LAKELAND, Fla. — After feeling discomfort last year each time he eased out of bed or bent to tie his shoes, Miguel Cabrera is reveling in the positive signals his body is transmitting to his brain this spring. He’s so frisky, it’s a challenge for him to stop running.
Cabrera was standing on second base in an early Grapefruit League game against the Washington Nationals when Detroit Tigers teammate Jim Adduci singled up the middle. Coach Dave Clark tried to hold him at third base, but Cabrera ignored the sign and bore down on home plate, preceded by 240 pounds’ worth of grunting, heaving locomotive breath. The throw from the outfield easily beat him to the plate, but he had made his point.
“We told him, ‘We’re happy you’re feeling so good, but we don’t need you sliding into the catcher in a spring training game,”‘ said Tigers general manager Al Avila. “Right now he has a smile on his face and a bounce in his step. It was a good winter for him from that perspective.”
The productive winter followed a spring, summer and fall that would be underwhelming for most players, and were downright abysmal by Cabrera’s standards. He logged a slash line of .249/.329/.399 — 121st among 144 qualifying hitters — while playing through two herniated disks in his back.
Cabrera claims he’s oblivious to the negative fallout from his down year. Skeptics have reason to wonder if his skills have diminished at age 35 and the six years and $192 million left on his contract will be an albatross for the Detroit organization. But the tone in his voice (accompanied by a casual expletive or two) suggests he’s motivated to prove public perception wrong.
Cabrera and Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, the two best right-handed hitters of their time, are pals, and they’ve shared some thoughts on what it’s like to produce below expectations and be doubted. They’re not accustomed to being doubted.
“We always talk and we know what people say, but they’re never going to be in our shoes,” Cabrera told ESPN.com “They’re never going to play hurt the way we do. We believe in what we can do in the field. If we’re healthy, we know we can do a lot of things. And if we’re hurt, we’re going to still fight. A lot of guys won’t play if they have a [hangnail].
“If people don’t appreciate it, f— it. Teammates appreciate it, and the league knows how you play. That’s more important. If people outside don’t care, why should you care what they think?”
Tigers camp has a different vibe this spring because of some new amenities and high-profile departures. Joker Marchant Stadium has undergone a $50 million renovation, and the Detroit players prepare each day in an expanded home clubhouse, a 7,068-square-foot weight room and hydrotherapy pools while team officials look on from spacious new offices behind the outfield fence. If Avila wants to multitask, he can hold a conference call with scouts while watching the game through an enormous window from the comfort of his office desk.
He’ll see a roster that screams “rebuild.” Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, Alex Avila and Justin Wilson have all moved on since last summer, leaving Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann as the big moneymakers on the roster and the last remnants of late owner Mike Ilitch’s go-for-it mentality.
Avila leveled with his veterans about a possible change in direction last summer, so the traded players were ready to move and the holdovers were prepared for the aftershocks. Cabrera has played the role of organizational soldier, helping young players settle in as part-mentor, part-social director. He has a locker near the middle of the large, oval-shaped clubhouse, and he routinely scoots over to the opposite side to mingle with prospects looking to make the jump from Double-A Erie or Triple-A Toledo.
Cabrera’s endless well of credibility is a byproduct of 11 All-Star Games and a clock-punching ethic. From 2004 through 2014, he led the majors with 1,732 games played — one more than the legendarily fit and durable Ichiro Suzuki. Cabrera has played through maladies ranging from a broken bone in his foot to a fractured orbital bone in his face from a bad-hop grounder. “He has a high tolerance for pain,” Avila said. “He has a high threshold, and that’s good and bad. There are players who won’t go out there unless they’re 100 percent. And then there are players like Miggy who’ll go out there no matter what. You have to cart them off in an ambulance. Sometimes that works against them. But I think right now he understands where he is and what he has to do to be able to stay on the field.”
Last year was a case of survival on the fly. Cabrera hurt his back as a member of Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic and dropped some weight to help ease the strain, but the grind of the daily schedule didn’t leave time for the requisite core strength training.
During the offseason, Cabrera went home to Miami and worked on strength and conditioning with a personal trainer along with enlisting a physical therapist to help his back and core. He participated in two sessions a day, every day, pausing only for the holidays.
The Tigers’ medical staff thought Cabrera could recover without surgery, and Avila cites Hall of Famers Vladimir Guerrero and Pudge Rodriguez as players who were able to overcome back issues and remain productive well into their 30s through physical therapy with no surgery.
“Miggy is probably the best hitter of our generation. He had one down year in his career and he was hurt. Then he made it a point to get healthy and come in this year and be the old Miggy. You watch him during batting practice, moving around and taking extra bases and hitting balls in the games, and he looks like Miggy.”
Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook on Miguel Cabrera
It won’t take much for Cabrera to improve upon 2017, when pitches that he typically crushed confounded him. He’s a .313 career hitter against pitches 94 mph and above, but last year that average dipped to .233. And he was even more of a soft touch against breaking balls. After hitting .377 against sliders and curves in 2016, Cabrera cratered to .151 a year ago.
“I’ve seen him since he was a teenager with the Marlins, and I know what his swing looks like when it’s good,” said a scout. “It wasn’t his ‘A’ swing last year. It wasn’t even his ‘B’ swing. He’s always had the ability to get into his legs and let his lower body work for him, but it was a far different mechanical approach. He was in pain, and when you have a problem with your back, you’re going to have a problem executing any kind of motions you’re comfortable with.
“He was essentially hitting with only half of his body. To adjust to different pitches in different zones, you have to have an efficient, well-balanced swing. He was just getting by on pure, natural hand-eye coordination. He has such gifted hands, he was able to survive. But without his legs, he was a totally different hitter.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire plans to give Cabrera regular off-days this season, regardless of whether he protests. While Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado are among the elite hitters who’ve gravitated to the No. 2 spot in the order, Gardenhire is old-school enough to remember when the best hitter on the team automatically slotted into the 3-hole. So that’s where Cabrera will spend the bulk of his time in 2018.
“If he’s healthy, he’s going to be a big part of this club, because everybody looks up to him,” Gardenhire said. “He’s the guy who’s going to drive the bus out there in that clubhouse.”
For now, it’s encouraging enough that Cabrera can board the team bus and make lengthy Grapefruit League road trips without his back squawking. He’s swinging freely in batting practice and carrying it over into games. In a 6-3 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Cabrera ripped a bases-clearing double to left field and lined a single to right in consecutive at-bats. When he’s spraying the baseball to so much square footage of the outfield, it’s a sign that he’s back in his comfort zone.
“Miggy is probably the best hitter of our generation,” said Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook. “He had one down year in his career and he was hurt. Then he made it a point to get healthy and come in this year and be the old Miggy. You watch him during batting practice, moving around and taking extra bases and hitting balls in the games, and he looks like Miggy.”
The sight of a spry and motivated Cabrera seems almost nostalgic amid the Tigers’ roster teardown and rebuild. But it’s a good nostalgia. Cabrera has a bounce in his step, a smile on his face and a competitive gleam in his eye this spring. American League pitchers, beware.