The Tigers have arrived in Lakeland in preparation for the 2018 season. In a clear sign of the times, Justin Verlander will not be among the players playing long toss or running sprints. The only connection to the powerhouse days of the late aughts and early teens is the first baseman coming off a career-worst season. It’s a new day.
This winter, the Tigers made very little news. Ron Gardenhire replaced Brad Ausmus and brought with him a mostly new coaching staff. The club traded Ian Kinsler to the Angels. They signed Leonys Martín and Mike Fiers, and also approximately one-hundred thousand minor league free agents, including domestic abuser/replacement level catcher Derek Norris.
If you run the numbers, fingers off the scale, the Tigers line up for a very bad year. A 70-win season seems a reasonable bet. A healthy Miguel Cabrera can still be a superstar and a healthy Michael Fulmer remains worthy of a mention in your AL Cy Young preview, but otherwise the Tigers do not have anyone who is a good bet to be above average in 2018. That is not to say they have no one who will be above average this year, just that that the roster is full supporting actors and not many leads.
This is by design, of course. The Tigers emptied the larder last year and made no effort to sign any of the talented free agents. The club will pick first in the June draft and is lining up to pick near the top again in 2019. They are in the midst of rebuilding and have deliberately chosen this path.
It’s not clear how long they intend to be bad. They could presumably be back in buying mode as soon as next offseason. While the team has been known for big contracts tied up in aging players, after 2018 they will only owe such monies to Cabrera (through 2023) and Jordan Zimmermann (through 2020). If the prospects develop well, they could be ready to contend in 2019, and certainly by 2020.
This year is the only year of certain infamy. It will be just the second year since 2007 that we will enter the season expecting to watch a bad team. That will be both frustrating and freeing. Success will be limited but it will all be house money.
There are lots of plausible ways the 2018 Tigers could be decent. Cabrera could be Cabrera. Candelario could break out. Mahtook and Martín could do well, Castellanos could grow. Norris and Boyd could be more consistent. Zimmermann could be healthy. Joe Jimenez could become a relief ace. If it all goes well, they could be on the fringes of the wild card, a mid-80s win team. It’s unlikely to all go well, but this shouldn’t be 2003 reimagined. They will look respectable. And as opposed to last year, there will be a sense of beginning rather than a sense of ending.
I made no secret that the owner and front office lost a lot of my respect through their handling of the Derek Norris acquisition. In terms of their stewardship of the franchise on moral and respectability grounds, I have levied my vote of no confidence. But in terms of their purely baseball pursuits, there is potential. The farm system is looking up and most of the payroll has been cleared to allow for big signings in the next two offseasons. Whether Ilitch the younger follows in his father’s footsteps will determine the arc of the team beyond this year.
I also wrote this winter about disillusionment with a sport full of problems like embarrassing minor league wages, lacking front office diversity, poor response to players who commit violence against women, and nonsense codes of honor surrounding head hunting. I thought a lot about whether I should just let my fandom wither on the vine or whether I should remain and demand better. That’s not the kind of thing that calls for a final decision, but rather constant evaluation.
So much of the game is good, even if specific people currently in charge have lost my faith and respect. But the game will outlast them and it’s important that people rising in all parts of the game today are given the tools to make things better.
I have a small corner of the arena, but I will continue to do my part so that in the future the good decisively outweighs the bad. In Detroit, we are in a moment of genesis. In every respect let us build something about which we can be proud.
On Tuesday, the Tigers announced a number of signings. The headliner was outfielder Leoyns Martín, but the notable minor league name was Derek Norris. Norris is a catcher who last year was suspended for the final month of the season after his former fiancé described him as physically and emotionally abusive, and detailed a time in which he put her in a choke hold, grabbed her hair, and restrained her as she tried to get away.
This is the man the Tigers have chosen to sign.
