In early December, 2007, the Detroit Tigers shocked the baseball world, trading six players, including two supposed "untouchable" prospects, to the Florida Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Tiger fans were astonished, and ecstatic. The Tigers? Our Tigers? Miguel Cabrera?
Within a matter of weeks, another announcement came, that the Tigers and Cabrera had agreed to an eight year, $153 million contract extension. This was by far the richest contract in franchise history. In fact, this deal was more than double the amount of money that Magglio Ordonez had been guaranteed three years earlier.
Since his arrival in Detroit, Cabrera has been "The Man" in the Tiger lineup. One of the best hitters in the game. A perennial MVP candidate. A slugger for the ages. Cabrera has had his ups and downs off the field, but he has always produced for the Tigers since coming from Florida. He’s always been the biggest and the brightest star. Until now.
Earlier this week, word began to spread that the Tigers had signed Prince Fielder to a nine year, $214 million contract. The Tigers have shocked the baseball world again. Fielder will be paid $23 million per year for the next two years, and $24 million per year for seven more years after that. He has incentive clauses of half a million to a million dollars for MVP awards, and plenty of other six figure bonuses for Silver Slugger awards, Hank Aaron awards, All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves. He also gets a private suite while the Tigers are on the road.
Cabrera is now the second highest paid Tiger, at $21 million per year in 2012 and 2013, and $22 million per year for 2014 and 2015, before his contract is due to expire. Justin Verlander, the reigning Cy Young winner and Most Valuable player in the league, is the third highest paid Tiger, at $20.1 million. Only one other team, the Yankees, has three players earning salaries over $20 million per year. A couple of teams have two such players. Most teams don’t have any.
The first question that Tiger fans and baseball experts were asking, after getting over the initial shock of the Fielder signing, is what impact will this have on Miguel Cabrera? Where will he play? Is he okay with this? The reaction from fans is a mixture of sheer joy at the thought of a lineup that features the best one-two punch in the game, with at least a small dose of uncertainty about Cabrera being moved off his position to make room for the new kid in town.
Let’s tackle the easy part of this question first. Miguel Cabrera will bat third and will move back to third base, where he played when the Tigers first acquired him from the Marlins. They’re not going to alternate Fielder and Cabrera at first base and DH. They’re not going to put Cabrera in the outfield. Miguel Cabrera, and (thankfully) not Brandon Inge or Don Kelly, will be the starting third baseman for the Detroit Tigers to start the 2012 season. Cabrera also will not be pulled in favor of a "defensive replacement".
For those who have any doubts about the team's plans, listen to the words of Jim Leyland, the one and only man who is responsible for the decision, from Thursday’s press conference:
Miguel Cabrera is going to play third base. Let me make that perfectly clear today. I feel very comfortable with it. He’s not going to have the agility defensively that Brandon Inge had. You give up a little something, but you get a whole lot in return.
We’re going back to the old time baseball. We’ve got power on the corners, not only with Miguel and Prince, but also potentially with Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young.
I did talk to Miguel. He’s 100% on board. He feels real good about it. He’s going to shed a little bit of weight..
I also have talked with Brandon Inge. He’s not the happiest camper.
So there you have it. That's the plan, for better or worse. Leyland was asked if people were too concerned about Cabrera’s transition back to third.
I think so. This is what I think I have in Miguel Cabrera at third base. I think he has a tremendous set of hands, that could actually play anywhere in the infield, and catch a ground ball. I think he has one of the best arms in baseball.
So, what you’re concerned about because of the size of Miguel, is will his athleticism be as good coming in on bunts. Is his range going to be as good as some of the other third basemen? That’s probably not going to happen. But I think when he gets himself at the weight that he wants to be at, I think his first step is very quick. I think his hands are absolutely tremendous, and I know for a fact that his throwing arm is one of the best in baseball. It’s kind of been hidden in the first base position.
So there is your answer, in terms of the impact that Fielder’s arrival will have on Cabrera, at least on the field, and in the lineup. Either Cabrera will be just fine at third base, and it’s not hard to be better overall than what they have there, or he will be such a liability that he won’t be able to make the switch back to third base, and they’ll have to try something else.
