The sight of Miguel Cabrera on the backfields at Tigertown was a little bit of a surprise Saturday. Position players aren’t required to show up at Tigers camp until Monday’s first full-squad workout, and with COVID-19 protocols, there’s less for the early arrivals to do than in past Spring Trainings.
A good look at a photo showed why Cabrera beat the timetable to Lakeland: A first baseman’s glove on his left hand, and a familiar smile on his face. Both are good signs for his new manager.
“He’s in good spirits,” A.J. Hinch said Sunday morning. “Obviously, he’s worked hard this offseason. I’ve kept up with him since the day that I got the job — the videos and the workouts, and obviously, the defensive work. He came out and took a few ground balls at first base yesterday.”
Now comes the tricky part for Hinch: How to balance Cabrera’s desire to play all the time — and play in the field — with the manager’s desire to keep him healthy and productive? Hinch’s three predecessors in Detroit faced it at different stages of Cabrera’s career. Jim Leyland once said that handling the workload of a player in the final stages of his career is one of the toughest challenges a manager faces. Hinch inherits that end of the Cabrera question, and he does so with Cabrera on the brink of history.
It isn’t new for Hinch, who worked with older players on the back stages of their careers during his time in Houston. Carlos Beltrán was a 40-year-old designated hitter who made a dozen starts in the outfield in 2017. Brian McCann was limited by injuries over his final two seasons in Houston.
Cabrera, obviously, is different. As he nears his 38th birthday on April 18, he’s arguably the greatest hitter of his generation, a Tiger for 13 seasons and still at the center of Detroit’s offense. He needs to be productive for the Tigers to progress. He’s also 13 home runs from 500, and 134 hits shy of 3,000, both within reach this year if he plays a full, healthy season.
“Communication is key,” Hinch said. “Everybody’s different. They can handle different things. Some guys want a big say in their preparation and in their situation, and some guys don’t. What I’ve found is all of them want structure. All of them want sort of a framework of expectation for them to work under, and they’ll do anything. A lot of people tiptoe around veteran players or older players or different status, and the reality is you’ve got to coach them just like you have to coach a young up-and-comer. Obviously, it comes with more information and it comes with more expectation that the guy’s already done some things to be successful, but like anyone, they want structure. They want to be a part of the team.”
Communication should not be a problem. The biggest message from Cabrera came before Hinch got the job. Cabrera said near the end of last season that he hoped to play some first base in 2021, saying it would help him feel more involved. Hinch is on board.
“I didn’t know he voiced it near as much as I learned after I even said it,” Hinch said. “I mean, my plan for him is to make an opportunity for him to be a little more of a complete player and not just fall in the DH category. Part of that is for Miguel and kind of making him have that kid spirit in playing on both sides of the ball, but part of it is also for the rest of the team.
“If he can play first base, whatever that timeline is — one or two times a week, or depending on the game times and where we’re at with the weather and his health — that frees me up to be able to maybe DH [Wilson] Ramos or [Jonathan] Schoop or [Nomar] Mazara or [Robbie] Grossman, and opening up playing time for a lot of different guys on our team.”
What Hinch won’t do, he said, is wear Cabrera down. Playing him so much at first that he needs more days completely out of the lineup would defeat the goal.
Hinch plans on talking about it with Cabrera in camp. When Hinch does, he’ll get a glimpse of the enthusiasm that the managers before him enjoyed.
“It’s a privilege to get to know him,” Hinch said. “It’s a privilege to be his manager when he comes in the building, and I’m going to develop a good rapport with him, so we get to celebrate his individual accomplishments that are coming, but we do it in a win.”