On Friday, the one-year anniversary of his painful, belated arrival at spring training, Miguel Cabrera was one of the first Detroit Tigers at work. He is one of the first at work every day, transforming his body, sacrificing for his team and if it all works out, further elevating his place in the game.
Exactly one year ago, just a few yards away, he had held a news conference apologizing for his DUI arrest and committing to baseball’s treatment program. But he also had received treatment for substance abuse in October 2009 and questions persisted about whether alcohol problems would derail his career.
Cabrera, who turns 29 on April 18, went on to appear in 161 games, winning his first battling title, leading the majors in doubles and on-base percentage, and helping lift the Tigers to the American League Central title and an appearance in the AL Championship Series.
And now, here he was, strapped to a harness, sprinting at full speed along the warning track — greater than full speed even. Tigers strength and conditioning coach Radhi Muhammad was pulling Cabrera along, propelling him in an “overspeed” drill. Raul Gonzalez, Cabrera’s appointed mentor and companion, walked back with him to the starting point after each sprint was complete.
Every morning it’s something different as Cabrera tries to lose the weight necessary for him to make a successful return to third base. On Saturday, Cabrera worked on his core conditioning. Other days, he performs agility drills. Always, he arrives at 7 a.m., even though workouts do not start until 10.
“That’s pretty early,” a reporter said.
“(Roy) Halladay gets there at 4,” Cabrera replied, referring to the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher. “That’s way early.”
His mood was light, his manner easy, his smile genuine.
What was it that he had said a year ago?
“I want to regain my reputation. I will work hard to regain that respect back.”
Perceptions change quickly. Perceptions die hard. But Cabrera is proof that perceptions need not last forever.
For players recovering from substance-abuse problems, in particular, the journey can go either way.
A year ago, some held out Josh Hamilton as an example for Cabrera. Hamilton had overcome his addictions to win the 2010 American League MVP award. Now he is coming off an alcohol relapse and struggling to persuade the Texas Rangers to award him a long-term contract.
Cabrera, meanwhile, is on an upward path — a path that could lead to a new perception of him, a perception that he is the best player in the game.
He already would be in the top five on most lists. But now, to accommodate the signing of free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, Cabrera is returning to third base. He last played third regularly in 2007 before lasting only 14 games at the position the following season, his first with the Tigers.
If he succeeds?
“He goes from here,” Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila said, holding his hand at his chest, “to way up here,” raising his hand above his head.
Avila, previously with the Florida Marlins, has a long history with Cabrera — he played a pivotal role in 1999 when the Marlins signed Cabrera. Cabrera’s return to a more challenging defensive position, Avila said, would only increase his impact.
“He’s going from a first baseman/DH to now a third baseman,” Avila said. “I’m not downplaying the difficulty of playing first base. But he elevates himself, with the same offensive numbers, to arguably the best player in the game. One, because of the difficulty of the position. Two, because he took a leadership role and accepted that job.”
Cabrera sees the change as no big deal. “I always want to play third base. They wouldn’t let me play it,” he joked.
Actually, he would have played third in the National League park if the Tigers had reached the World Series last season, allowing designated hitter Victor Martinez to remain in the lineup at first.
Cabrera said he spoke during the offseason with Martinez, his fellow Venezuelan, about at least playing third in interleague road games in 2012.
Cabrera’s idea proved prophetic — but unfortunately for the wrong reason.
In January, Martinez suffered a season-ending knee injury, prompting the Tigers to sign Fielder. Manager Jim Leyland called Cabrera, asking him if he would be comfortable playing third. Cabrera said he already was prepared for the move.
“The good thing is, we got Prince here.” Cabrera said. “We got Prince in the lineup. He brings a lot of power, a lot of positive things to the team. When you have a player like that, you’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to think about how good we’re going to be with him.”
So the move, Cabrera said, was “my pleasure.”
Yet, it is not something others take lightly.
Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who had the pleasure of managing Albert Pujols, said he had “admiration” for what Cabrera was trying to accomplish.
“You have that kind of a special player who would disrupt where he is in his career,” said La Russa, who spent several days visiting the Tigers this week. “He knows how much it will benefit the team. That raises him to another level as a teammate.”
Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander, the reigning American League Cy Young and MVP, agreed.
“The work ethic he has put in shows he’s committed to it,” Verlander said. “Not that he needs respect from his teammates — he’s already earned that — but it shows how much he wants it, how much he wants to win.”
Now the question: Can Cabrera actually pull off the move to third?
Leyland, recalling his days with the Marlins, said earlier in camp, “In 1997 everybody told me I could not play Bobby Bonilla at third base and win. We won the World Series.”
Then, again, Leyland was the manager who moved Cabrera off third in ’08, in part because Cabrera was overweight and in part because Carlos Guillen, a former shortstop, was playing poorly at first and figured to be better at third.
Skeptics throughout the industry doubt Cabrera will make a successful transition, even though Cabrera is down to 265 pounds from an estimated 280-290 and Leyland expects him to play at 255 this season.
Cabrera possesses many of the physical tools required at third — soft hands, quick feet, a powerful arm. But even Tigers infield coach Rafael Belliard, a former shortstop, acknowledges that Cabrera’s sheer size increases the degree of difficulty.
“There’s no way you can ask him to have good range,” Belliard said. “He’s a big guy.”
In Belliard’s view, Cabrera simply needs to make the routine plays, and the Tigers will be satisifed. Yet, even for that to happen, Avila said that Cabrera must adjust physically and mentally.
“He’s got to lose some weight, no doubt, because that’s part of that position,” Avila said. “You can’t be 280 pounds playing third base. He has been losing the weight. He will lose a little bit more. That already is partly accomplished.
“The second thing — the most important thing, I believe — is the concentration on every pitch. You can’t be in la-la land. You’ve got to be concentrating. That’s true of any position in the infield but more so at third base. You don’t have the time to think about things there. You’ve got to be ready.”
La Russa had a great player who made almost the opposite move — Pujols went to first full time in 2003 because of an elbow problem after also playing outfield and third base.
Yet, while La Russa considers Pujols the best player he ever managed, he echoes Avila’s sentiments, saying that third requires much more intensity than first.
“The most demanding thing for a guy who is such a great offensive player is to play well defensively at one of those (more difficult) positions, every pitch, for 140 to 150 pitches a game,” La Russa said.
“At first, you knock the ball down and go tag the base. At third base, you’ve got to make plays, react on bunts, catch the ball, throw the ball to first base. Being an outstanding first baseman is something I would never take for granted. But playing third base there are maybe a half-dozen extra responsibilities. It’s not easy, it’s hard.”
Cabrera, though, is enthusiastic about the switch — as opposed to, say, the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez, who still considers himself a shortstop and is reluctant to move to third.
A good attitude won’t make Cabrera a good third baseman, but embracing the challenge should help. Cabrera is doing that, but he also is convinced he can again be a quality defender at third through sheer perseverance and hard work.
He worked on slow rollers Friday, circling the ball to get into proper throwing position, and eventually he will tackle bunt plays.
In one drill, infield coach Rafael Belliard stands about 10 feet from Cabrera, then hits balls close to him to elicit quick reactions similar to the ones needed at third.
“Everyone talks about, ‘He’s going to have some problems from side to side,’ ” Cabrera said. “You know, if you don’t work hard or the right way, you will have problems with everything. Going to the bunt, going side to side. I’ve got to prepare myself to be ready for any play.”
He is working. He is preparing.
His return to third might not be smooth or comfortable. But one year after his world came crashing down, Miguel Cabrera is in the right place.