I don't think that Leyland's comments are just wishful thinking.I believe that Cabrera will be just fine at third base. I am looking forward to seeing Cabrera tackle the challenge, and I believe he will be driven by the doubts about his athleticism. He won’t win any Gold Gloves, and he won’t match the number of highlight-reel plays that we’re used to seeing from Brandon Inge, but he will be fine. In my view, Fielder’s arrival can have a ripple effect through the Tiger lineup on the field, where their team defense actually improves. If the Tigers were planning on putting Delmon Young in left field, and now he will be DH most days, that can be an improvement. If Ryan Raburn is playing left field instead of second base, that’s another big plus for the defense.
That was the easy part to answer. Now for the tough question. What impact will the arrival of Fielder have on Cabrera, psychologically? Cabrera has been the star in the Tiger lineup for his four seasons in Detroit. Now, he is asked to move positions for a new star. He was the big money guy, and now there is a bigger money guy. Fielder grew up in Detroit, and he’s come home to play. How does Miguel really feel about that?
The Tigers, by all accounts, contacted Cabrera before signing Fielder, just to be sure that he was OK with the move. Logically, he should be. I mean, the objective is for the team to win, right? The Tigers and Latin America newspapers both report Cabrera was happy that Fielder was coming to Detroit and he was happy to return to "his natural position" at third base. Of course, he was. What is he supposed to say? Is he supposed to pull a Hanley Ramirez and whine about a position move? That’s not Cabrera.
I take Cabrera’s comments, as relayed to us, to be genuine. I won’t say that I’m certain that there won’t be any trouble at all with the transition, or the chemistry on the team. But Cabrera never asked to be moved away from third base in the first place. He accepted the change, worked on his game, and improved each year defensively playing first base. It wasn’t an issue then, and I don’t expect it to be an issue now.
The questions about the chemistry of the team, both on and off the field, are bound to arise. What happens when Victor Martinez returns next season? Well, if Cabrera works out well at third base, Victor will assume his former role as the DH. What happens to Brandon Inge? Who plays left field? Who plays second base?
The Tiger skipper has said that he doesn’t select a "team captain" because he is the only captain that they need. Making a team out of individuals is Leyland’s strong suit. There isn’t a better manager in the game to handle the arrival of Prince Fielder. He will surely make out some lineups during the year that will cause many Tiger fans to cringe. That happens with every manager, in every season. This season will be no different.
The Tigers have arguably the best pitcher in the league with Justin Verlander. They have two of the best hitters in the league in Cabrera and Fielder. They have the best owner, the best GM, and the best manager in the opinions of many observers. They have the best one-two punch at the back end of the bullpen. All that guarantees you nothing.
When Cabrera arrived in Detroit in 2008, the optimism was at an all time high. Speculation in the media was that they could score 1,000 runs and walk to a division title. The Tigers had the second highest payroll in the game, high enough to pay the MLB's luxury tax. That team lost their first seven games, including a sweep in Kansas City, and they finished in last place.
Titles aren’t won in December or January. Games and titles are won on the field of play. It takes a team effort to win a championship. Ilitch and Dombrowski have done their part to give Leyland and the fans of Detroit a great group of baseball players. Now, it’s up to the players to go out and perform.
I admit to being biased on the subject of Miguel Cabrera. As much as anyone, Cabrera is my Tiger. I like him as a player. I like him as a person from all that I’ve seen and read about him. I like how he handled the serious challenges that he has had to face. Every time he has been challenged, or doubted, he has come through. He will be challenged again, and I think he is up to the challenge.
Cabrera has been through a lot since he came to Detroit. He has won a batting title, a home run title, and an RBI title. He has finished in the top five in the MVP voting a couple of times. He has learned a new position, and he has done a lot of growing up in that time. He will be challenged once again.
If the Tigers are going to make use of the talent that they have, Cabrera is going to have to once again adjust to a new role.
Note: I've made a correction on the contract details for Cabrera. He is signed through 2015.