Now I have heard reasonable and evidence-based arguments against a zero tolerance policy. In certain situations, harsh sanctions on abusers can put victims in more danger, and ultimately any policy from MLB should focus on victim safety and changing societal attitudes ahead of simply punishing the player. I understand that banishing players from the game entirely may not be ideal or reasonable, even if that’s what my gut wants to do. The problem I have seen time and time again is that it’s not just that MLB can’t get the punish right, it’s that MLB teams don’t take domestic violence seriously.
The Tigers are no different. Here are some quotes from Tony Paul’s story:
“When we consulted with (MLB), they were like, ‘The guy served his penalty, he should be able to sign, that’s the way the process works,’” Avila told The News. “We do know the guy, David Chadd has known the guy for a long time, he knows the father, he knows the issue.
“We signed a good kid.”
Norris, as Avila pointed out, was not charged.
“We know this kid,” Avila said. “It’s not his character.”
Avila makes a couple of major mistakes in those comments. The first is that he essentially denies Norris’ fiances’ claims. Avila does nothing to indicate he thinks the claims are true, and hints that he doesn’t believe they are consistent with who Norris is.
Second, Avila says good things about Norris’ character and does not say anything negative about his actions. It’s one thing for a baseball executive to say “this guy is good at baseball,” but he specifically calls him a “good guy.” I don’t expect baseball teams to care more about morality than they do about winning, but they should at least be willing to discuss the moral failings of the people they employ to play baseball.
Al Avila is not a politician, a clergyman, or a public intellectual. I don’t expect Avila to solve the problem of domestic violence. He wasn’t selected for his ability to do that. But he is a public figure who has been given stewardship of one of our most treasured institutions.
Avila’s comments reflect a man who does not take domestic violence seriously. Full stop.
As I said, general managers aren’t responsible for solving the problem in society but it’s hard to root for a team that doesn’t even seem to care about the issue. Avila dismissed the victim’s experience, lauded Norris’ character, and didn’t even say anything about how domestic violence is bad in general. This is all compounded by the fact that the Tigers are going to be bad this year and that Derek Norris, excuse my language, kind of fucking sucks. What’s even the point? This isn’t like Miguel Cabrera, who provides immense value on the field and brings with him significant personal flaws. This is a bad player and a bad guy. And the Tigers signed him without seemingly giving it much thought.
Believing women and working to stop domestic violence are important. Sports franchises have the power to shift public opinion. I’m not naive enough to say Al Avila taking a stand on Derek Norris would have changed the world, but meaningful change is always the product of a lot of small actions.
From a fan perspective, though, the only way I feel comfortable cheering for an organization is if they demonstrate they understand the seriousness of the offense. You don’t have to sacrifice winning for the sake of your morals (although I’d respect the hell out of that), but there’s no reason you can’t be forceful in your language and clear in your message that what Norris did was wrong and doing what he did makes him a bad person.What I want to hear is “Player X did a horrible thing. An unforgivable thing. But he insists he wants to change and he is doing A, B, and C to work toward that goal. We want to support his efforts to become a better person.” I don’t want to hear about “mistakes” or that he’s a “good guy” or that “well we don’t really know what happened.” No victim blaming. No discussion of baseball as a road to salvation. No “obviously I don’t condone it, but…” No efforts to minimize what he did.
I want institutions like MLB and the Tigers to use these cases as an opportunity to model behavior. And I understand there are people who say it’s not the job of teams and leagues to police society. That’s a fine position. There’s a difference between a quasi-judicial approach and simply taking the time to learn about domestic violence and how to speak about it intelligently. I don’t need players to be blacklisted automatically, but if I’m going to cheer for their team, I need to know the team is on the right side of the issue — that they care about the victim and the millions of victims who aren’t in relationships with pro athletes.
When you defend Norris or minimize his actions, you are essentially saying what he did isn’t a big deal and that attacking women is acceptable. You don’t have to send him to Siberia where he can never play again, but please, please, please take this seriously. Devote some time to learning about this problem and how to talk about it in a way that makes the world a better place to live.
