Cabrera proves me wrong

In March, I suggested in this space that Miguel Cabrera would have his worst season as a Tiger.

"I remember," Dave Dombrowski told me a few days ago.

Dombrowski, the Tigers’ president and general manager, was standing in a Milwaukee hotel at baseball’s executive meetings when I reminded him of my mid-spring prediction. He smiled.

You see, Miguel Cabrera did not have his worst season as a Tiger in 2011. He was magnificent.

Cabrera won the American League batting title. He led Detroit to a division championship and past the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. He posted his eighth consecutive 100-RBI season, pushing his career total beyond where Albert Pujols was at the same age (28). On Monday, Cabrera will finish among the top 10 in AL MVP balloting — maybe the top five.

There were credible reasons why I harbored so many doubts about Cabrera’s 2011 season: His arrest on suspicion of drunk driving — the second highly publicized alcohol incident of his career — had happened less than a month before. He appeared sluggish on the field. His spring batting average was down. I thought the pressure and scrutiny would ruin his year.

Maybe I underestimated Cabrera’s ability to adhere to the "multifaceted, professionally administered program" established by Major League Baseball and the players’ union to treat his alcohol addiction. Maybe I underestimated the potential of a more disciplined Cabrera. Maybe I underestimated the resolve he would show following the public embarrassment.

The point is that I underestimated the man, and I’m glad he proved me wrong.

Can I certify that Cabrera hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since his Feb. 16 arrest in St. Lucie County, Fla.? Of course not. Cabrera alone knows that answer, and he hasn’t granted interviews on off-the-field subjects since the incident nine months ago.

Here’s what I can tell you:

• Dombrowski remarked on multiple occasions how impressed he was with Cabrera’s level of commitment to the program. "It’s got so many checks and balances, so many people involved — it’s a great program," the GM said. "His representatives are committed to making it work. They knew. He knew. His family knew."

• Cabrera’s treatment plan stipulated that "any future alcohol-related incidents could involve more serious consequences." Cabrera isn’t known to have violated that clause.

• Dombrowski said Raul Gonzalez, the former major league outfielder who served as Cabrera’s sober companion, will return next year in the same role. "I think he helped him a lot," Dombrowski said of Gonzalez. "(Cabrera) didn’t know him beforehand. They probably had some ups and downs, because any time you don’t know somebody and they’re with you all the time, it’s only human nature. But I think he did a great job."

Cabrera was serene off the field and menacing on it this year, enjoying the camaraderie of an easygoing clubhouse while mashing his way to the best OPS+ of his career. He showed patience and confidence at the plate, finishing with the best walk and strikeout rates of his career. When he needed a huge September to clinch the batting title, Cabrera hit .429. "I think he made up his mind, he was going to win the batting title," manager Jim Leyland said. "And he won it."

Cabrera could have been affected by the October expectations or the still-unresolved charges in Florida. But he rampaged in the right way, racking up a 1.606 OPS beneath the searing spotlight of the ALCS; Texas pitchers were so leery of him that he walked seven times in six games. Moments after Detroit’s season ended with a 15-5 beating in Game 6, Cabrera could stand before the media and say: "It was a good run, man . . . It was fun this year."

Asked how his superstar first baseman did it all, Dombrowski shrugged and answered simply.

"Because he’s a great player — and I mean a great player," Dombrowski said. "He took care of himself, as we all saw.

"A lot of great players (in the past) had off-field issues (and still) had great years. You can do that. Then you start saying, ‘He’s not having off-field issues, and they’ve got that same ability,’ and you pretty much figure they’re going to have a good year."

Cabrera has baseball’s highest combined OPS over the past two seasons. If there is room for improvement there, it will take his preternatural hitting talent to discover it.

The biggest issue with Cabrera’s performance falls under the heading of defense and conditioning. Cabrera is a very large man, listed at 6-feet-4 and 240 pounds in this year’s media guide. To the naked eye, he looked heavier than that by season’s end. One member of the organization told me late in the season that Cabrera could still be an everyday third baseman if he dropped 20 pounds.

That’s an intriguing concept, because it would allow the Tigers to work another big bat into the lineup by moving designated hitter Victor Martinez to first base. But Dombrowski said the team hasn’t discussed that as a possibility for 2012.

"We’re not looking at him being our regular third baseman," Dombrowski said. "But when we play NL games, could we think about it? It is a possibility (under NL rules), but we haven’t had that discussion."

Asked if the team has adjusted Cabrera’s offseason conditioning program, Dombrowski said, "We have some things. I wouldn’t get into (the specifics). But he’s committed to coming back in great shape."

Even now, the off-the-field concerns haven’t disappeared. Cabrera’s trial in Florida is scheduled to begin Nov. 30. He faces charges of driving under the influence, resisting an officer without violence and having an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle. In the courtroom of Judge Cliff Barnes, Cabrera won’t be the All-Star who redeemed himself with a standout season. He will be a defendant.

Regardless of the verdict, it is expected that he will report to Lakeland, Fla., for spring training three months from now. Once again, he will have two responsibilities: demolish baseballs and stay sober. For Cabrera, one job has always been easier than the other. But in 2011, he earned the benefit of the doubt that he can handle both.