Miguel Cabrera Is the $248M MVP No One Wants to Trade For

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 22, 2019

DETROIT, MI - JUNE 29:  Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers looks on while waiting on-deck to bat during the game against the Washington Nationals at Comerica Park on June 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Nationals 7-5.  (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Save for one inconvenient truth, the Detroit Tigers' rebuild is progressing well.

Events such as trades of Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton in 2017 and the drafting of Casey Mize in 2018 have helped transform the club's farm system from one of Major League Baseball's worst into one of its best.

Further trades of Nicholas Castellanos, Shane Greene and possibly Matthew Boyd ahead of this year's July 31 deadline should outfit Detroit's system with even more talent. And after 2020, there will be only one big-money contract left on the club's books.

But therein lies said inconvenient truth: Miguel Cabrera isn't going anywhere.

Or so it would seem safe to assume. While nobody from the Tigers—who are on track to follow 98-loss seasons in 2017 and 2018 with 111 losses this year—is insisting that Cabrera is staying put, that there hasn't even been speculation to the contrary reflects where the 11-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP's trade value is.

After playing in only 168 games over the last two seasons because of injuries, the 36-year-old has at least been "healthy" enough to play in 88 games in 2019. Those quotations are necessary, however, because he's playing through a chronic knee condition that has effectively ended his career as a first baseman.

Cabrera is strictly a designated "hitter" now. But once again, quotations are necessary because he's working on a career-low .718 OPS with only five homers.

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference

Cabrera's .283 batting average and .346 on-base percentage confirm that he still at least has the fundamentals of an all-time great knack for hitting. He's also been clutch with a .438 average with runners in scoring position.

Trouble is, he just can't hit for power anymore.

The right-handed swinger's fly balls are lacking in exit velocity (88.6 mph) and frequency to his pull side. Factor in his utter lack of speed to leg out doubles and triples, and it's no accident that his .089 ISO (isolated power) is fourth-worst among qualified hitters.

It's going to take some time for Cabrera to hit the 30 homers he needs to join the hallowed 500 home run club. And it's a good thing he already boasts enough career wins above replacement to qualify as a Hall of Fame-caliber first baseman, because he's probably only going backward in that category.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18: Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers reacts after striking out against Trevor Bauer #47 of the Cleveland Indians during the third inning at Progressive Field on July 18, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Ima
Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Cabrera isn't getting any cheaper. At the outset of 2019, the eight-year, $248 million contract extension he signed in March 2014 still had five years and $154 million remaining on it.

The only hypothetical situation in which the Tigers can trade Cabrera involves them swallowing a huge portion of his remaining contract and getting little or nothing of value back in return. If the choice is between that and simply continuing to pay the man, the latter might be the better option.

Of course, none of this is Cabrera's fault. He hit all the right notes in defense of both himself and other big-money players to Bob Nightengale of USA Today in March:

"I don't know why people get mad at us. They don't like it when we get money. Why weren't people mad the first five years when I wasn't getting paid?

"People can say I'm not worth this contract. They can say whatever they want, really. But they're not going to hurt my feelings.

"I'm not going to apologize. Why should anyone be sorry? I don't see any teams losing money. They all have it."

Indeed, all Cabrera is guilty of is being human.

First, in taking a huge sum of money that was offered. Second, in succumbing to the effects of his age and his odometer, which has racked up 2,407 regular and postseason games (he's right to feel unappreciated about that, too) since he debuted with the Florida Marlins in 2003. Third, in continuing to cash his checks anyway because, well, why wouldn't he?

It's fair enough if Cabrera considers his current salary to be back pay for what he did in his prime. He averaged a .976 OPS and 35 homers per year between 2004 and 2013. Of those seasons, the last two netted him AL MVPs by way of the first Triple Crown season since 1967 and an even better season (see here, here and here) a year later.

Yet as brilliant as Cabrera's 2013 season was, the back end of it was marred by a groin tear which eventually required surgery. Given that he was already on the wrong side of 30, it didn't take a monumental leap of logic to conclude that probably wouldn't be his last serious health issue.

To boot, pressure on the Tigers—specifically former general manager Dave Dombrowski and late owner Mike Ilitch—to lock Cabrera up was virtually nonexistent. He was already signed to a $153.3 million contract that had two years and $44 million left on it. The deal they signed him to in 2014 wouldn't officially begin in 2016.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The Tigers at least got a vintage season (.956 OPS and 38 homers) out of Cabrera that year. His $248 million deal has otherwise played out as disappointingly as any skeptic could have imagined, and Detroit's contention window hasn't survived in spite of it.

After going at least as far as the American League Championship Series in 2011, 2012 (when they went to the World Series) and 2013, the Tigers won only 90 games and got swept out of the American League Division Series in 2014. Then came a 2015 season marked by 87 losses and Dombrowski's ouster, followed by a modest recovery to 86 wins in 2016.

And then, finally, came 2017. The combination of Ilitch's death and poor returns from an aging and expensive roster gave GM Al Avila little choice but to finally pivot to a rebuild.

The Tigers might have begun rebuilding earlier with a deal of none other than Cabrera. According to Jon Morosi of MLB.com, at least one team was interested in him after 2016:

It's hard not to wonder about how the Tigers trading Cabrera to the Astros might have altered baseball history. Maybe the Astros are the fallen powerhouse with an immovable albatross right now. Meanwhile, maybe the Tigers are a rising power built around a core of exciting homegrown talent.

In this reality, however, Cabrera's journey with the Tigers can probably only end well if he's still capable of contributing to the contender that's currently under construction.

Perhaps this isn't entirely out of the question. For their part, the Tigers will soon be graduating prospects to the majors and buying any other parts they might need. For his part, Cabrera might get a second wind from his new duties as an everyday DH. It's conceivable that these two things will combine to form something special by 2023.

That's the happiest ending the Tigers can hope for, anyway. In the meantime, all they can do is keep playing Cabrera and revel in whatever reminders of the good ol' days he provides.

                    

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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