How Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, chasing milestones, will be managed by AJ Hinch

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Miguel Cabrera has arrived in Lakeland.

Entering his 19th season in the majors, the Detroit Tigers‘ future Hall of Famer reported to spring training Saturday for voluntary workouts, two days before his official report date for full-squad sessions Monday.

“He’s in good spirits,” manager AJ Hinch said Sunday. “He’s worked hard this offseason. I’ve kept up with him since the day I got the job, the videos and the workouts. Obviously, his defensive work. He just wants to have fun and do well.”

One of the first things Cabrera did?

He took his glove and jogged to first base, where he fielded ground balls and received throws from infielders Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum, Harold Castro and Zack Short.

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Hinch remains determined to use Cabrera at first base once or twice per week to fuel his “kid spirit” and free up the designated hitter to provide lineup flexibility. It’s a position Cabrera hasn’t played since June 26, 2019, but he’s no stranger to the infield.

“What I won’t do is break him,” Hinch said. “I’m not interested in playing him so much at first base that it hinders his availability throughout the rest of the week.”

Since coming to Detroit in 2008, Cabrera has taken the field for three managers: Jim Leyland, Brad Ausmus and Ron Gardenhire. Hinch is the fourth, and managing Cabrera — turning 38 years old in April — isn’t something he will take lightly.

Hinch respects Cabrera, calling it a “privilege to be his manager” and stressing the importance of “developing a good rapport” with him. Despite the injuries wearing him down in recent years, the slugger has a career .313 batting average, two AL MVPs and perched on baseball’s throne as one of the preeminent hitters for more than a decade.

“Sitting down with him over the next few days, we’ll lay out his spring for him and tell him what our expectations are and get his feedback on the at-bats and totals that he wants,” Hinch said. “We want to keep him healthy, but we need to get him ready. Getting feedback from him is going to be key.”

[ AJ Hinch wants Miguel Cabrera to play first base in 2021 ]

Being on the same page, in view of Cabrera’s authority within the clubhouse, is a point of emphasis Hinch needs to capitalize on.

Before Cabrera’s contract is up, after the 2023 season, he will field questions from Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Isaac Paredes and many more players expected to lead the franchise’s future.

“Young players, whether you’re on our team now or you’re coming later, are going to turn to him,” Hinch said. “So, a great influence on our guys, and I want to be in lockstep that he understands where we’re coming from and where we’re going.”

Two of the biggest milestones in baseball are on the horizon for Cabrera: 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. He is 13 homers and 134 hits shy of reaching those marks. If he stays healthy, they should be in play.

As Cabrera chases milestones, Hinch doesn’t plan to say much. Frankly, he won’t need to say anything about Cabrera for his teammates to be motivated and strive for their own success.

Cabrera (2,866 hits) will pass Babe Ruth (2,873) on the all-time hits leaderboard with just eight more, then will jump Rogers Hornsby (2,930) with 65 hits, Barry Bonds (2,935) with 70 hits, Frank Robinson (2,943) with 78 hits before tying Roberto Clemente with 3,000 career hits.

And Cabrera (487 home runs) will leap Lou Gehrig (493) on the all-time home runs leaderboard with at least seven in 2021.

“There’s going to be some perspective that’s put in place surrounding the types of names Miggy is going to be around,” Hinch said. “It takes a long time to get to those numbers, as far as how consistent Miguel has had to be throughout his career, the routines he’s developed. … That’s rarified air, and we need to respect that.”

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Cabrera stayed healthy last year, hitting .250 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 57 games. Toward the end of the season, he pleaded to return to first base, where he has played 1,151 times in his illustrious career.

Hinch made his first comment about Cabrera’s return to first base in December, just less than two months after he was hired to lead the Tigers.

“I didn’t know he voiced it nearly as much as I learned,” Hinch said. “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 … but part of it is also for the rest of the team.”

[ Miguel Cabrera trains at first base after spending 2020 as full-time DH ]

When Cabrera shifts to first base, here are some of the DH candidates: Candelario, catcher Wilson Ramos, outfielder Nomar Mazara, outfielder Robbie Grossman and second baseman Jonathan Schoop.

That opens playing time for others in the field.

“Depending on the game times, where we’re at, the weather (and) his health, that frees me up,” Hinch said. “There’s a lot of flexibility that just comes with once or twice per week not being the DH.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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