Avila and the Tigers have failed that test. When you combine this with other previous problems on similar issues (i.e., Simon, K-Rod, Reed, Cabrera), it gets harder and harder to wear the Old English D with any sort of pride. Maybe someday soon I will simply stop wearing it.
Twelve years ago I watched Jason Johnson get shelled in Cleveland on the Fourth of July. Scott Elarton threw a complete game. Our tickets were good for the second game of the doubleheader, but had only planned to go to one game and my father was eager to get back on the road. He did not grasp the importance of staying. It’s hard to blame him, as this was before everything, but it will always hang over me. We had tickets to Justin Verlander’s MLB debut but instead listened to the game on I-80. I was 15.
In the intervening years, the Tigers have been to the playoffs five times, the World Series twice, sported eight winning records, three MVPs, and two Cy Youngs. I graduated high school, met my wife, graduated college and graduate school. I’ve lived in three states and written for more than a half dozen publications. I’ve voted in three presidential elections and said goodbye to childhood pets. In the dozen years since I didn’t get to watch Verlander’s debut in person most everything has changed. Nearly every important moment in my life has happened between his debut and his final outing in the Old English D.
It’s probably worth recounting Verlander’s career in Detroit in a detached and analytic fashion. He’s been a near-Hall of Famer and has as many signature moments as any other pitcher of his era. But I’m not quite there yet. Where he fits in Tigers history is a question for later.
What’s important now is where he fits in our history. The history of what I now think we can safely call the Verlander Era. Ilitch bought the team in ’92 so that’s no good. Dombrowski was there from 2002-2015. Leyland from 2006-2013. Cabrera from 2008 to forever. Magglio and Pudge were gone much too early.
But Verlander covers the era perfectly, from the first season of the renaissance to the deadline when they decided it was really all over. The Tigers were Verlander and Verlander was the Tigers.
Tonight, the Tigers brought the Verlander era to a close by trading him to Houston, reportedly one minute before midnight after the deal had nearly fallen through.
For Verlander, the Tigers got Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rogers. Perez is a good pitching prospect, but he’s a couple years away. I’ve seen scouting folks put him in the #3 category with a rival source saying he sees him as a #2 or #3. Cameron has had growing pains but could be the center fielder of the future. His bat is far from a sure thing, but there’s room to dream there. Rogers is reportedly an excellent defensive catcher, but is he going to hit like a backup or a starter? These are questions we can answer going foreword because we have all the time in the world. The club is heading for a rebuild and the prospects will have time to sort themselves out.
The main question to ask analytically is whether trading Verlander tonight made sense relative to trading him this winter. It’s a tough call because the Astros were anxious to add a starter for October, potentially leading them to drive up the price. But on the other hand more teams would be in on Verlander this winter, potentially driving it up more. There’s no way to know, and with the Tigers only chipping in about $16 million, it seems unlikely they were going to get a much better return than they got tonight. Verlander is still a good pitcher but with such a large contract you weren’t going to get the world. The Tigers seemed to do well give the circumstances.
I think it hasn’t really sunk in and it won’t until I see Verlander suit up for another team and take the mound in the postseason. It’s going to be jarring. It was a joy to watch Verlander pitch for my favorite team all these years and I am glad he’s going to get a chance to win the ring he didn’t win here in Detroit. I hope I’m not asked to choose between cheering for him or Scherzer in the World Series.
I’ll probably have more to say but for now I’ll crib from my piece earlier this year about the decision to rebuild:
One hundred and twelve years ago a fire destroyed much of Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard took that moment to declare the city’s motto to be “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” Translated, it means “We hope for better things; It will arise from the ashes.”
Well, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.
On the last real day that teams could acquire players who would be eligible for the postseason, the Tigers accelerated their rebuild. Justin Upton is heading to the Angels in exchange for pitcher Grayson Long and what sounds like a PTBNL. Reports indicate the unknown player is not a substantial addition to the deal.
