Can Miguel Cabrera Overcome Slump, Injuries to Carry the Tigers in October?
Wednesday night was a time to celebrate in Detroit because the Tigers locked up their third consecutive American League Central title with a 1-0 victory over Minnesota. It was also a time to start wondering about the state of the offense.
More specifically, wondering about the state of Miguel Cabrera's health.
It is no secret that Cabrera has battled injuries down the stretch. He hasn't been right for a few weeks, but things seemed to reach a fever pitch on Sept. 21 when he was taken out of a game against the White Sox with a sore groin.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters the next day that he "wasn't sure" when the injury happened, but he didn't "think it's too good."
There was also the abdominal injury that Cabrera suffered at the end of August, likely compounding his struggles.
On the plus side, Cabrera played in all three games during Detroit's division-clinching series against the Twins. He didn't do much, recording just two hits (both singles) in 12 at-bats, but the fact he was playing had to relieve some fears.
Yet when you look at the performance of late, a lot of it looks like that series against the Twins. Cabrera is hitting just .246/.380/.308 in September with two extra-base hits in 65 at-bats.
On top of that, as Dave Schoenfield of ESPN.com noted, Cabrera is no longer hitting the inside pitch at the same rate he did when he was tearing the cover off the ball between April and August.
The abdominal strain has affected his ability to turn on inside pitches -- through August he was hitting .401 on pitches on the inner half of the plate; in September, he’s hitting just .200 on inner-half pitches. His groin is bothering him perhaps because of the ab injury, which further limits him.
Everyone is entitled to an off month, but when you have been doing superhuman things with the bat all year then you get hurt and the performance drops off as much as it has for Cabrera, it is right to question what you are going to do in the postseason.
Regardless of the narrative around the second consecutive Triple Crown title that won't happen because Chris Davis is going to win the home run title, the Tigers are built to win a championship. They have the starting rotation that can dominate in a short series with a lineup that, especially at the top, can do serious damage.
The whole thing only works if Cabrera is healthy. We look at the names in Detroit's starting lineup every day (Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Victor Martinez) and assume this is one of the best offensive teams in baseball.
The stats would seem to support that, as the Tigers rank first in average (.285) and on-base percentage (.348) and second in slugging percentage (.438) and runs scored (793).
But they have also been shut out 11 times because, with the exception of Jackson and Hunter, they are a station-to-station team that isn't capable of taking extra bases. According to Fangraphs, the Tigers rank last in baserunning runs at negative-18.6.
In order to overcome that weakness, the Tigers have built a powerful lineup so they can just jog around the bases.
Cabrera is the key that makes the whole thing work. The Tigers as a team have hit 176 home runs, with Cabrera's 44 accounting for exactly 25 percent of that total. They do have eight players with at least 10 home runs, which speaks to the increased depth the front office has built, but no one is denying that Cabrera is the glue that holds it together.
So with the Tigers trying to get over that World Series hump after winning the American League last year, is there enough left in Cabrera's tank to be the player he was in April, May, June, July and August?
The simple answer would be to say I don't know, because the only person who really knows how good or bad Cabrera is feeling is Cabrera. But that is also a cop-out, which is not something you have been reading to hear me say.
My real answer is, probably not. I think Leyland, Cabrera and the Tigers made a huge mistake with this injury by not putting him on the disabled list, or at least giving him enough rest down the stretch to prepare for the postseason.
Even though it took the Tigers longer than expected to clinch a playoff berth and the AL Central division title, there was never any doubt that it was going to happen. They came into September with an 8.5-game lead over Cleveland. Even if the Indians played out of their mind, it would take a colossal failing on Detroit's part to lose the division.
Considering the strength of the Tigers starting pitching, they were never going to go on a losing streak long enough for Cleveland or anyone else in the Central to catch them. With that being the case, what is the point in continuing to play Cabrera?
If it was for the second consecutive Triple Crown, that's ridiculous because as good as that story can be, it is not the goal for Cabrera or the Tigers.
If Cabrera insisted that he was good enough to keep playing, that is on him. But at some point the team should step in to protect their best player from himself.
Who will be Detroit's best offensive player in the postseason?
We have seen just how damaging these injuries have been to Cabrera. Since Aug. 27, his batting average has dropped 12 points (.357 to .345), his on-base percentage has dropped nine points (.449 to .440) and his slugging percentage has dropped a whopping 48 points (.685 to .637).
I don't see how, especially as the Tigers start playing in the cold fall weather in Detroit, Cabrera's injuries are going to get better as he keeps playing. Abdominal and groin injuries are not the kinds of things that can go away overnight; you need to sit and rest.
I would be surprised if Cabrera played much this weekend against the Marlins, especially since it is in Miami and he can't DH, as a way to get him some rest. Perhaps that time off, combined with the fact that the ALDS doesn't start until Oct. 4, will be enough for Cabrera.
Of course, these injuries may have also forced Cabrera to alter his swing and that can throw timing off if/when he gets healthy. When you are going up against the best pitching in baseball, it is imperative that your swing mechanics are in perfect sync if you want to reach your full potential.
Having said all that, I don't necessarily think that the Tigers are doomed in the postseason even if Cabrera doesn't hit as well as he did in the first five months of the season because they are going to throw Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister at you in a short series.
When you can put four starters of that caliber out there in the postseason, you won't need to score a lot of runs. It would be a bit easier for the Tigers to make a deep run if Cabrera were healthy, but even though he clearly isn't, that's no reason to give up on this team.
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