The exact description has changed over time: first a sore hip flexor, then an abdominal wall strain, and most recently an injured groin. But the essence of the story is this: Miguel Cabrera has been playing hurt for about two months.
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And now his health is the most pressing concern for the postseason-bound Detroit Tigers.
Cabrera said Friday that he feels “much better.” Tigers manager Jim Leyland offered a similarly optimistic forecast. Dave Dombrowski, the club president and general manager, told FOX Sports the team hasn’t had recent discussions about resting Cabrera for more than one game at a time.
But when Cabrera was asked Friday if he believes he will feel 100 percent before the season is over, this is what he said:
“It’s something I have to deal (with) now. I wish I can be 100 percent. But we need to keep working and see what happens.”
In other words: I don’t know.
Cabrera is the reigning American League Most Valuable Player. He was a candidate to become baseball’s first back-to-back Triple Crown winner until the injuries caused him to fall further behind Chris Davis in the home run race. Cabrera, with a career OPS of .968, is one of the most reliable performers in the major leagues. But now he is the source of discomfiting uncertainty.
“We know exactly how we’re handling it,” Leyland assured reporters Friday afternoon. “You cringe if you have to see him move a certain way. You hold your breath for the kid, because he’s going out there. I wouldn’t put him out there unless I felt he could go out there, obviously. We don’t do that here.
“I hope he’s pretty well on the mend, but sometimes those things go day-to-day. Sleep wrong, make a subtle move during BP, taking swings — I don’t know what to tell you, to be honest with you. I’m just thankful he’s playing. Days he can’t play, I won’t play him.”
Friday, he could play. Cabrera went 1-for-3 in Detroit’s 6-3 win over Kansas City. With a fourth-inning double, he ended a stretch of 10 consecutive games without an extra-base hit — tied for the third-longest streak of his major-league career, according to STATS LLC.
Small sample size? Sure. But it’s alarming just the same, since a healthier Cabrera was able to produce gappers at will throughout the first half.
“Man, the guy’s hurt, and he goes out there and plays as hard as he can,” teammate Max Scherzer said admiringly. “He’ll play through the injury. He’ll do whatever it takes to stay on the field. You know it’s bugging him. You can see he’s not 100 percent. But he does everything he can to play every day. That’s a huge credit to his personality, work ethic, and how hard he plays.”
Still, the second-guessing has begun: Should the Tigers have placed Cabrera on the disabled list in July or August? I don’t know. Neither do you — unless you are a physician who has examined him. Maybe Cabrera’s condition would have improved with rest. Or maybe he’s dealing with a set of injuries that won’t heal completely until the offseason, when he has several months to rehabilitate.
It’s worth noting that Cabrera’s most recent period of extended rest didn’t help. In fact, it arguably hurt his performance. Cabrera left after only one at-bat Aug. 30 against the Cleveland Indians and didn’t play in the Tigers’ next three games. Since returning, he is struggling. “My timing is right here, but my swing is all over the place,” Cabrera said Friday. Even after Friday’s double, he struck out awkwardly on three pitches in his next at-bat.
Asked before Friday’s game if it would have been helpful to go on the DL earlier this year, Cabrera said, “At some points, yeah, but at some points, I say, ‘What happens if you’re ready in five days?’ You’re going to lose 10 days of the season. … Right now we don’t care because this is the past. … In the future, if this happens, we know what we need to do. We’ve got a better idea of what to do — go to the DL or keep playing.”
Cabrera said all of that matter-of-factly, which is the proper tone for this discussion. To argue the Tigers were reckless for allowing Cabrera to play in August would be absurd: He amassed an OPS of 1.162, belted 11 home runs, won AL Player of the Month honors, and helped the team take a commanding division lead. So, save the moralizing: This is not Mike Shanahan and RGIII.
Yet, it would be foolish to ignore the peril Cabrera and the Tigers face. Leyland, 68 years old and deeply principled in his baseball beliefs, would not assume a division title if he had a magic number of 1 and a 27-0 lead with two outs in the ninth. If you could guarantee Leyland a postseason berth, would he play Cabrera every other day down the stretch — thus allowing him to rest without gathering rust? Perhaps. But Leyland refuses to look at the standings that way, even with a solid lead over the Cleveland Indians. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he said Friday.
The broader view, though, suggests the Tigers ought to predicate all Cabrera-related decisions on a single concept: His body — and his swing — must be as ready as possible for Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Friday, Oct. 4. In evaluating the success or failure of a season, the Tigers have Yankee-esque expectations: Anything short of a World Series title will be a disappointment, particularly given the massive financial commitment of 84-year-old owner Mike Ilitch.
The Tigers have accomplished just about everything in Leyland’s first seven seasons as manager: two pennants, two division titles, MVPs for Cabrera and Justin Verlander, a Cy Young for Verlander. Detroit could claim another MVP (Cabrera) and Cy Young (Scherzer) before the year is over. But they haven’t hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy, and this might be the most complete roster Leyland has had in Detroit.
The Tigers have scored the second-most runs in the AL while allowing the third-fewest. Verlander, enigmatic for much of the year, looked like an ace again Friday, allowing three earned runs over 6 2/3 innings. Prince Fielder, who slumped in July, continued his productive month with a home run and three RBI. With Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez, the Tigers have a deeper lineup than when they went to the World Series last year.
But if the best hitter in baseball isn’t healthy, will any of that matter?
To put it another way, can the Tigers win the World Series if Cabrera is something less than 100 percent?
“Of course, it’s possible,” Scherzer told me Friday. “We have a lot of talent in this clubhouse. There’s no one player in here that makes up the Tigers. There’s so much talent around that makes us so good. We obviously need him, but I also believe in the rest of the guys in this clubhouse.”
And yet …
“I want Miggy to get 100 percent,” Scherzer said. “Whatever Miggy’s got to do to become 100 percent, that’s the best thing for the team. There’s a fine line of playing through an injury and hurting yourself and playing through an injury and weathering a storm until you get 100 percent. That’s (something) he’s got to answer: Is he going to continue to get better by playing through this? If he’s not, it’s not going to help our team to only have Miggy continue to get worse.”
Leyland says Cabrera is improving. Cabrera says Cabrera is improving. I believe them. But as of this moment, the Tigers have less than three weeks to improve. Then it will be time to perform. And there is only one way to make the what-ifs disappear forever.