Miguel Cabrera is one of the greatest Detroit Tigers ever. He’s among the franchise leaders in Batting Average, Hits, Doubles, Home Runs, Runs Scored, RBIs, and WAR.
In his 13 seasons with the Tigers Miguel Cabrera has been to seven All-Star games, earned five Sliver Slugger Awards, taken home two MVP Awards, and become just the 15th player ever to win a Batting Triple Crown. He’s done more with the team than its owners and fans could ever ask for.
But at some point in the near future, the Detroit Tigers will have to sit Miguel Cabrera down permanently, or simply pay him to leave.
This story is inspired by the situation the Detroit Pistons currently find themselves in with Blake Griffin, who for the last three years has played his home games about a quarter of a mile from Miguel Cabrera’s office at Comerica Park.
If you’re unfamiliar with what’s happening, our friends at PistonPowered and Hoops Habit have just about every angle covered. But all you really need to know is the rebuilding Detroit Pistons and Griffin have come to an agreement for him to stop playing, in lieu of being traded or released.
Griffin’s relatively short tenure in Detroit means he doesn’t have quite the local cachet of Miguel Cabrera, but otherwise the two players are strikingly similar.
They were both legitimate superstars who came to Detroit in blockbuster trades. They both make $30+ million a year. And they’ve both suffered steep declines in their performance due to injury issues, particularly with their knees.
But now both players are shells of their former selves. Griffin was excellent in his first full season with Detroit, but he’s played the worst basketball of his career the last two seasons. Cabrera has been one of the worst regulars in baseball over the past four seasons.
Griffin, sensing the end of his pro career, would certainly like another chance at playing for an NBA title. And the rebuilding Pistons want to give more playing time to interesting young forwards like Svi Mykhailiuk, Sekou Doumbouya, and Saddiq “Saginaw” Bey (that jumper is wet).
The question is, when will the Detroit Tigers and Miguel Cabrera come to a similar understanding?
Miguel Cabrera Milestones
This is where the similarities between our two stars end. The Detroit Tigers are rebuilding, but they aren’t to the point where they can simply jettison a franchise icon because they have available replacements. And besides, they have some financial reasons to keep Cabrera.
There may be 10 players who produce a higher WAR on the Detroit Tigers in 2021, but none of them are staring down history. Miguel Cabrera is just 13 home runs away from reaching 500 for his career, and 134 hits away from 3,000. He would be just the 7th player ever to reach both milestones.
The Tigers would certainly love to take advantage of those accomplishments to spur ticket sales and move merchandise. But beyond any cynical financial motives, the organization would keep Miguel Cabrera around to reach those historic numbers simply because he deserves to — if they cut him now there’s no guarantee another team would give him a chance.
Once Cabrera reaches those numbers, the reasons to keep him around grow thin. His childlike enthusiasm on the field is endearing, and he’s one of the most intelligent hitters of all time. Letting him impart wisdom and keep the team loose could provide some measure of value to a young team.
But there are only so many spots on the roster, and if the Detroit Tigers are serious about contending in the near future, they will have to upgrade in as many places as possible.
Miguel Cabrera’s Contract
This is another area where the Griffin and Cabrera comparison begins to fray. Contracts in the NBA and Major League Baseball are both fully guaranteed, but the NBA salary cap makes things far more complicated.
Griffin is owed about $75 million total for the rest of this season and next, but because of the salary cap, expiring contracts can actually become valuable to teams trying to clear space. It’s unlikely Griffin will bring back anything of real value, but he might bring back something.
Miguel Cabrera would not. He is guaranteed $102 million over the next three seasons, and even if the Detroit Tigers ate all of that salary, they’d be lucky to get a single top-30 prospect in return. According to Baseball Trade Values, Cabrera has the 3rd worst contract in the sport right now, ahead of only Stephen Strasburg and Giancarlo Stanton.
So unless Cabrera retires, the Tigers will be stuck paying the rest of his contract. That’s fine. They knew this was coming, and most fans did too.
Baseball teams aren’t keen on paying players who don’t actually take the field. The Yankees took JaCoby Ellsbury to court. The Angels continue to keep Albert Pujols despite four consecutive negative-WAR seasons.
But the questions must be asked: If you continue to roster a negative-WAR DH, how hard are you really trying to win? Will this rebuild truly not end until 2024?
It’s unfortunate, but if the Detroit Tigers care about winning, they have to consider cutting Miguel Cabrera in 2022 or 2023.
But that’s all the more reason to pay attention to him as he chases milestones in 2021, and fully enjoy those increasingly rare glimpses of greatness.