Tigers Get Taste of Life without Miguel Cabrera Today

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For all the talk about Justin Verlander being in the MVP conversation this year, all the talk about how valuable an addition DH Victor Martinez has been, how impressive Alex Avila‘s month (and season) have been, the one constant for the Detroit Tigers this year has been first baseman Miguel Cabrera. The hulking slugger has played in every one of the Tigers 129 games so far this year, a streak that will be broken this afternoon. Cabrera will miss the game while on paternity leave, his wife was induced last night.

Cabrera is often overlooked by the national media, but also by the local guys. I’ll admit that I, myself, often take his contributions for granted. Cabrera has been so consistently good throughout his career that we’ve all just come to expect the numbers he puts up. Despite producing over 1500 hits, over 250 home runs, and a career .314 batting average through his age 28 season, Cabrera’s name is rarely mentioned when the televised talking heads are discussing the best hitters in the game.

Four times in his nine seasons, Cabrera has finished in the top-five of the MVP vote, including a runner-up finish last season. This year, Cabrera has been quiet, or so it would seem. No one is talking about him. If you didn’t take the time to look up the numbers, you’d assume that he is having a bad season. If you’re one of those who assumed that, you’re likely also in the group of folks that would chalk up Cabrera’s “struggles” to his tumultuous start to Spring Training.

Cabrera was on his way to Lakeland the night before he was to report to camp for the Tigers when his vehicle broke down. Reports have him drinking directly from a bottle of scotch as he spoke to police officers on the side of the road, reports say he threatened employees and patrons of a bar hours earlier. By the time he came to camp a week later, the focus was no only on his relapse into drinking habits that had gotten him in trouble before, but also on his massive size. Despite being listed at 240 pounds, Cabrera showed up looking considerably larger. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said in the wake of Cabrera’s arrest that he expected the slugger to have his best year ever at the plate this year. Skeptics wondered if he could avoid drinking (or eating) himself out of the league. They certainly wondered if he could keep himself on the field for the bulk of the 2011 season.

Cabrera missed the final week of the 2010 season with injury, leaving him with 150 games played last year. It was the lowest total in any of his seven full seasons. No other time has he played in fewer than 157 games. Durability, despite his Spring Training issues, has not been a problem for Cabrera. And neither has production.

If you look only at the hard numbers, you see a guy who had 45 doubles, 38 homers, and 126 RBI last season. This year, he’s collected 32 doubles, 23 homers, and 81 RBI so far. His batting average is down from .328 last year to .319 this season. His OPS is down from an amazing 1.042 to a “mere” .965 this season. Clearly, he isn’t duplicating the success he had a season ago, but there are very few players in the history of the game who can put up back-to-back seasons like the one he had last year.

In his first three seasons in Detroit, Cabrera was a one-man wrecking crew in the Tigers’ lineup. He was counted upon to carry the entire offensive load. The Tigers, as a team, failed to meet expectations in any of those years. The club spent this past offseason improving the overall balance of the order. When initial plans didn’t work, they made a handful of moves during the regular season to add depth to the lineup. The result has been an offense that ranks as the best in the Central division, and a lineup that no longer affords opposing pitchers the luxury of working around Cabrera without taking significant risks.

Cabrera ranks fifth in the league in batting average, one spot behind Victor Martinez – the man charged with providing protection for the big fella. He ranks second in the league in on base percentage at an amazing .426 this year, six points higher than last season. His slugging percentage is sixth and his OPS is second only to Jose Bautista. On top of that, Cabrera has walked more times this year than he has struck out and is only three walks behind his career-high number of 89 last season, 34 of those walks were intentional. This season, he has been intentionally walked just 17 times, a number that is just one behind the league leader.

While he hasn’t matched his numbers from last season, Cabrera has certainly been more than good enough to not only be mentioned among the game’s elite, but to be a serious contender for MVP again this year. Verlander is having a historic season and he deserves some MVP votes, but it’s Cabrera’s contributions, his presence, every single day that makes this entire offense work. When there’s traffic on the bases, he’s the guy who drives home the runs, and he’s getting on base at such a high rate himself that there remains traffic on the bases ahead of guys like Martinez and Avila as well.

I think Tigers fans understand how lucky they are to be able to watch Verlander take the ball every fifth day for their club, but far too few of us have an appreciation for the greatness that is Cabrera at the plate, and we get to see him every single day.

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