Trading Upton made plenty of sense once the Tigers decided it was time to rebuild. He was very likely going to opt out and handing him off to another club a month early gives the Tigers a chance to get something in return.
The Tigers got 23-year-old Grayson Long, a starter currently having a strong year in AA. He only threw 65 innings across three levels last year due to injury, but he does have the appearance of an innings eater if you buy into the archetype scouting. Based on the public scouting views and one source I spoke with this afternoon, Long’s fastball is solid in the low 90s but his secondary stuff is a bit questionable with opinions ranging from fringe to flashes of above average. He has a change and slider but it’s not clear they will play at the major league level to the point at which he could be a successful starter. That might lead him to a bullpen role, but he has pitched well so far in the minors and I’m a big believer in letting a player keep going until the performance tells you to stop. There’s definitely potential for something really exciting but even the floor seems perfectly fine given the cost.
There’s not a lot to unpack here. The Tigers grabbed an interesting prospect who seems like to at least provide some MLB value, even if he doesn’t cut it as a starter. With Upton sure to opt out and the club looking to rebuild, the only question is whether someone else would have offered more. Given that the Tigers have been open for business for six weeks, it’s hard to imagine there was a better offer available.
The question now shifts to whether the club will make more deals tonight or wait until the winter. Upton was the only urgent issues, but teams might start calling now that the gates have opened.
I was eleven days shy of my seventh birthday when my family brought home a dog for the first time. Boomer was smart and awkward and the best friend you could imagine. Along with Kelly, who we adopted a year later, he grew up with me in our suburban Toledo home. Boomer died very young. He was just eight and half when my mom called me while my dad and I were in Chicago to tell us Boomer was fading fast. We made it home for his final hour but, as anyone will tell you, losing your first dog rips a hole inside you that can never quite be repaired. Even with Kelly by our side, the days after Boomer died were empty.
In typical Weinberg fashion, we made the fateful decision to “just go look” at a litter of golden retriever puppies four days later. Because you can’t do anything else when you meet a golden retriever puppy, we fell in love. We named him Duke. It was July 23, 2005.
Dogs are theraputic, but there was something especially restorative about being the one who was responsible for most of his care during those early weeks. I was on summer vacation and both my parents worked full-time, so I potty-trained him and we bonded as he grew from a pup into a massive ball of golden energy. There is still a Boomer-shaped hole in me, but there is also Duke-shaped duct tape.
To say he was spirited would be an understatement. He was smart and full of love and was a troublemaker of the highest order. He chewed cell phones. He tore up my Tigers hat. He grabbed mail off the counter. If it wasn’t load-bearing, he was probably going to mess with it.
He stole food off the table. He even ate an entire plate of brownies, earning one of his famous trips to the vet. For years there were bungee cords everywhere because he could open cabinets and rummage through the treasures that lay within. If you’re trying to picture it, think Marley with long hair and less of an appetite for walks on the beach.
But it was hard to stay mad when he pulled off one of his trademark heists. For all the trouble he caused, he was always there to greet you and show you what he had recently stolen.
I left for college when he was about three and moved away for good four years later. He never held it against me and was thrilled to see me whenever I came home. He took to Becky just like you’d expect and their naps together became pretty frequent when were in town. In fact, last year when we visited over Christmas he climbed into bed with her before I was done brushing my teeth and I spent the night on the floor while my wife snuggled with my golden brother. When he was younger, I would have told him to move, but he played his age well and I couldn’t. I’m glad I didn’t.
Over the last few years, he’s slowed down. He couldn’t jump on the counters the same way or bust out of the house and run free the way he could as a pup. Just a few weeks ago he got loose and I was able to catch him in just a few steps. His hips weakened. He lost his booming bark. Going to the park in the heat was out of the question.
