Jeff Seidel: Detroit Tigers should hide Miguel Cabrera's glove, make him full-time DH

Detroit Free Press |

--Nobody will ever question Miguel Cabrera's toughness or his desire to play every inning.

He has played through all kinds of injuries over the last six seasons -- a groin tear and two herniated discs in 2017, a bad ankle and cracked foot in 2014and a hamstring last season.

Cabrera has reached an age -- he'll be 36 in April -- when he can get hurt just taking off for second base (a calf strain in 2015 put him on the disabled list for the first time in his career).

Or just rounding first base (he slipped, fell and strained his hip in 2018).

Or swinging a bat (he ruptured his biceps tendon last season and required season-ending surgery after just 38 games).

That's not Cabrera's fault. It's the natural aging process for a guy who has played 2,264 games over the last 16 years.

But here's the big issue: The Tigers owe Cabrera $154 million over the next five seasons (plus two seasons at $30 million each that would vest if Cabrera finishes in the top 10 of MVP voting in 2023 or 2024).

And it's imperative for the Tigers to keep him as healthy as possible, for as long as possible, which is why they should make him the full-time designated hitter to reduce the wear and tear on his body.

Will that guarantee his health? Of course not.

But now that Victor Martinez has retired, it only makes sense to move Cabrera into that designated hitter slot.

"We've talked to him already," Tigers general manager Al Avila said, during the Tigers Winter Caravan in late January. "(Manager Ron Gardenhire) and I talked to him about the possibility of DH-ing more often. He says he's open to do whatever is good for him, good for the team."

What's good for him and for the team in the long term?

Becoming a full-time DH.

When the Tigers' position players report to spring training on Sunday, Cabrera should leave his glove in his locker for the rest of his career, except in those rare instances when the Tigers play at a National League park.

It is the one option that will give the Tigers the best chance of getting the most return out of his massive contract.

Long-term plan

A few years ago, I was standing outside the Tigers' clubhouse in Lakeland, Fla., at spring training. It was early morning, the dew still on the grass.

Cabrera was on the field, taking grounders from his personal assistant, working before some of his teammates had even arrived. He was drenched with sweat.

It's obvious that Cabrera loves playing in the field -- you can see his childlike joy when he's messing with a base runner at first base. And it will certainly take a mental adjustment for Cabrera to move to the DH.

But it's time.

I will acknowledge this would create a short-term problem. The Tigers don't have any great options at first base and moving Cabrera to DH will create a trickle-down effect.

They could use either John Hicks or Niko Goodrum at first base. But Hicks will see time at catcher, and Goodrum, the Tigers' utilityman, could be a starter at second base.

So, bring up some more youngsters. Or maybe, the Tigers could see again if Nicholas Castellanos would try first base, if he's still around (a long shot, I know).

This isn't about the rest of the roster.

It's about squeezing everything you can out of a former Triple Crown winner over the next few years.

By 2023, several of the Tigers' prospects should be in the majors -- if they aren't, the rebuild will have been a complete failure. But Cabrera, who you can safely assume will still be with the Tigers by then, will make $32 million at 40 years old.

The Tigers' goal should be to do everything they can to preserve him until then, when the games, presumably, will matter again.

Cabrera played through "lower back stiffness" in 2017, which was later revealed to be two herniated discs in his back.

"This has probably slowly been developing for years," Brad Ausmus, then the manager, told reporters.

Ausmus predicted that Cabrera would spend more time at DH: "Not only do I think that would benefit (him) but I think it's going to happen," Ausmus told reporters.

That time should be now.

Playing through pain

Part of the problem is Cabrera. He'll downplay his injuries -- even to the Tigers organization -- and then go out and play first base and limp around the bases, even though he is all banged up.

Cabrera is so tough that in 2014 he had surgery on his right ankle to remove bone spurs and doctors found he had a stress fracture, an injury the team was not aware of previously.

There is a cumulative effect to all of these injuries.

"It wouldn't shock me, especially when bad weather is rolling in, that he would feel it the rest of his life," Ausmus said years ago, about Cabrera's ankle.

At another time, Ausmus said something similar about Cabrera's back.

If there is one thing I'm certain of, being a wee bit older than Cabrera: a sore back doesn't get better with age.

Do the right thing, Tigers. Hide his glove. Take him off first base. Keep him off his feet as much as possible, even during spring training drills.

And slid him into the DH slot, so that he can continue doing the thing he does best: hit a baseball.

If the Tigers are lucky and play this right, he'll still be able to do it when the prospects start contributing in Detroit.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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