Cabrera has a legit shot at triple crown

Miguel Cabrera says it’s too early to talk about the Triple Crown. His numbers suggest otherwise.

Third with a .352 batting average.

First with 16 home runs.

First with 51 RBIs.

Not since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 has a hitter won baseball’s Derby, Preakness and Belmont. A dozen perfect games have occurred in the interim — 13, if we count Cabrera’s teammate Armando Galarraga. There is no such thing as a “likely” Triple Crown winner. The feat is simply too hard.

But to the extent that baseball can have a candidate in the early days of June, Miguel Cabrera is it.

“He’s probably the model for somebody who would win the Triple Crown,” admired Oakland’s Mark Ellis. “He has ridiculous pop. He’s really good with runners in scoring position. It’s just a matter of if people pitch to him.

“If there’s anybody who can win it, it’s going to be him.”

And when it comes to Miguel Cabrera in 2010, the sheer numbers are only half the story.

Maybe less than half.

Cabrera, by all accounts, is sober now. That was not the case last year, when he had a night of binge drinking and altercation with his wife during the final weekend of the regular season. The Tigers fumbled a near-certain division title. Cabrera was vilified. Fans were bitter.

Cabrera entered an offseason treatment program for his alcohol addiction. He later admitted that he had been drinking as a way to handle stress, pressure and other issues.

No more, he says. Life is very different for arguably the best all-around hitter in the American League. One Tigers source recalled how Cabrera joined teammates at a St. Patrick’s Day party during spring training but left quietly after 20 minutes.

Not a drop of alcohol.

“That’s when I knew for sure that he had changed,” the source said.

Cabrera and his wife, Rosangel, celebrated the birth of their second child last week. His face lit up the other day when asked about his new daughter, Isabella.

Cabrera, 27, is appreciating things in a way that he didn’t before. His family. His talent. His teammates. His four or five at-bats in every game.

His chance to be one of the greatest players of his generation — a true peer of Albert Pujols.

“If God gives you something, it’s not fair to throw it away,” Cabrera said Monday, with a tone that suggested he meant every last word. “It’s not fair to waste your time.”

By almost any measure, Cabrera had an outstanding 2009 season. He batted .324 with 34 home runs and 103 RBIs.

And that was during his drinking days. It was reasonable to wonder how well he would do if he wasn’t lugging his hangovers to the plate like an unwelcome batting donut.

Well, we have the answer now. Cabrera is having the best season of his career — by a substantial margin.

Consider this: Cabrera has 804 career RBIs. It’s possible that he will reach 863 at year’s end.

Why is that significant? Hank Aaron had 863 RBIs at the end of the season in which he turned 27.

Aaron is the all-time leader in that category.

Cabrera doesn’t belong in Cooperstown yet. But now we can talk about his place in the baseball cosmos without listing his character flaws in the next breath.

“He’s done a great job,” said teammate Johnny Damon, who witnessed the image rehabilitation of another slugging infielder (A-Rod) last year. “He’s been doing things the right away. He’s not going out. He’s not getting in trouble. He’s focused.

“I think he wants people — fans, other players — to have that respect for him, that one day they can call him the greatest hitter ever. … Right now, he’s at the point of his career where he can leave a huge impression on the game. Don’t leave (your talent) to waste. Go out and accomplish everything you can.”

Cabrera is newly dedicated to his profession. He thinks about the game deeply enough that he scrutinized, in detail, the lineup of another American League team — and recommended a few changes that the team’s manager should make.

He also took the time to phone Hanley Ramirez, a former Marlins teammate, to offer advice on how to handle his recent benching. “Hustle every day,” Cabrera told him. “People, in two weeks, they’re going to forget what happened.”

The National Forensic League could sponsor a series of debates on whether Cabrera or Pujols is better positioned to win the Triple Crown. Pujols had a legitimate chance last season; he led the National League in homers and finished third in batting average and RBIs.

In one key area — lineup protection — Pujols has a clear edge. Pujols usually bats third for St. Louis, with Matt Holliday behind him. Holliday himself won two legs of the Triple Crown in 2007. As long as Holliday is productive, Pujols shouldn’t be pitched around too often.

Cabrera doesn’t have the same luxury. Rookie outfielder Brennan Boesch has frequently batted fifth for Detroit in recent weeks. The Tigers like Boesch’s aggressiveness at the plate … but he is hitting .238 (10-for-42) in his last 12 games.

At some point, teams will probably force Boesch and the newly healthy Carlos Guillen to beat them. That would mean fewer pitches to hit for Cabrera. And the walks title isn’t part of the Triple Crown.

But Cabrera will have a chance, based on his sheer talent and sharpened focus. He missed two games last week to attend Isabella’s birth, then socked three home runs in his first game back. Folk-hero stuff.

“He’s put on displays in batting practice I’ve never seen in all my life — by anybody,” said Jim Leyland, who spent years around Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds and Pujols. “I’ve seen him intentionally hit one out to right, hit one out to center, hit one out to left. And I mean a LONG way out. Just (screwing) around.

“(In) Milwaukee, he was hitting them here, hitting them there, going around like you’re shooting a basketball. I’ll start on the right-field line and work my way around, bombing them.

“Unbelievable. He’s a big kid.”

Yes. A big, grown-up, responsible kid — fully capable of rewriting baseball history.