But he kept his happy-go-lucky outlook. He instigated wrestling matches with Violet, my folks’ newest doggo, and was more than happy to beg for scraps from the table. He knew how to have fun, a quality I’ve never been able to master. He didn’t have Boomer’s intelligence or Kelly’s fierce loyalty, but he could liven up a room in a way that will stay with me forever.
In many ways, Duke was the last remaining bridge to my youth. He came to us before I could drive a car and has been around for every major life event I’ve had over the last thirteen summers. He was there when I got into college. He got to meet Becky shortly after we started dating and I gave him a nice head scratch the afternoon I walked into the house after buying an engagement ring. He helped me craft my senior thesis and pack up everything I owned into a U-Haul. He was there when we mourned Kelly, and when I decided to move home, he was sitting under the table as I prepared for job interviews. He greeted us when we drove through Toledo on the way to Lansing.
He’s been present in my life, even if he was physically far away, for nearly every important moment. Sadly, even dogs who live long, happy lives aren’t with us for long enough. Duke, the dog with an iron stomach and hidden thumbs, left us tonight two months after his twelfth birthday. It happened suddenly, so I wasn’t able to be with him, but he was surrounded by family and didn’t suffer long.
I’m not a religious person and don’t really believe in an afterlife, but if heaven is real, it’s full of dogs. And now that Duke is among them, heaven is also full of people chasing a giant golden retriever who has stolen a bag of chips or a towel that was supposed to go in the washer.
Al Avila has begun his first deadline as a seller, delivering JD Martinez to the Diamondbacks for Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. With the Tigers six games back of Cleveland and underwater in both wins and runs, selling makes sense and JD Martinez was the best rental on the roster.
During his time as a Tiger, JD was the 9th best hitter in baseball, posting a 146 wRC+ in 1886 PA. Cabrera was barely better over that period and all the names above Martinez on the list are bona fife offensive stars. The Tigers got him for a song before the 2014 season and he mashed he way out of AAA and onto the big league roster. He was an anchor, he delivered in big moments, and was a joy to watch at the plate. Martinez was a late bloomer but he made up for lost time.
With a huge payday coming this winter and a franchise seemingly on the verge of rebuilding, a trade made all the sense in the world. Another team will surely offer him nine-figures this offseason and he will have earned it. It’s sad to seem him leave, but an acceleration in that departure brings back players who will likely wear the Old English D before long.
For Martinez, the Tigers acquired Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King, infielders all. Lugo has shown some power and has good arm, but his approach is going to be the big question. He hasn’t struck out much in the minors but his walk rate is quite low. Alcantara runs well and can really play defense. I’ve seen some public scouting reports that were unimpressed with his bat but I heard from a source in another organization tonight that he thinks there’s a chance he hits enough to avoid a utility role. King is young and has struggled in rookie ball this year, but his wheels certainly make him interesting.
The sense I get from public prospect folks and conversations I’ve had with people in the game is that the Tigers didn’t exactly get the package you’d like to see for someone like Martinez. It’s not clear if the Tigers have a really good report on one of these guys or if the industry was down on Martinez for some reason. My sense from talking to folks is that the Tigers are higher on more than one of the prospects than the industry and that the market was relatively small for Martinez given the lack of buyers looking for corner outfielders. I’ll withhold judgment on exactly how the Tigers did until after the deadline wraps and we can see the going rate for other players. It feels light but the Tigers had to move JD this month and we won’t know if this was the best they could do until we see what else happens.
Call the grade Pending and the farewell bittersweet.
Alex Avila will always carry two curses. The first is that his father was a high level executive with the team that drafted and developed him. Even though Alex clearly rose to the majors on his own merits, there will always be people who see his career through the lens of nepotism.
