Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila was tilted back in a dentist's chair in South Florida, staring up at the blinding overhead light and wondering why his cellphone kept buzzing.
The phone grew so annoying that the dentist stopped scraping around his incisors to ask if he wanted to answer it. Avila let him finish, then checked the load of voice mails and text messages to learn that his team had just acquired one of the best hitters in baseball, Prince Fielder.
"It came out of nowhere," Avila said last week at Joker Marchant Stadium, the Tigers' spring-training home. "We did not see it coming, absolutely not. It was definitely surprising."
It stunned everyone. Manager Jim Leyland was "shocked, to be honest with you." Same for Miguel Cabrera.
The startling signing set Detroit up with arguably the most dangerous hitter combination in the game and possibly one of the greatest ever. It is also one of the most expensive, with Fielder due to make $214-million (all currency U.S.) over the next nine seasons, while Cabrera is halfway through an eight-year, $152-million deal. They will cost the Tigers an average of $42.8-million through 2016.
Are they worth it? Both are under 29. Cabrera led the majors with a .344 batting average last season. Fielder was fifth in home runs with 38. They were both in the top 10 in RBI and top four in walks.
Avila believes there is no better duo in baseball. He compared it to when the Red Sox had Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz from 2003 through 2007.
"Not yet," Cabrera said. "We've got to go out and do it."
Baseball logic says by pairing them together in the order with Cabrera third and Fielder behind him, the walk totals should drop and the power numbers should surge.
"They already had Miguel, so I figured I wasn't needed here," said Fielder, whose locker in Lakeland is two spots away from Cabrera's. "Once it became an option, it was pretty awesome.
"I think it's going to be good, but I'm not sure yet. He's a great hitter, and hopefully I can come here and help him out."
Fielder joined a team that already was good enough to go 95-67 and win the AL Central by 15 games last year. The Tigers bring back five all-stars from last season, including pitcher Justin Verlander, the AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner.
Fielder's agent was listening to offers from the Mariners, Cubs, Nationals and other teams – the Marlins never approached him, Fielder said – but the Tigers were quiet.
However, when the team lost Victor Martinez to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in January, it prompted the idea of signing Fielder to play first base and moving Cabrera from first to third, where he played for the Marlins in 2006 and 2007.
"They had Miguel, so I never thought it would be possible for us to be on the same team," Fielder said. "For him to be willing to make the switch to third and be able to play with him, that means a lot."
Cabrera committed 23 errors in 2007, which is why the Tigers put him at first base when they acquired him and one of the reasons why there is skepticism about his returning to that spot this season. Before signing Fielder, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said Cabrera at third base was not "a full-time option."
Derision about how clumsy he might be at third base made Cabrera laugh, but it also drove him during the off-season. He was listed (perhaps conservatively) at 6 foot 4, 240 pounds last season, but looked noticeably thinner in Lakeland.
"I'm 320 right now," he said jokingly, unsure how much weight he actually lost. He increased his off-season running regimen and cut back on fatty foods.
"I feel comfortable and I'm moving good, so I'm not looking to be in the best shape or focus on weight," Cabrera said. "I focus on working hard and I'll see what happens."
Fielder, listed at 5 foot 11, 275 pounds, has no plans to slim down, and nobody is asking him to change. All the Tigers care about is his posting something close to the .299 average, 38 home runs and 120 RBI he had with Milwaukee last year.
"I'm not into that stuff as much as everybody else is," Leyland said. "I want him to be whatever he's comfortable with. I want him to hit."
New York Times News Service