Locally in Tiger Town, fans have already zeroed in on a few punching bags this season, two of whom have been given their walking papers. Gary Sheffield doesn't raise exactly the same level of ire, though it's been close a few times. But the only way he's going anywhere is if he decides he's had enough. Plus, he not only has a track record to give him some benefit of the doubt, but has shown some signs of turning himself around.
The national baseball media, however, seems to have lined up a different target in its crosshairs. Perhaps it's because he's the physically biggest one, or because his new contract shows up fastest on the radar. Or maybe people just can't resist poking him in the belly like the Pillsbury dough boy to see if he giggles. Whatever the reason, Miguel Cabrera is being singled out as a major reason the Detroit Tigers are playing so far below expectations.
First, Tom Verducci called him "an overweight slug" at SI.com this week. Then along came Jayson Stark, who posted some choice quotes from a couple of scouts for his "Rumblings and Grumblings" column at ESPN.com yesterday. (Hat tip to The Daily Fungo for steering me in this direction.)
First, here's what Stark had to say about Cabrera himself:
[...] the surprise is that Cabrera has been: (a) an offensive disappointment, (b) such a defensive disaster at third base that he had to be shifted to first within three weeks, and (c) so lackadaisical that players on other teams are privately questioning whether he flicked on his cruise-control switch after signing an eight-year, $153.3-million contract this spring.
"I expected him to come in there and be superman," said one scout. "He's been anything but that."
Definitely a body blow. But here comes the roundhouse right from another major league scout:
"For $150 million, you'd like to at least see him run a ball out. I watched him for a week, and I think there was one ball all week where he tried to extend himself. That was a double-play ball, and he was still like 4.8 [seconds] getting down the line. On a routine ground ball, he's 5.2, maybe 5.1. It's ridiculous to even pull the clock out."
Believe me, I'm not going to suddenly turn around and say that the Tigers should've waited a season before trying to sign Cabrera to a long-term contract. (And I'm not quite there with Mike McClary, who wonders if Detroit might have buyer's remorse.) But isn't this the inherent risk in giving a player a ballpark full of money, especially at such a young age? As frustrating as it is, it's also kind of understandable. When you work and fight so hard to put up the kind of numbers that enable you to cash in, isn't it natural to ease off once you've been rewarded?
Jim Leyland has already criticized Cabrera for not focusing during each at-bat. And he's been working him out personally, along with his other coaches, to try and make him as good a first baseman as possible. And maybe not just because Leyland thinks he can be a good one, but because they really can't afford for him to be a DH for the remaining seven years of his contract.
This could be a season-long project for the Tigers. And not just for the coaching staff, but perhaps also for Cabrera's fellow Venezuelans, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez, both of whom he presumably looks up and pays attention to. If they haven't been already, it's time to exert some leadership.