His second curse is 2011. Avila was incredible that season. It was a career year. All players have a best season but Avila’s came at 24 during his first full year as an MLB starter. This hurt him so much because 1) Leyland ran him into the ground down the stretch because VMart couldn’t catch and 2) fans were routinely disappointed that Alex didn’t hit to his potential in the following campaigns. He hit 140 wRC+ and when he settled in as a slightly better than average hitting catcher from 2012-2015, he looked like he had failed.
But if you take a step back and look at Avila through objective eyes, he’s had a fine career and is a terrific signing at $2 million for his age 30 season. The Tigers have a big question mark at catcher and some stability from a veteran like Avila makes all the sense in the world if they weren’t going to go out and make a trade for a legitimate upgrade at the position. James McCann is a great thrower and his receiving has improved, but the development of his offense is still a work in progress. At this point, he’s a below average player at the position.
Avila brings with him a respectable bat that can handle work against the RHP than give McCann the most trouble. Avila walks a ton and can hit for extra bases. He won’t set the world on fire but a 95-100 wRC+ is probably in the cards. After being well-regarded statistically for his receiving in his youth, Avila’s numbers have dropped off over the last two or three years. It’s hard to parse the specifics of year to year changes to know exactly what’s up but in watching Avila he still possess some of the skills necessary to steal strikes even if he’s not quite as consistent as he once was. On the other hand, Avila has always been a good game manager and smartly shepherds pitchers through lineups. That’s the kind of thing that only gets better with age.
If you want Avila to be some kind of star 3 WAR catcher you’re asking too much. But he’s not being paid to be that kind of player. He signed for next to nothing. The minimum salary is just south of $600,000 and he’s going to provide the Tigers with maybe 1 WAR for just $1.4 million more. There aren’t a lot of better ways to spend such a small amount of baseball dollars. If you could acquire Lucroy or Posey or some distant Molina cousin that would be one thing, but the market was very thin and getting Avila at this price is a no-brainer.
Separate from the dollars and cents, I’m pleased to see Avila coming back. I’m personally fond of Avila’s style and enjoy his even-keel demeanor. He seems like a genuinely good person and I’d rather root for someone like that than someone who’s a little better but kind of a jerk. Also the beard.
Never put much stock into anything during trade rumor season unless you hear a word like “close” or “nearing a deal.” If the media person putting the rumor out there isn’t talking about something that is about to happen, chances are someone gave them the info because they wanted the message out there for strategic purposes or some type of PR. Ignore 95% of everything. It’s a safe rule.
But today, Jason Stark dropped this nugget. I don’t know how true it is, but it did strike me as something worth considering:
The Padres should be sellers and selling these two players would make some sense. Shields is making a lot of money and Cashner is a year away from free agency. They would be wise to abandon their 2015 plan and reload. Trading these two is logical.
And oddly, combining the two would look an awful lot like what the Tigers need. The Tigers have a great offense but their pitching is very bad. The problem the team faces, and the reason I’ve argued for selling, is that they would need both quantity and quality in order to make a run. Enter Shields and Cashner. You might be able to squeeze three wins out of the pair in 2015, and thanks to the salaries involved, you could do so without paying Johnny Cueto prices.
This move also makes a lot of sense for the Tigers because while it is short term focused, it also helps them for the 2016 season. And while the Tigers will lose some key free agents this winter, they still have a good enough roster to make things happen next year. Shields and Cashner can’t be a rotation on their own, but with Sanchez and something from Verlander and Greene, it’s more palatable.
Obviously, there’s a cost question. What would it take to get these two players. Shields had to wait all winter to get a 4/$80M deal, so the sense in the industry is likely that this contract is not a huge steal. Cashner is underpaid for his per game talent, but his health history provides good reason. I don’t know if the Tigers should pay the asking price, whatever that may be, but I feel confident they can scrape together a collection of players to satisfy the Padres. Again, this is an all in kind of move, so it would further tax the already barren system. It’s an option, though, if they want it to be.
