Leyland: Playing third pumps Miggy up

Manager Jim Leyland says Miguel Cabrera's move to third has him in good spirits and playing MVP ball.

Miguel Cabrera this season has been more openly demonstrative than ever before.

He will pound the water jug like a bongo when frustrated and make pointed comments to teammates when the need arises. Cabrera also is much looser, happier and has developed a whole set of handshakes and interactive hand jive with teammates.

Neither Cabrera nor first baseman Prince Fielder have a name for the ever-evolving ritual of patty cake and imaginary sprinkling with their fingers that they get together for after homers, wins and anything that makes them happy.

"No name for it," Cabrera said.

"We don't call it anything," Fielder said. "But it keeps changing; that's for sure."

I asked Tigers manager Jim Leyland on the phone Friday if Fielder has been the greatest source of Cabrera's new-found happiness. But Leyland's answer went in an entirely different direction.

"What Miguel did was take the third base job very seriously, and that pumped him up." he said. "It's where he wanted to play the last few years.

"He's really happy and in really good spirits."

Cabrera moved from third base to first base early in the 2008 season, and Brandon Inge eventually settled in again at the hot corner. Inge made the 2009 All-Star team and the daily fielding highlight reels. But then injuries began sapping his ability to produce.

"We kind of knew it that (Cabrera) wanted to play at third," Leyland said.

So, Cabrera expressed that desire even before Fielder signed as a free agent before spring training?

"Yeah," Leyland said.

And so the call Leyland made after Fielder signed on for nine years at $214 million on Jan. 27 was not really the shocker it's been made out to be.

"I called Miggy when we got Prince to ask him to play third," Leyland said. "He said, 'Absolutely.' "

Cabrera cut weight and toned his body to ready for the challenge. He's been adequate in the field and is on pace for his finest offensive season as a Triple Crown challenger.

Leyland is promoting Cabrera for his first AL MVP award after five top-five finishes in MVP voting.

In a recent Detroit radio interview with Mike Stone, Leyland said, "If the voting was today, Miguel Cabrera's the MVP. However, he could run into one of these 'Wonderboy' stories, a young kid, 20 years old.

"Everybody gets excited about that. Everybody loves that. It's got a nice ring to it. It should have. So, I think that's dangerous for Miggy."

Leyland said any negative reactions to that comment are undeserved.

"I love the (Mike) Trout kid," Leyland told me. "He's one of the best players I've seen. And 'Wonderboy's' got a nice ring to it. That's a compliment."

On Cabrera, Leyland added, "He's been Superman, Batman. He's the MVP. He's not only doing it this year, but he's been doing it for a long period of time.

"He had hit 30 homers and driven in 100 runs for five straight years before this year."

Cabrera is batting .329 with 31 homers and 104 RBIs after clearing the bases one more time Friday night against the Orioles.

Trout, who turned 21 on Aug. 7, is hitting .339 with 22 homers, 66 RBIs, 38 stolen bases, 93 runs and three homers robbed with stupendous leaps over outfield fences. He leads the league in batting, runs and steals.

Cabrera is first in RBIs, second in average and tied for third in homers.

In a recent Baseball America poll of managers, Cabrera was chosen the league's best hitter.

Leyland, 67, was selected the league's top manager by his peers in that poll.

He has Detroit 1 1/2 games behind the White Sox in an attempt to become the first Tigers team to win consecutive division titles. The Tigers haven't won anything consecutively since the 1934 and 1935 pennants won under player-manager Mickey Cochrane, a Hall of Famer.

Leyland, managing on a one-year contract, was asked about coming back in 2013.

"I have no idea," he said. "At some point, they will tell me if I will be back or I will not be back. But I don't want any distractions like this."

I asked Leyland if he wanted to come back.

"I hope so," he said. "But I'm not getting into that."

There are 43 games to be played in the stretch drive, and that's where he wants the focus to be placed.

A second wild-card berth has been added for this postseason. Those two wild-card teams will play one game to determine which one advances to a five-game series with a division champ.

Leyland was asked if he thought it was a good change because it places more emphasis on winning your division.

"I think so," he said. "You set your goal to win the division. If not, you take what's left.

"We're trying to win the division, but the White Sox have been awfully stubborn. Up to now, they've played better than us."

There's plenty to be settled over the next seven weeks.

Detroit has much to win and much to lose.