Revisiting the Tigers’ game-changing trade for Guillen

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Tigers’ turnaround from 119 losses in 2003 to an American League pennant three years later was a renaissance that changed the course of the franchise and set up a decade as largely a contender. Much of the spotlight falls on marquee free-agent signings Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. But amidst the power play on the market were trades that reinforced president/general manager Dave Dombrowski’s reputation as one of the shrewdest dealers in the game. None were bigger than the Carlos Guillen deal.

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the trade. A pivot move to address arguably the biggest weakness on Detroit’s roster became one of the most lopsided deals in franchise history, and it came together partly by circumstance.

Dombrowski spent the 2003 season evaluating the young talent stockpiled by former GM Randy Smith, including two well-regarded shortstops. Omar Infante was one of Detroit’s top prospects, a blossoming athlete and skilled hitter who debuted in Detroit at age 20 in 2002. Ramon Santiago was a switch-hitting slick fielder who debuted earlier that season and held his own, including his first Major League home run off Pedro Martinez.

Both got long looks in 2003, combining for negative-1.4 bWAR. The Tigers needed a series of upgrades to get back to competitive baseball, and shortstop was near the top of Dombrowski’s list.

How to upgrade was another matter. Despite owner Mike Ilitch’s resolve to pursue top free agents, Detroit wasn’t a popular destination. Former AL MVP Miguel Tejada was the best shortstop on the market and one of the top free agents at any position, but he signed a six-year, $72 million deal with the Orioles. Rich Aurilia was an All-Star in San Francisco, but at age 32, he was looking for a chance to win sooner than later.

Aurilia’s one-year deal with the Mariners became a blessing in disguise for the Tigers, because it pushed Guillen out of Seattle.

Guillen was a solid regular in Seattle, though not a star. The Mariners, who hired Bill Bavasi as GM following the 2003 season, were looking for an offensive upgrade to push them atop the AL West.

The Mariners tried to trade the 28-year-old Guillen to Cleveland for 36-year-old Omar Vizquel in mid-December, but the trade fell through after Vizquel’s physical. When Seattle pivoted to Aurilia, it needed another destination for Guillen.

Enter the Tigers, who packaged Santiago and another infield prospect, Juan Gonzalez (no relation to the former Tigers slugger). Aurilia’s signing and Guillen’s trade were announced on the same day.

“We’re very happy because we’ve been trying to add a shortstop throughout the winter,” Dombrowski said at the time. “Now our double-play combination is Carlos Guillen and Fernando Vina, and we feel encouraged about that.”

Vina was Detroit’s first signing of the offseason, agreeing to a two-year deal as a statement that the Tigers were serious about improving. He played just 29 games for Detroit before injuries ended his career.

Guillen, however, became a mainstay and an All-Star.

“The first moment when they traded me, I didn’t want to come here,” Guillen said after his retirement in 2012. “The scout who signed me to play professional baseball, [Andres Reiner], he called me and said, ‘You want to play for Dave Dombrowski and Alan Trammell. They’re good. I bet you they’re going to do their best to turn around the team.’ It made me feel different.

“I came here, not to teach everybody because they knew how to play baseball, but trying to put everybody on the same page, to believe in ourselves. That’s what I learned when I played in Seattle, because I was the younger guy and Ken Griffey Jr., Alex [Rodriguez] and Edgar [Martinez] were my teachers. I tried to do the things that they did for me.”

The Tigers improved by 29 wins from 2003 to ’04. Guillen led Detroit with a .921 OPS, 143 OPS+, 97 RBIs, 97 runs scored, 37 doubles and 4.6 bWAR, all career highs at the time. He earned his first of three All-Star selections. The Tigers signed him to an extension before he could think about free agency.

While Guillen’s defensive skills waned with age, his offense continued to blossom. He hit .320 in 2005 and ’06, and led the ’06 AL champions with 6.0 bWAR, a .920 OPS and 100 runs scored, falling a home run shy of a 20-20 season. He churned out 102 RBIs a year later, still the last 100-RBI season by a Tigers shortstop.

Aurilia lasted just a half-season in Seattle, batting .241 with 28 RBIs and a .641 OPS before he was traded to San Diego. Santiago played in just 27 games over two years with the Mariners before the Tigers signed him back as a free agent in 2006. He played in the World Series that fall. Gonzalez played a year and a half in the Mariners’ system before returning to the Tigers’ organization in ’05.

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