Which brings me to the kicker. The Padres wouldn’t mind shedding Craig Kimbrel’s contract. This is a widely circulated rumor, but one that makes sense. The Tigers would have to strip the system further, but Kimbrel is controlled for a few more years and could contribute beyond 2015 and man do they need him.
To buy correctly, the Tigers can’t rent. They shouldn’t go all in for 2015 if the benefits don’t carry over. However, if you get Shields, Cashner, and maybe Kimbrel, you have done some of the offseason work.
Another angle, why don’t you offer to take Melvin Upton’s stupid contract to save some prospect cost? He’s bad but you might as well take a financial hit over a talent one.
I’m not sure this is the right move, but if you’re going to buy, this might be the path for the club. Putting all your eggs in the 2015 basket is foolish given the circumstance, but if you buy with an eye on 2016, it might work out. The Tigers need to decide what the long term plan is, but if that includes a 2015 push, AJ Preller should expect a call from Dave Dombrowski.
Yankees 14, Tigers 3
Don’t read this, why are you reading this? Go watch highlights of Scherzer’s start. This isn’t a thing you want to relive. Alfredo Simon (13 GS, 79.1 IP, 3.18 ERA, 3.85 FIP) was horrible and the bullpen was also not good. The bats were also not good. All of it was not good. Anibal Sanchez (14 GS, 91 IP, 4.65 ERA, 4.00 FIP) pitches Sunday.
The Moment: Josh Wilson pitched!
I was born one day before Miguel Cabrera turned 7 years old. Maybe his parents could tell by that age what their son would grow to become, but his superhuman talent probably wasn’t evident by mid-April 1990. On that day, 22 men could claim to have hit 400 home runs in the major leagues. The list started with Aaron and ended with Snider. Tiger great Al Kaline was one dinger behind, at 399. A lot has changed since then.
Last night, Adrian Beltre became the 52nd player homer 400 times. Sometime in the next few days, Miguel Cabrera will become number 53.
In the last 25 years, the tools of baseball analysis have improved dramatically. Home runs are still the best thing a hitter can do in the box, but we have a much better understanding of how to best evaluate performance beyond homers, RBI, and batting average. And we’ve also lost a little love for home runs and round numbers in general in the aftermath of the steroid era. The 400 HR club is 241% as large as it was the day I was born. Whatever the cause, whoever is to blame, hitting 400 HR isn’t a particularly awe-inspiring feat anymore. It’s a milestone en route to bigger ones.
Miguel Cabrera’s been a great player virtually since the moment he arrived in the majors. He walked off in game one and won a World Series before he played on Opening Day. In his second full season, he was a star. He’s fallen short of 5 fWAR just twice in his career. In both of those seasons, he was still 30% better than the average hitter.
We all know about Cabrera’s defensive limitations. At his size, it’s quite difficult to be a great defensive player, and that’s going to keep him from winding up as one of he best players ever. He’s ranged from average to awful in the field, and he’s probably going to be a designated hitter by the end of the decade. But these are reasons that Cabrera falls short of Bonds and Mays and Rodriguez. He’s not Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, but he’s been among the best players of his era entirely on what he can do at the plate.
There are actually a lot more players (30-40) who have hit better than Cabrera through age 32, where he sits at this moment. He has a 152 wRC+, which is an era and park adjusted batting statistic. That’s among the best marks ever, but guys like Piazza, Ramirez, Bonds, Bagwell, Votto, Pujols, Thomas, and Trout (still 23) have been better with the bat through 32.
Cabrera is known for his mix of hit and power tool, but if you look only at the dingers through age 32 (Cabrera has five months left at 32), he’s already 15th on the list and should finish 2015 at 9th.
Cabrera’s been injured a lot over the last few seasons and while he hasn’t spent time on the DL, his body has been breaking down and limiting his power for periods of time. Since 2010, he leads the league in fWAR and is 6% better than the second best hitter in the league with a 171 wRC+ entering Saturday. There’s no question that Trout has become the player of the 2010s and that Pujols was the player of the 2000s, but Cabrera’s carved himself a section of the game spanning both reigns despite playing on one leg for months at a time.
