrew Miller, to get Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins:

AL GM: "This league is such a beast the sixth best team could beat anybody in the other league."

NL GM: "Yes! The NL just got even worse."

Two years ago the Tigers hadn't managed a winning season in the entire wild card era and were getting money handed to them from richer franchises in baseball's revenue sharing system. Now? With one pennant in their pocket, a record signing bonus to a high school pitcher that blew up Bud Selig's "slotting" system, and a lineup next season that could push 1,000 runs, they've officially joined the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians and Angels as premier teams. They might push $120 million in payroll -- it was $46 million as recently as 2004 -- and they're so loaded they'll probably carry a $6 million utility player, the new job for erstwhile third baseman Brandon Inge.

So the cycle continues. The AL keeps getting stronger because of this survival-of-the-fittest competition. NL teams can excuse their flaws by thinking, "Hey, we might be able to win 88 games, and that might be good enough to get in the playoffs."

AL teams face this reality: "We might spend more than one hundred million bucks, win 91 games -- and go home." Only one of the past 24 AL playoff teams (the 90-win Twins of 2003) won fewer than 92 games. Think you can backdoor into the AL wild card? Here are the win totals of AL wild card teams since 2001: 102, 99, 95, 98, 95, 95, 94. Reads like the seven-day forecast for Phoenix in July.

Cabrera and Renteria replace Inge and Sean Casey in the Tigers lineup. (Shortstop Carlos Guillen moves to first, replacing Casey in the field). That's two guys with OPSs of .963 and .860 replacing two guys with OPSs of .746 and .688. Manager Jim Leyland can go with a lineup that looks like this:

1. Curtis Granderson, cf
2. Placido Polanco, 2b
3. Magglio Ordonez, rf
4. Miguel Cabrera, 3b
5. Gary Sheffield, DH
6. Carlos Guillen, 1b
7. Edgar Renteria, ss
8. Jacque Jones, lf
9. Ivan Rodriguez, c.

Or Leyland can just pull the names out of a hat. Does it really matter?

"It's good," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said, "but the Yankees had the best offense last season, remember? What happened to them?"

The Twins are a nice little team with Francisco Liriano coming back healthy and the room to let Delmon Young grow into an impact hitter. They also scored just 718 runs last year and were next-to-last in slugging. They are in the wrong league to think it makes sense to keep Santana to make a playoff run. So where does Santana end up? With the Yankees or Red Sox, of course. Torii Hunter, Alex Rodriguez, Cabrera, Renteria, Santana ... the necessity to build 95-win juggernauts in the AL keeps driving major player acquisitions in the league.

A true hot stove winter

On Nov. 19, 1993, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded a 5-foot-11, 22-year-old righthander to Montreal to get one of the best young hitters in the game. Delino DeShields was 24 years old and already had 575 hits. It was a fascinating, pure talent-for-talent trade not driven by salary concerns. The Dodgers were worried that the kid pitcher might not be too durable. The kid pitcher, Pedro Martinez, turned out okay for Montreal.

Now check out a trade conversation that occurred Monday between San Francisco and Toronto: 5-foot-11, 23-year-old righthander Tim Lincecum for one of the best young hitters in the game, Alex Rios, who is 26 years old and has -- get this -- exactly 575 hits.

As of Tuesday night, the Jays were still waiting to hear again from the Giants. San Francisco won't move Matt Cain because it regards him as more durable in the long run. It is tempted to move Lincecum only because its lineup and system are so devoid of impact hitters. The Jays could wind up with possibly the best pure stuff overall of any rotation in the league (Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Lincecum, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum), or they could shop Burnett for a big outfield bat to replace Rios.

We've already seen the Twins move pitcher Matt Garza, 24, for outfielder Delmon Young, 22. The Giants are likely to have cold feet about moving Lincecum because his stuff is so electric -- Pedroesque at times. But thanks to underwhelming free agent choices, an old-fashioned hot stove winter with talent-for-talent trades may be back in vogue.