DETROIT — If you're the Detroit Tigers, you are not about to let the face of your franchise loose on the field before he's completely healthy. So it's not a question of when Miguel Cabrera will be ready for Opening Day, but if he will be. In the event he isn't, the Tigers will need someone to fill in for Cabrera and that list is comprised of Victor Martinez and Alex Avila, the former having more time at first base.
Cabrera is set to visit Dr. Robert Anderson on February 15 for a follow-up that will determine what, if any baseball activities he will be able to take part in and when. Whether Cabrera is going to be happy about it or not, the Tigers are not going to rush him back onto the field, even if that means he will miss Opening Day.
The Tigers have options. The first and most obvious one available to the team is Martinez, who has played at first base on numerous occasions, and did so frequently during the latter part of the season when Cabrera needed rest. The other option is Avila, who played during his college days, in the minors, and once in a blowout game against the Twins in late September last season when Andrew Romine was pitching.
"If I play first base, trust me it'll be on a very limited basis if I do," Avila said with a laugh. "And once Miguel (Cabrera) is back, no one else is playing first base. Just out of necessity, for the very beginning just in case Miggy doesn't start off the season, for the first couple of weeks, that's fine."
The same would be true if Martinez would fill the first base spot for a short time. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus' first choice leans to Martinez for obvious reasons during the regular season. However, Ausmus said he discussed the option with Avila weeks ago, saying Saturday that Avila would definitely be an option, particularly in spring training.
Martinez started 33 games (35 played) at first base for the Tigers in 2014, putting up mixed numbers defensively. While he was rated at a -4 in defensive runs saved (DRS), his ultimate zone rating (UZR) was -5.8 with three errors (two fielding) in his time at first base. Keep in mind those are very small sample sizes. As a skewed comparison, Cabrera finished the season with -1 DRS and a UZR of 4.3 with five errors, all fielding in 125 games started (126 played).
The obvious statement is that Cabrera, while he has somewhat limited range, is the better first baseman. But if the Tigers are left with no other options, Martinez might find himself at first base on April 6. Ausmus said he would prefer to keep Avila behind the plate whenever possible, but putting Avila at first base would give his knees a break and it opens up some options for the Tigers.
"If (Cabrera is) not ready for Opening Day, it's going to be very, very close," Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski said. "And we'll find out more February 15. I think at that point, for a short time period we have Victor Martinez, who can play first base at that point. Alex Avila could play over there for a little bit. We could DH some of the other people we have in the organization at this time so we'll tackle that as it comes but we still hope he'll be ready for Opening Day."
In Cabrera's case, he focused on his diet and upper body strength during the offseason. Out of his walking boot for some time now, Cabrera has been in the gym regularly and at this point the Tigers are simply waiting for the doctors to give the go-ahead. If Martinez or Avila spend time at first base in spring training, which is a possibility, at least the team has options to back their positions up.
Even if limitations aren't placed on Cabrera, in all likelihood the team will not cut him loose on the field at full-speed. If anything it's going to be a gradual process, and at least during spring training Avila may spend time at first base. Once the Tigers feel Cabrera can play without risking re-injury, he'll go back to playing full time. Whether that's in time for Opening Day is still undetermined, but if nothing else, at least Cabrera is healthy again.
"I've talked to him and I saw him a couple of times when he was roaming around the last couple of days," Nick Castellanos said. "He looks good. He looks thin and healthy. He's excited to get back out there. He's just happy now that there's no pain."