The shadow of Miguel Cabrera

For the first time since 2016, Miguel Cabrera is the most effective hitter on the Detroit Tigers. If you were told there’d be a three year gap between his being the top dog in Detroit, you’d think that Nicholas Castellanos broke out, or they signed a big bat, or maybe Justin Upton had a huge, potential-realizing 2017 or ‘18.

Part of that is correct— it was Castellanos who was their best hitter for the last few years. What’s ignored is that he leads Detroit in wRC+ at a nice, round 100. Just saying he’s their best hitter glosses over what has become a hideous pain and constant reminder of bad decisions and the ravages of time for Tigers fans, and really anyone who likes watching baseball. The man wearing 24 in Detroit every day is a shadow of what was, at one time, the mightiest man in the majors.

Talk to a fan of any AL Central team that isn’t Detroit. There was a decade where the last thing you wanted to see was Miguel Cabrera, much less Miguel Cabrera with a man on base in a close game. That’s a recipe for a flipped lead or a sudden blowout. From 2008 to 2016 he simply abused his division, or more accurately Cleveland and Kansas City:

Miguel Cabrera vs. the AL Central 2008-2016

Team Games wRC+ Home Runs
Team Games wRC+ Home Runs
Cleveland 159 173 40
Kansas City 157 135 23
Minnesota 161 158 39
Chicago (AL) 151 135 31

From when he joined Detroit in 2008 through 2016, his 160 wRC+ trails only Mike Trout, and those two MVP’s and a damn Triple Crown make for a nice little trophy case. The simple way of putting it: he was a marvel. It’s shocking that he’s fallen so far. When you see Nelson Cruz battering baseballs at 38 or Edwin Encarnación notching another 30-homer season at 35, you wish some of that magic could go Cabrera’s way. But it’s not to be.

Yes, age does destroy even the greatest of players. No matter your favorite, he will be felled one day. But this cliff-like collapse is simply miserable, especially after what we’ve had to go through with Albert Pujols. These two men were, at one time, the most destructive forces in all of baseball. Pujols hit a ball to the moon and broke Brad Hand. Cabrera literally stole a fan from the Indians, at Progressive Field. These are instances of a greater glory, ones we have to hunt for on YouTube because the man we see today isn’t the one we remember.

When Nolan Arenado signed a Rockies-record seven-year deal to stick with the club this winter, this was heralded as a victory for the little guy. Same thing with Xander Bogaerts’ seven year deal with the Red Sox, except for the whole “little guy” thing. It’s almost like a salute to the fans— especially the Arenado deal— that it’s actually worth it to root for this team, that you get more than just laundry to watch. Fans deserve their stars. The Cabrera deal was a bit more hated on simply because he wasn’t a 27-year old entering his prime, he was a beefy 33-year old showing signs of regression, but it was like a cap-tip to the fans of Detroit for showing up every day, without fail. It’s not smart baseball to pay a guy for what he’s done for you, but baseball isn’t just about the raw stats, not all the time, is it? There’s a soul to the game that demands attention, an attachment between team or player and city. This, as much as the strikeouts and dingers, is why we watch.

That’s what makes this precipitous fall so depressing. No matter how you felt about Cabrera when he was laying waste to pitching everywhere, he was a singular figure, a magnificent titan of baseball, a living legend. He deserved everything he got, whether the awards, the adulation of the fans, or just that money. It’s an utter albatross of a contract, and as the Tigers rebuild continues there’s going to be constant conversation around what they should do about their faded superstar. Besides just the lack of production, the man’s legacy will be tarnished. Legends are supposed to be calcified, an unchanging memory, and each day he takes this field in this diminished state is another little chipping away at that statue of memory.

This late career decline will be forgotten, or at least glossed over when we look back on his life in baseball. The same can be said of Mickey Mantle or Pete Rose or Willie Mays or any great who kept going despite being diminished. For the Tigers and their fans, at least he’s a reminder of better days, and what could be again. After all, they’re the team that went from a 119-loss season to a World Series in just three years. They know it’s not always like this, and with Cabrera they at least get to think back to those good days, maybe tell their young kids that a little while ago, this guy was just the best. He’s the last piece of a would-be dynasty, one of the greatest what-if teams in baseball history. It sure does suck to see him not be the great Cabrera anymore, but at least we have a living memory to watch.


Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball stuff at Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.

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