With a bleak outlook on the 2018 season, the Detroit Tigers and their fans took solace in this glimmer of light; Miguel Cabrera, ailed by injuries in seasons past, was healthy, happy, and rearing to get back to his old form. Unfortunately, after one fateful swing on a Tuesday evening in June, the Cabrera comeback tour was postponed. He underwent season-ending biceps surgery, and only played in 38 games.
The 2019 Tigers are hoping that the comeback will be for real this time around.
Things were looking up
Heading into last season, Cabrera reported to Lakeland after a 2017 marred by a back injury and, in turn, uncharacteristically lackluster numbers. He came ready to put that season behind him, and did so to the tune of a .368/.397/.596 line with three home runs and 13 RBI in 57 spring training at-bats. This translated over to the regular season, for the most part. He was looking like the Cabrera that Tigers fans had come to know and love — when healthy. In 38 games between a series of injuries, his on-base numbers had returned to their usual lofty plateau (.395 OBP, .360 wOBA, 22 walks). Some of his extra-base power was returning as well (11 doubles).
Even before sustaining the season-ending biceps injury, though, Cabrera’s health came into play once again. In addition to missing a game early in the season due to a hip flexor issue, he also suffered a hamstring injury in May that caused him to miss 26 games.
In the now
Way-too-early video analysis shows an in-shape Cabrera back in the cages, with the same swing fluid, powerful swing that once struck fear into any and every pitcher in the league.
And it can’t be said that Cabrera isn’t having fun with things so far.
Asked if he reported to spring training lighter this year, Miguel Cabrera shook his head. “I’m going to steal bases this year,” he said. More specifically, “I’m going to steal home plate.”— Anthony Fenech (@anthonyfenech) February 18, 2019
He’s even throwing curveballs, for some reason.
As with every spring training, there are questions, but perhaps more than usual that surround Cabrera as the 2019 season approaches.
Question #1: How will the Tigers use Cabrera?
While Cabrera will still be at the top of the Tigers’ first base depth chart, it’s more than fair to assume he will see use in the designated hitter role in 2019 following the retirement of Victor Martinez. Exactly how much time Cabrera will see as a DH, however, remains to be seen.
Using him as a DH would theoretically reduce the wear and tear on his body over the course of the six-month season, but we need not look any farther than last June to see that this is nowhere near guaranteed. With the likes of Niko Goodrum and John Hicks returning for the 2019 season, there are options to provide relief for Cabrera at first base, thus opening the door for his increased presence in the DH role.
The potential of a DH merry-go-round consisting of Cabrera and outfield defensive liabilities Christin Stewart and Nicholas Castellanos remains a possibility, but that is a proposal for another time.
Question #2: How much of the Cabrera of old will return?
The Tigers haven’t been treated to what can be considered a “classic” season from Cabrera since 2016, a year in which he took home his latest Silver Slugger Award, made his latest All-Star team, and finished ninth in Most Valuable Player voting. Unfortunately, this is the last time he was fully healthy.
The 2017 season brought about career lows in offensive metrics like batting average (.249), home runs (16), RBI (60), doubles (22), slugging percentage (.399, the first sub-.400 mark of his career), OBP (.329) and walks (54). A deeper dive also reveals lows in OPS (.728), wRC and wRC+ (61 and 93, respectively), and weighted on-base average (wOBA, .313). It was also the first time that Cabrera registered as a negative, albeit just barely, in wins above replacement (-0.1).
Cabrera was exhibiting a return to form in 2018, especially in terms of hitting the ball hard, with an average exit velocity of 94.4 miles per hour in his pre-injury at-bats. His 54 percent hard contact rate was back to its pre-2017 form. A return to these kind of numbers isn’t out of the question.
Question #3: Can he stay healthy?
You knew this was coming.
Once again, this question remains on the forefront of our minds. It makes perfect sense, given that Cabrera missed 124 games – including 30 before his season-ending injury – in 2018, as well as 32 games the season before that. His recent injury history is quite expansive, affecting his upper body from his biceps to his back, as well as his lower body from his hip flexor to his hamstring to his ankle. This laundry list of maladies makes the question of Cabrera’s health all the more difficult to answer.
Should he turn in a full season, the projections are, on the whole, in Cabrera’s favor. This year’s FanGraphs Depth Charts projection paints a particularly encouraging picture, slating the injury-plagued Cabrera to appear in 155 games in 2019. They further project a .279/.365/.464 line with 24 home runs.
FanGraphs’ ATC projection, however, presents a less favorable (and perhaps injury-plagued) scenario. Cabrera’s line is still solid, projecting similarly to Depth Charts. However, ATC expects him to appear in just 110 games. Steamer projections are slightly more optimistic than Depth Charts, but with only an expected 127 games played.
Should any of the above come to pass, particularly those where Cabrera registers a full, healthy season, it will make the 2019 Tigers season all that much more enjoyable.
No matter what, hopes remain high
There will undoubtedly be bumps in the road for the Tigers in 2019. But Cabrera’s presence in the lineup will be a more than welcome sight for sore eyes. And there just might be the opportunity to witness history as he continues his approach to the illustrious plateaus of the 500 home run — he currently sits at 465 — and 3,000 hit clubs over the next few years.