Published Jan. 26, 2019
He is, in many ways, the Tigers’ last man standing. Ironically, Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been able to remain upright in recent years.
It’s the perils of being an aging, big man.
It befell Willie Horton, beloved by Tigers fans but another hulking figure whose body often betrayed him. Willie was always pulling or tearing something, and it seemed to always interrupt a good year that no. 23 was having.
Cabrera is the Tigers’ lone star. The lack of a trade market for Nick Castellanos is further proof of that. Nick is a nice player, but he’s not a true star. Not yet.
Sound in mind, but not in body
Once again, Cabrera said all the right, positive, optimistic things as the Tigers’ annual winter caravan got rolling this week. He talked of how healthy he feels, after another season—for the third time in the last four years—got derailed due to injury, leading to season-ending surgery.
He talked of being eager to get back on the field. He said he doesn’t care where manager Ron Gardenhire puts him—first base or DH—as long as he’s in the lineup. He missed baseball last year, being confined to his sofa after mid-June.
Cabrera will be 36 in April and it’s a testament that he still possesses that boyish enthusiasm for the game, despite the gobs of money that he’s being paid—some $154 million still to go between now and 2023.
No one will accuse him of malingering. I certainly won’t. Cabrera’s aches and pains have been real. He hasn’t milked a thing, as far as I know. He’s played hurt as a Tiger more than we care to believe.
Ah, that word: believe.
As in, we want to believe that Miggy Cabrera will stay as healthy as he is wealthy for the 2019 season and beyond. We want to believe that the injury-prone stretch in recent years is over and done with—something that won’t be repeated.
But professional athletes and the calendar aren’t always simpatico. Father Time usually doesn’t give a damn about the romance between player and fans. He can be a cruel bastard, quite frankly.
‘One of the greatest hitters I’ve ever seen’
I feel for Gardenhire. For years he’s seen Cabrera terrorize his Minnesota Twins, and now that he has the chance to manage the guy, Gardy has instead been saddled with a broken down version of a once great player.
“If anyone can come back [from surgery] and play at a Hall of Fame level again, he can,” Gardenhire told the media last week, pointing to Cabrera on the other side of the room. “He’s one of the greatest hitters I’ve ever seen. We need him.”
Gardenhire wants to believe as well. You can hardly blame him. For without Cabrera, the Tigers are perhaps the least talented team in all of the major leagues. Even with Cabrera, they’re pretty close to that status.
The beauty of baseball in the year’s first quarter is that hope abounds. Any ugliness from the previous season can, even if albeit briefly, be forgotten. The game’s emotional tug allows for optimism, no matter how foolhardy it may be.
Sadly, I think it is indeed foolhardy to count on Miguel Cabrera.
He’s not to be trusted. And I don’t mean his will, or his effort, or his attitude. Those are all top drawer.
Even before his body began to betray him, Cabrera turned into a less powerful hitter. His slugging percentage numbers since 2013 have been good, but not great. In 2017 and 2018 combined, he slugged barely over .400.
But Cabrera does have Comerica Park going in his favor. Even if his days of 40-plus home run seasons are behind him (and they are), CoPa plays well for his gap-to-gap line drives, even if he ends up at second base instead of third, like speedy players often do in Detroit.
A true warrior
“I want to be dangerous,” Cabrera said as the caravan’s engines idled.
But the only thing about Cabrera that has been dangerous in recent years is the game’s danger to his body. Last year it was a routine swing in the batter’s box that shelved him.
We’ve heard Cabrera talk about health before. It’s almost becoming a rite of winter.
No one should doubt that Miggy’s mind and heart are in the right place. He’s been a true warrior in a sports town that has been needy in that area for too long.
But he’s going to be 36. His best days are behind him. We will likely never again see the Cabrera that thrilled us for so many summers.
Some optimists have pointed to Justin Verlander’s renaissance in his later years as an example of how foolish it can be to write someone off.
With all due respect to JV, a pitcher who takes the mound every fifth day doesn’t subject his body to the same wear and tear as an everyday position player.
I don’t think that it’s foolish to want to believe that Miguel Cabrera’s injury troubles are behind him. Without him, the Tigers will be extremely difficult to watch.
Believe all you want. Baseball is the perfect sport for that in the off-season. Just don’t count on it. Don’t set yourself up for more disappointment.
I fully respect and admire Miguel Cabrera’s heart and mind.
I just don’t trust his body.