When the Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year contract extension in 2014, most knew that it would not end well. Fans rejoiced all the same, because the best hitter in franchise history would be a Tiger for life. Unfortunately, those same people are starting to realize what “for life” actually means. Cabrera is coming off the worst season of his career, and is entering his age 35 season.
But trade him? No way. Fans and writers alike have suggested dealing Cabrera in order to recoup some of the $184 million still due to him over the next six years (yeah, it’s that bad). The arguments center around Cabrera’s dead weight contract and Detroit’s rebuilding status. While the former is absolutely true — he would need to produce 23 WAR in the next six years to approach fair market value — the latter doesn’t matter.
Not only is a Cabrera trade unnecessary, it might even be detrimental for the franchise. They won’t recoup any value from dealing the 34-year-old slugger,
Cabrera isn’t getting in the way of anyone
One of a fanbase’s biggest hopes during a rebuild is to see young prospects get necessary playing time at the major league level in order to develop into future stars. While this isn’t the main reason to trade away pricey veterans, it can be a secondary benefit. This generally hasn’t been the case for these Tigers given their shallow depth in the high minors, but we can squint and find a few players (Dixon Machado, Matt Boyd, Joe Jimenez) who will see more playing time following the recent departures.
In Cabrera’s case, there isn’t anyone behind him. The Tigers have improved their minor league depth considerably over the past year, but lack a solid first base prospect at any level of their system. Outfielder Reynaldo Rivera may need to slide to first base if he can’t handle right field, but he’s still several years (and a whole lot of development) away from the majors. If Cabrera is traded tomorrow, the Tigers’ Opening Day starter at first base would be... John Hicks? Even a modest rebound from Cabrera makes him infinitely more valuable than anyone behind him on the depth chart.
There’s no telling how much a Cabrera trade would hurt
And no, I’m not talking about fans’ feelings. If the Tigers were to offload Cabrera this offseason, it would undoubtedly require the team to eat a sizable chunk of his remaining contract. My guess would be that the team would have to pay at least $100 million just to move Cabrera, and nearly the entire contract to recoup anything of value for him.
While this may save them money in vacuum, there are a couple of factors to consider here. For one, the Tigers would likely have to sign a replacement for Cabrera. They could go out and grab any number of minor league free agents for the league minimum, but those players would be hard-pressed to out-perform the Tigers’ lackluster in-house replacements, let alone Cabrera himself. If they splurge a bit, they would be dipping into the savings from offloading Cabrera’s contract, an already limited benefit.
Plus, ticket and merchandise sales would plummet after a Cabrera trade. Both figures will probably hit decade-long lows this coming year, but one imagines fans would be even more hard-pressed to invest any money in the team if Cabrera is dealt too.
Also, Cabrera might not be seen as a franchise legend
This seems like a baffling thing to say about a player who has won two MVPs and a Triple Crown in 10 years with the Tigers, but hear me out. If Cabrera goes somewhere else and wins a title, he would have two World Series rings in his career, neither with the Tigers. While he accumulated the bulk of his production with them, he could ultimately finish with more years played outside of Detroit.
This might not seem like a big deal, but think about how the Tigers have treated true franchise legends Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. Until Trammell’s recent induction into the Hall of Fame, neither player’s number had been retired by the team. There was almost zero recognition that two of the best middle infielders in the history of the game had spent 20 years with the club.
Now, think about how Cabrera would be remembered. If he ends up in a larger media market — Dave Dombrowski and the Boston Red Sox have been an oft-mentioned fit — would the national media still honor him as a Tiger? Or would recency and exposure take over, leaving fans with stronger memories of him in another uniform? Should-be Hall of Famer Roger Clemens is a polarizing example, but potentially an appropriate one: Clemens spent 13 incredible years with the Red Sox, but many first think of his six years with the Yankees, which included a pair of championships.
While we malign the team for their treatment of Trammell and Whitaker, they can certainly see the benefit of having a near-lifer like Cabrera to celebrate for years to come, especially when he inevitably makes his own trip to Cooperstown.
There are certainly cases to be made for trading Cabrera
However, given the marginal-at-best benefit that comes with such a deal, the Tigers would be best served to hang onto their slugger. Cabrera is more valuable to the Tigers than any other MLB franchise right now and in the future, and his trade value is currently at an all-time low. This may be something we could revisit in a few years — especially if Cabrera rebounds or the Tigers develop a bonafide replacement for him — but there’s no reason for the team to trade him right now.