I think Cabrera, as a player, is both vastly overrated and vastly underrated, depending on the day. Rod Allen talks about Cabrera as one of the best right handed hitters of all time. He’s not even the best right handed hitting first baseman to debut since 2000. People talk about him like he’s the best player in the game, but Trout and McCutchen and company are probably better right now. Cabrera’s body of work is impressive, but despite his excellent ability, the gap between Cabrera and Trout simply as hitters is virtually non-existent already.
But on the other side of this, the fact that we’ve watched Cabrera for seven plus years now on a regular basis has also led to us to a state of complacency. Sure, Cabrera isn’t the best player to ever play the game but 60 WAR and a 152 wRC+ in about 8,000 PA is incredible. The years in Florida limit is raw Tigers value, but he’s 12th among Tigers position players in career WAR as Tigers. And maybe most importantly, in a Tigers uniform, only Ty Cobb has been a better hitter per PA among batters with 100 PA.
There are all kinds of reasons not to care about HR number 400. It’s only important because it’s a round number, and the home run list is diluted by a massive increase in the number of home run hitters in the last twenty years. There’s more to hitting than home runs and there’s more to baseball than hitting. Cabrera is simultaneously great and ordinary.
We’re used to him. I don’t even blink when he hits a pitch nine inches off the inside corner for a home run, even though no one else does that with the frequency he does. His ability to make adjustments against a pitcher within a game and hit the ball hard no matter where it’s pitched is nearly unrivaled.
Cabrera is obviously the best Tiger of my lifetime and he’s going to be the first I watched to go into the Hall of Fame (shakes fist at voters for Tram and Lou). Yet there’s something so ordinary and expected about his greatness that tempers it. People will get used to anything, I suppose. Just like how I see Giants fans complaining about their team on Twitter as if they haven’t won three championships since 2010.
We’ll probably have a better appreciation of Cabrera long after he’s gone. Ironically, given his huge contract that extends into era of flying cars, we’re going to watch him decline and as he starts to fail, sometime in the next decade, we’ll call back to the days when he dominated pitchers so effortlessly.
To say Cabrera’s erred off the diamond would be an understatement. Sports teams and cities tend to rally around their athletes even when the athletes are at fault. They’ll boo the crap out of a guy who strikeouts too much, but domestic altercations and drunk driving are struggles to overcome rather than crimes for which to atone. Six years ago, the gifted slugger found himself drunk and fighting with his wife during the final week of a playoff run. A year and a half later, he was getting pulled over with a blood alcohol level as high as his isolated power.
He’s largely gotten a pass on both incidents, at least publicly. The media and the fans forgave him or didn’t care. The organization has always played the card that Cabrera had problems and they were going to help. Whether he would say so or not, he had a problem with alcohol abuse and it led him to make bad, criminal choices. It took two rock bottom moments, but he started looking up and made changes.
As a baseball player, Cabrera’s the best Tiger of the era. He’s probably given too much credit for his geniality in light of what he’s done outside the chalk, but there’s also something to be said for actually turning your life around rather than paying lip service to it until everyone forgets.
Cabrera’s 400th home run will be a brief moment of celebration on the path to 500, and probably 600. He’s going to play for about ten more years and hitting another 200 HR is only going to require 20 a year the rest of the way. We won’t look at 600 the same way when Cabrera gets there as we did when Bonds crashed the club, but it’s still an impressive accomplishment.
The legacy of Cabrera is probably already cemented. His early 2010s are going to be the years we remember when it comes time to eulogize his career, but the back end of greatness is often the difference between ordinary and remarkable. The all-time greats are that way because they didn’t bend to father time. Cabrera’s going to hit number 400 shortly as the capstone of his peak, but how you climb down the mountain matters too.