Midweek Morosi: What’s wrong with Cabrera in early season?

DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera isn’t injured. Let’s make that clear right away. He has been in the lineup for all but one half-inning of the Detroit Tigers’ season.

But is Cabrera in dominant, midseason, two-time defending MVP form?

No.

Cabrera has performed at such an elite level, for so long, that even a brief lapse in greatness requires an explanation. And so, with Cabrera hitting .227 through the season’s first 11 games, here are a few points to consider:

• Cabrera acknowledged in an interview Wednesday afternoon that he’s still rebuilding core muscle strength after October sports hernia surgery. He said he feels "good" overall, but one assumes there is a gap between "good" and "full strength."

Cabrera said he’s doing daily abdominal exercises as part of his continued rehabilitation. How comprehensive is the regimen? "After the season," he said with a laugh, "I’ll go to the beach with no T-shirt."

• In Cleveland’s 3-2 win over Detroit on Wednesday, both managers navigated the eighth inning differently than if Cabrera had been at full strength. 

With men on first and second and none out, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus called on Torii Hunter to lay down a sacrifice bunt — a strategy that, if executed, would have brought Cabrera to the plate as the go-ahead run with first base open. Had Cabrera been swinging well, that might have resulted in an intentional walk to load the bases. 

Surprisingly, Ausmus would have been fine with that outcome. Ausmus mentioned his confidence in Victor Martinez and Austin Jackson — the hitters after Cabrera — as among the reasons he wanted Hunter to bunt. Ausmus acknowledged he might have taken a different approach if Cabrera had been hitting the way he normally does.

Ultimately, Hunter failed to put down the bunt and grounded into a double play that left first base open. Thus, Cleveland manager Terry Francona still had an opportunity to walk Cabrera intentionally — an even more appealing option, since Cabrera represented only the tying run and not the go-ahead run. Yet, Francona declined. Having managed Martinez in Boston, Francona was wary of Martinez’s hitting prowess with men on base.

In sum, Ausmus made a move that easily could have taken the bat out of Cabrera’s hands, and Francona risked watching Cabrera hit a game-tying home run with first base open. If Cabrera had been playing like his MVP self, how likely would either of those strategies be?

The eventual outcome: Cabrera roped an RBI single through the left side off reliever Cody Allen. Ausmus was encouraged, calling it "as good a swing" as he had seen Cabrera take in the past week.

• Cabrera is working to get his swing mechanics back to where they were before injuries forced him to adjust during the second half of last season. At his best, Cabrera follows through with only his left hand on the bat; the abdominal injury had prevented him from doing so. 

For Cabrera to cut loose and rotate his torso completely, his top hand needs to come off the bat. Until he feels comfortable doing that consistently, he likely will be vulnerable to mid-90s fastballs — as was the case Wednesday against Cleveland starter Zach McAllister.

• The early season weather in Detroit has been less than ideal for a power hitter coming back from abdominal surgery. Before Wednesday’s game –during which temperatures were in the 30s Fahrenheit — Cabrera said the cold has made his core muscles feel "weird." (That said, Cabrera also went 2 for 20 on a five-game trip to Los Angeles and San Diego.) 

• Those looking for bigger-picture explanations could point to pressure from Cabrera’s new contract (which made him the highest-paid pro athlete on the planet) or the absence of Prince Fielder hitting behind him. The slow start is even more mystifying, when considering April traditionally has been Cabrera’s second-best hitting month. 

Ultimately, the smart money is on Cabrera returning to form — if not his 2012 and 2013 numbers, then something close to them. For now, though, it appears last year’s injury is having at least some impact on this year’s swing.

Indians outfielder Ryan Raburn, Cabrera’s teammate for five seasons in Detroit, smiled and shook his head at the suggestion that the game’s best hitter is struggling. "He’s just not as hot as he usually is," Raburn said. 

AROUND THE HORN

More Midweek thoughts

• The Arizona Diamondbacks are a major-league-worst 4-14 after losing six in a row. The primary culprit has been a poor rotation; Diamondbacks starters have a 7.63 ERA, by far the worst in the majors.

Already, speculation has started about the job security of manager Kirk Gibson. When I asked team president Derrick Hall about potential changes with players or staff, he replied, "I don’t want to begin commenting on individuals and their status. That’s not healthy. We are all in this together right now to, hopefully, figure this out and get back on track."

• Speaking of rotations: The Braves and Athletics have the best in baseball at the moment, which might come as a surprise to columnists who said both teams would face pitching crises because of spring-training injuries. (Full disclosure: I was one of the columnists.)

Atlanta general manager Frank Wren deserves credit for two savvy late-spring moves, signing free agent Ervin Santana (1-0, 0.64 ERA) and the lower-cost pickup of Aaron Harang (2-1, 0.96 ERA).

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.