Detroit Tigers: The Crumbling Foundation of Miguel Cabrera

The Detroit Tigers elected in 2014 to build their dream home using a long term contract for future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera as the mansion’s foundation.

In 2020, if age and injury to a player are the equivalents of water damage to a home’s crumbling foundation then the House of Miguel Cabrera has severe cracks in the foundation and the damaging leaks are feeling unstoppable.

Discussing the end-stage of an iconic player’s career isn’t all that enjoyable. Writing about Cabrera’s exploits in the first half of the last decade was much more fun. But we all see it, right? The following is just saying what has been in front of us for several seasons.

At the moment the signing was viewed as another Mike Ilitch thunderbolt showing aggression, loyalty, and fearlessness on the owner’s part. Cabrera was now going to be a Tiger through at least 2023 and he was excited to potentially finish his career in Detroit.

Cabrera was coming off a multi-season run of hitting excellence where he won just about any award you care to name not based on speed. MVPs, Silver Sluggers, batting titles, home run titles, and, of course, the coveted Triple Crown in 2012. Simply put, Miguel Cabrera was a master craftsman with a bat in his hands.

Towering moon shots to the pull field. A mere flick of his wrist to almost gracefully lift balls over the fence to the opposite field. Doubles up the gap made to order. Need a single to win? No sweat…a liner to right field coming up.

Ilitch decided to have general manager David Dombrowski get Cabrera locked up for good. It was Ilitch’s way. Most fans were happy about it too. But the move carried with it the risk all long deals carry. In this case, it was a commitment to the rest of Cabrera’s prime but also any decline phase whether it be short or long.

We all know, or at least are coming to grips with, the decline phase started much sooner than anyone would have dared guess on that Spring day in ‘14. In some ways, it started the first year.

Cabrera was good in 2014. He had a stretch in September while playing on a bum foot that was at times otherworldly. But the injuries were mounting. His streak of 7+ bWAR seasons ended with a 5.1 bWAR effort.

2015 and 2016 (likely his final good statistical year) were spent trying to stave off the effects of injuries while still maintaining a level of production at least partially befitting his past exploits. However starting in 2017, with seven full years left on his contract, the decay and decomposition of the legendary batsmen would start to overwhelm any remaining skill he had left in the tank.

Cabrera has been worth -0.8 bWAR since ‘17. The injuries have taken their toll on a man who flirted with physical fitness at times in his career but mostly embraced a low key form of a puffy dad-bod at times.

The COVID marred 2020 season saw Cabrera show up looking in excellent shape. Something he’d done before. It was hoped he’d be able to resurrect his bat with a move to the DH role to alleviate the physical burdens of playing defense.

Through 23 games of the truncated 60 game season, it hasn’t worked. Cabrera has answered the bell for each game but his production has cratered to troubling depths.

Batting exclusively in the 3-hole of Detroit’s lineup Cabrera is batting .181 with an OPS of a pitiful .611. Cabrera, once an extra-base machine, has exactly one double. Two of his four homers almost looked accidental. His inability to run has also allowed new defensive formations to play infielders in the short-outfield knowing they can use the added time to gobble up Cabrera’s long increasing number of groundballs and still easily throw him out. The situation looks barely tenable.

There are many who will find some statistics which point to signs of hope. Exit velocities, hard-hit percentages, launch angle, and others. But for every one of those, there are rebuttal numbers. They mostly center around being 37 years old and all the baggage the aging process carries. They also show a player less able to hit fly balls and more likely to pop up or hit grounders. A player far less able to handle pitches he offers at out of the strike zone than at his zenith. Cabrera is able to be overpowered by fastballs which then makes him vulnerable to off-speed offerings, unlike his better days.

When the deal was signed, it was easy to hope for a feel-good finish to Cabrera’s career like the one enjoyed by Boston’s David Ortiz. At worst perhaps after a few years of greatness, we might have to watch the contract wind down with at least semi-respectable “Albert Pujols as an Angel” level production. But to this point, it’s sunk lower than that.

Cabrera’s contract still has three years to run after 2020 at $30M per year. It will be the final large deal on the club’s sheet and the last massive Mike Ilitch contract the club will carry. Certainly, Cabrera could let the Tigers off the hook by retiring instead of struggling to the finish line. But why should he? If he still loves to play and still would enjoy pocketing the cash, he definitely should soldier on. They gave him this guarantee.

There seems to be a level of deference to Cabrera’s past greatness that inoculates him from steady criticism. The team is one of the worst in baseball over the course of his staggering decline has also masked over the depths to which his game has sunk. More time is spent by many fans on the lacking abilities of Jeimer Candelario and Victor Reyes in their eyes than on Cabrera.

It’s never fun to see the legends fade away. It’s always better to see them go out on top. Really very few truly do. Perhaps Detroit’s rebuild effort will yield a playoff run 2022 or 2023 for Cabrera to enjoy in some fashion as he turns 40.

Miguel Cabrera is the finest hitter I’ve ever seen in a Detroit uniform. His at-bats were events not be missed. He amazed us continually with skill and hitting smarts unparalleled by nearly anyone else.

Time marches on though and it’s not kind to us all too often. The House of Cabrera is leaky, worn, and weathered fixer-upper now. It has an unflippable cost attached to it as well. It’s a house in need of more than a new coat of paint.

Will there be small stretches of greatness harkening back to glorious days? Let’s hope. It’s possible even if they’re fleeting. There are three years left to look out for those moments.