The love affair between the Tigers, their fans, and Miguel Cabrera has been a baseball romance. That relationship is built on the four batting titles, two MVP awards, baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years, four division titles and a trip to the World Series. Ever since Miggy said “I do” to the Tigers, the team has been relevant.
But the marriage is on the rocks, and that means a split may be on the horizon. Even with all of his accomplishments in a Tigers’ uniform, the cost of Cabrera might be too much for the team to bear any longer.
In 2016, the Tigers signed the defending bating champion to an eight-year contract worth $240 million. Five years remain on that deal (not counting two option years), with Miggy still owed $154 million. The change in mood surrounding this team from when that deal was announced and now is stark.
In 2015/16, the Tigers were coming off four straight division titles, they had one of baseball’s best pitchers on their roster in Justin Verlander. Today, the team is coming off two straight years of 90+ losses, and Verlander is wearing a Houston cap.
Cabrera’s fortunes have changed too, at least on the diamond. In the first year of his new contract, Miggy had another great season, batting .316 with 38 homers and 108 RBI. He was the heart of the lineup as always, collected his 2,500th career hit, his 1,500th career RBI. Cabrera finished ninth in AL MVP voting, the 14th straight year he received at least one vote for an MVP award.
But the 2017-18 seasons were dreadful for Cabrera. In ’17, he played through an injury he suffered in the World Baseball Classic during spring training. The team finally shut him down in September, after we learned what Miguel Cabrera would look like at 60 percent health. Playing on a bad leg and a sore back, Cabrera hit .249 with only 16 home runs. Last year, Cabrera worked hard in the offseason to strengthen his body, trained with the gym rat who works with Lebron James. He reported to Lakeland looking leaner and stronger. In April, Miggy hit the ball well, on the 28th he hit a home run and had five RBI against Baltimore. As the month ended his batting average was just about at his career mark, .326 with renewed power.
Then on June 12, Cabrera took a swing in a game at Comerica Park and felt a sharp pain in his left arm. He left the field clutching his arm. The bad news came the next day: Miggy had torn his left biceps and would miss the rest of the season. Surgery followed.
“He feels like he’s letting people down,” manager Ron Gardenhire said when the injury was announced, “He’s a warrior. He feels terrible that he’s letting the team down. I have total respect for that man. He’s a hell of a baseball player.”
Cabrera has been a warrior. This fact has been lost on a segment of fans who have a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” mentality. In 2013, Cabrera played two months with a leg injury, but on one leg he still won the batting title and hit 44 home runs. He won his second straight MVP. In ’15 he won his last batting title despite an injury other players would have not played through. In his first nine years as a Tiger, Cabrera averaged 153 games per season. He prides himself on being in the lineup for his team. Yet, some fans have piled on Cabrera the last two years as age and years of playing nearly every day has taken a toll. This sort of piling on is unbecoming of Detroit sports fans, but it seems to be par for the course in modern times.
Cabrera noticed the criticism and he finally had enough. After years of leaving everything he had on the field, years of playing when he was hurt because he felt it was his responsibility to play when he was being paid so much, Miggy finally started to see it differently.
“Nobody appreciates you when you play hurt, so I’m going to take my time and play when I’m good,” Cabrera said before the 2018 season. “I played hurt a lot of years here in Detroit. They don’t appreciate that. When you are doing bad, they crush you. They crush you. They say you’re bad, you should go home, you don’t deserve anything, you’re old. I say, ‘OK, I’m done playing hurt.’ Now I take my time.”
The Tigers are in full rebuild mode. Does it make sense to bring Cabrera back at his price tag at this stage of his career? Would another team take the former two-time MVP of their hands?
Let’s tackle the first question first. Last week the Mariners dished second baseman Robinson Cano to the Mets and in return the Mets swallowed $100 million of the $120 million owed on his contract. The Seattle front office must feel like Christmas came a few weeks early after dumping Cano, who was suspended for 80 games this past season for failing a drug test. At 36 years old with all that money still guaranteed, Cano was a bad contract and a bad egg. Now he’s a headache the Mets have to deal with.
The Cano trade is a blueprint for an exit strategy the Tigers could take in regards to Miguel Cabrera. But the first question remains: should the Tigers dump Miggy?
The resounding answer to that question is NO. The Detroit Tigers are not better off by dumping Cabrera. Sure, most of the rest of the lineup looks like a Triple-A team, but Cabrera belongs in a Detroit uniform as he plays the last years of his career. Not just because it’s the right thing to do for fans who want to see Miggy get his 3,000th hit and 500th home run while wearing the Old English D, but because Cabrera is a great hitter when he’s healthy. There’s no reason to believe the injuries of the last few seasons are a sign that Cabrera is damaged beyond repair. Will he bounce back? We don’t know, but I’d bet on it. Is he an MVP candidate? No, but he can hit .300 and get 25-35 balls into the seats. He can drive in 100 runs in his sleep.
The Tigers stink now. They chose to take this path, they chose to tear it all down and start from scratch. They could have retooled by writing a few more checks to keep J.D. Martinez. They could have kept Justin Verlander, who continues to march his way to Cooperstown from Texas. They could have continued to strive to be competitive while also investing in younger players in the farm system. They didn’t do that, they ripped the hearts out of fans by trading Verlander, trading Ian Kinsler, trading J.D. the year before. Hell, even the non-offer to Max Scherzer a few years ago was a signal that the Ilitch camp wasn’t going to keep their foot on the pedal.
Fair enough, the Tigers stink and they want to stink so they can “play the kids” and get draft picks. But how about keeping one star, one reminder of the grand old days? How about keeping one of the greatest righthanded hitters in history? The guy Al Kaline calls “the best I’ve ever seen.”
A lot of relationships start red hot and end ice cold. The marriage between the Tigers and Miguel Cabrera doesn’t have to end in a nasty divorce. For years the guy carried the team, he gave everything he had to this team, his teammates, and the city. That’s the sort of dedication and loyalty you want to have around.