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Tigers 2020 player preview: What can we expect from Miguel Cabrera?

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Cabrera’s best years are behind him, but is he still capable of pulling his weight in the lineup?

MLB: Detroit Tigers-Media Day Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 season was not kind to Miguel Cabrera.

After starting the year as a first baseman, the slugger continued to face a litany of lingering injuries in his knee, biceps, and back, and was moved into a full-time designated hitter role in early June in an attempt to preserve his health as he neared the halfway point of his eight-year extension signed way back in 2014.

In 80 games as the full-time DH, the Detroit Tigers’ $30 million man hit .279/.340/.753 with nine home runs and 12 doubles. He finished the season with 0.0 rWAR and -0.3 fWAR. It was a third consecutive unspectacular season for Cabrera and he knew it was time to make a change.

Over the offseason, Cabrera consumed more vegetables and fewer carbs in order to trim down and regain his previous physicality. It seems to have worked; Cabrera seems noticeably thinner now than he did in 2019.

That brings us to the $248 million question: is Miguel Cabrera in the best shape of his life?

The answer? Probably not. Those days are gone, reserved for the years where he was playing outfield and third base, when he was mashing baseballs at a blistering pace, and when he won two consecutive AL MVP Awards last decade.

But is Miguel Cabrera in good enough shape?

Perhaps. According to MLB.com’s Jason Beck, Cabrera is back to his playing weight from 2015, a year in which he led baseball in batting average (.338) and on-base percentage (.440) in 119 games while hitting 18 home runs.

Cabrera got off to a quick start this spring, albeit in an incredibly small sample size. He produced three hits and one walk in his first seven plate appearances, including an opposite field home run off New York Mets non-roster invitee Ryley Gilliam.

But a good spring does not mean a good summer. Last year, Cabrera tied for fourth among all players with five home runs before Opening Day, and hit .340/.418/1.142 in the process.

Examining outlooks

What do the computers think? Spoiler: you might want to proceed with caution.

ZiPS has Cabrera finishing with -0.5 fWAR, worse than players like Kade Scivicque, Daniel Pinero, Frank Schwindel, and Jhon Nunez. The system predicts Cabrera will hit just nine home runs, batting .262 with a .327 on-base percentage and a .700 OPS.

Or, not good.

Steamer is significantly more optimistic about the big man, believing he can produce one of his best offensive performances in recent years, although that does not clear a high bar. They foresee Cabrera hitting 20 home runs and 28 doubles, hitting .278./.350/.731 with the batting average and on-base percentage predicted to be the highest among all Tigers players. They predict that Cabrera will be worth 0.7 fWAR, or his highest total since 2016.

That number is brought down considerably by a projected -15.9 Def metric — a FanGraphs statistic based on value relative to positional average and positional value relative to other positions drawing from UZR.

At this point, the Tigers have not stated whether Cabrera will play the field much (if at all) in 2020. With the offseason addition of first baseman C.J. Cron, Cabrera figures to slot in at DH significantly more often than at first base.

While Cabrera has been taking grounders in spring training, it is not a clear-cut sign that he will play the field much, if at all. He played 26 games at first base in 2019, but that was still enough to get him a career-low -5.4 UZR/150 as a first baseman. Small sample sizes and all, but we already knew Cabrera won’t be winning any Gold Gloves from here on out.

Looking back to look ahead

Assuming Cabrera does not play in the field enough to significantly affect his WAR, what can he do better to finish as a net positive in the middle Detroit lineup?

Observe a handful of metrics from his past five seasons.

Miguel Cabrera

Year Pitches Barrel % Exit Velocity Hard Hit % Walk % fWAR
Year Pitches Barrel % Exit Velocity Hard Hit % Walk % fWAR
2015 1,985 10.6 93.6 53 15.1 4.6
2016 2,510 15.9 93.6 50.4 11 4.8
2017 2,045 10.5 91.3 47.9 10.2 -0.2
2018 601 4.6 94.4 54.6 14.1 0.7
2019 2,033 6.4 90.3 44.6 8.7 -0.3

In 2019, Cabrera netted five-year lows in exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, walk percentage and, as a result, fWAR. With comparisons to his physical shape from 2015, a middle ground between that year and 2019 could put his barrel percentage at 8.5 percent, average exit velocity at 91.95 mph and hard-hit percentage at 48.8 percent.

The one number that does not require Cabrera to be in pristine shape, though is walk percentage. Drawing walks at a clip closer to his 2015 mark than 2019 could go a long way to contributing to a relative return to form. Doing so could also help him reach a handful of milestones. Barring significant injury, Cabrera will get the six RBI needed to reach 1,700 for his career, becoming the 27th player to reach that mark. He needs 23 home runs to become the 28th player to hit 500 bombs, and 23 doubles to become the 18th player to reach 600 career two-baggers.

While unlikely to happen in 2020, Cabrera also needs 185 hits to reach the hallowed 3,000 hit milestone.

At this point, being optimistic about the soon-to-be 37-year-old’s production based upon offseason reports and spring production is fool’s gold. Gone are the days where Cabrera hits 30 home runs and competes for a Silver Slugger (or other hardware). But, if the changes we see above have an affect in the regular season, it is completely possible that he could be, at the very least, serviceable in the production-starved Tigers lineup.