"I was definitely caught off guard," Willis said Wednesday evening, "because I was five minutes into my trip in Mexico."
Willis is still in Mexico, told by his new employers to enjoy the rest of his vacation. The Tigers were caught off guard themselves, but they're feeling pretty good about their work.
It's a move that shakes the direction of the franchise down to the now-thin farm system, changing Detroit from a team built to contend for many years to a team expected to win now. But in acquiring left-handed starter Willis and slugging third baseman Miguel Cabrera from Florida for six young players, headed by top prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, president/general manager Dave Dombrowski believes the return gives his team a chance to win now and later.
"We made this trade to win now. I mean, it's obvious," Dombrowski admitted. "However, I don't buy the thing that you're in a position where you're only going to win for a couple years. You might only win with the makeup of this club for a couple years, but it doesn't mean that this piece can't be added or that piece can't be added. And once you're successful and you have a revenue source, you can replace players. People are open-minded to come to you. They're open-minded to sign to your club.
"But also, this trade, we got younger, our big league club. We got Cabrera, who's 24, and Willis, who's 25. We have Curtis Granderson, who's in his 20s, and we have [Justin] Verlander, and we have [Jeremy] Bonderman, with Zumaya hopefully coming back and there's some other guys in their early 30s. There's still, I think, a real good core of players."
Both Cabrera and Willis are eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, and eligible for salary arbitration this winter. The Marlins did not grant a negotiating window for longer-term contracts, but Dombrowski said, "We'll be open-minded to the [contract] potential for the future."
Considering how quickly the deal came together, there was barely a chance to talk contracts amidst all the prospects. While the interest started when Ilitch called Dombrowski two days before Thanksgiving, the talks didn't heat up until this Tuesday morning.
The call was neither complicated or demanding. As Dombrowski described it on Wednesday, the owner called him at home -- something that Dombrowski said doesn't happen often -- after reading reports that Cabrera was on the trading block. Ilitch asked if they had interest, which the Tigers did, and Ilitch suggested that Cabrera was a guy they could push to acquire.
It's the same kind of impetus Ilitch provided in free-agent talks with Ivan Rodriguez four years ago and Magglio Ordonez a year later.
"Not to say that we didn't have interest," Dombrowski said, "but Mike Ilitch calling and saying, 'Why don't you see if you can be open-minded to that, if there's something we can work out,' [that] kind of inched it along a little bit."
Inches didn't turn to bounds until the Tigers and Marlins were at these Winter Meetings, and trade discussions between Florida and the Angels had seemingly stalled. Dombrowski gathered with his group in his suite late on Monday evening and mulled over the idea of making a push for Cabrera, leaving prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller off a list of untouchables.
Once they got an idea that Florida wanted both players, they had to debate how far to get into this. That's where the idea of adding Willis came into play.
"Then the next morning after some of our people had visited, [Marlins general manager] Larry [Beinfest] called me and basically proposed these six names for Cabrera and Willis," Dombrowski said. "So it took some time to get back to him."
It was a more massive deal than the Tigers could've envisioned. And as Leyland characterized it, it was a deal that created a lot of stress as team officials bunkered in. However, finances were not a part of the discussion.
"It wasn't a no-brainer," Leyland said. "Believe me, this was a brainer. This was not easy. I mean, I usually don't get too nervous or excited about trades or free-agent signings, but this one, I was shook up a little bit. This was big."
And it was a move that could have a lasting stamp on the organization, not to mention the respective tenures of Dombrowski and Leyland in Detroit. Though there was plenty of debate, Leyland said the opinion in the room to pursue the package was unanimous.
"I know the thought process and I agree with it to an extent in today's game, how you can't give up prospects," Dombrowski said. "I understand that, but I don't necessarily agree with that. Because if you don't give players up, you're not going to get players. I don't know where this thing started where you are going to get players that are good players and not give anything up. It doesn't happen.
"Believe me, I didn't want to give up Andrew Miller. I didn't want to give up Cameron Maybin. The other guys, we liked a lot, too. But you've got to give something to get something, and I think that's our philosophy. ... I hope I'm watching Miller and Maybin play in All-Star Games down the road. We traded some good players, but you've got to give good players to get players back. If you're happy with what you get, then you've got to make moves like that."
While Leyland said he plans to hit Cabrera somewhere between third and fifth in the lineup, the Tigers are happy with the idea of playing Cabrera at third base. He can also play first base, Dombrowski mentioned, but he will not be used in left field. In so doing, the move displaces incumbent Brandon Inge, whose tenure of more than three seasons at third base was the longest of any current Tiger starting at one position except for Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate.
When the Tigers signed Rodriguez in 2004, he moved Inge from catcher to utility man. Cabrera's arrival has apparently moved Inge to the trading block. Team officials spent Wednesday gauging interest from teams in the longest-tenured current Tiger. The Phillies have been rumored as one such team, while the Dodgers, Angels and others believed to be seeking a third baseman could join in.
Asked about where Inge fits on the Tigers, Dombrowski said, "We have to discuss Brandon's situation a little bit more."
Cabrera's weight was a lingering issue last year in Florida, and he made more errors at third than Inge while posting a lower fielding percentage and range factor. However, both Dombrowski and Leyland expressed faith in Cabrera's ability at the hot corner, especially after receiving reports that Cabrera has lost 15 pounds since season's end.
"We think he can play third," Dombrowski said. "He has soft hands. He has a strong arm. Of course, he doesn't have the [same] range [as before]. He's a little bit heavier. I think it'll be important for him when he's in shape. He'll be a little more nimble and agile at that point."
Said Leyland: "One thing I like about him, from what I understand, is that he's a real proud player. He's a real good practice player. He works hard. He wants to play all the time. And that's exciting. When you've got star players that want to play all the time, that's a big bonus for your ballclub."
Cabrera, for his part, said he'll play wherever the Tigers want him to. To that end, he plans on arriving in shape.
"I'm working hard, because I worried about that. I want to be ready for next season," he said. "I want to be in the best shape of my life. I'm working in Miami, working in Venezuela. I want to be in great shape."
Where Willis fits in, of course, is easier. The Tigers had one spot in the rotation open for a Spring Training competition, and Willis' arrival closes that. While Dombrowski cited Willis' workhorse pitching as something that will ease the burden on the bullpen -- he has averaged 215 innings a season over the last four years -- he believes a change of scenery can help out the 25-year-old after being in almost a must-win situation as Florida's ace the last few years.
As for the Tigers' seemingly must-win situation, Dombrowski and Leyland both understand the expectations, even as they say they're likely done adding to a payroll that is already approaching $120 million without counting arbitration raises or a cost-cutting trade.
"We have a good team," Dombrowski said. "I learned a long time ago that you put the club together, you feel good about the club, [but] you never know what's going to happen. And this club gives us a chance to win. What ends up happening, time will tell."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.