Wojo: It may be bumpy, but Miguel Cabrera’s quest for history is worth watching

Detroit News

It’s painful at times, hopeful at times. The Watch is on and the watch is ticking, and practically every swing by Miguel Cabrera elicits some sort of sentiment or statement.

When he strikes out or endures a 0-for-27 slump, fans wonder if the end is near. When he smacks the ball and draws walks as he did the past couple of games, the milestones seem possible again.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no debate. Cabrera should play until his body tells him he can’t, without excessive scrutiny. In the absence of an actual competitive baseball team, this Watch is worth watching.

It’s not supposed to be easy now, at 38, chasing the dual marks of 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, achieved by six players in MLB history. Albert Pujols is one of those six and he was just released by the Angels. Cabrera began the season 13 home runs and 134 hits shy, and has added two home runs and 10 hits.

So it will be difficult and time-consuming. To which I say, you got something better to watch?

More: Greatness in decline: An examination of Miguel Cabrera’s ice-cold start

In fact, my suggestion is for AJ Hinch to play Cabrera more at first base, not less. The reason for splitting Cabrera’s time between first and DH always has been to save his body for a long season. At this stage, save it for what?

I’d play him at first base 70% of the time, recognizing he’s more engaged when he’s on the field. (He’s started nine games at first and nine as DH this season). He’d happily play every day if they let him, and it’s not like the Tigers have some prime prospect ready to step in. My goodness, they had to move Jonathan Schoop to first, where he’d never played, just to plug the hole.

I asked Hinch if there’s a benefit to using Cabrera more — not less — in the field.

“I hope so,” Hinch said. “One of the problems with the DH spot is, when you don’t hit, you sit over there and stew for an hour in between at bats, it feels like. It can take its toll on you mentally. So I would like to give Miggy a chance to separate his offense from his defense, get out and enjoy and play first. He does provide some energy on the field and we’ve talked about that presence out there, what it means to us.”

Cabrera reached base seven times (four hits) in two games against the Twins — starting one at first and one at DH — and raised his average from .098 to .149. Small sample, sure, but he wasn’t lunging for pitches and he drew three walks.

Let him play

Cabrera isn’t holding anyone back, so like I said, no debate. His contract and struggles make it impossible to trade him. His standing as one of the all-time greatest hitters makes it distasteful to release him.

Let the man chase the numbers without the pressure of lifting an offense that’s largely unliftable. If the Tigers (10-24) were contending for anything other than the worst record in the majors, we’d have a different conversation. If he was in the final year of his contract — instead of two years remaining after this one at $32 million annually — we’d have a different conversation.

The Angels just had that difficult conversation with Pujols, the slugger whom Cabrera closely mirrors and respects. They released Pujols last week and it was uncomfortable, even acrimonious. Pujols reportedly still wants to play and didn’t appreciate being benched, or shuttled from first base to DH.

That may sound familiar but be careful making parallels. Pujols is 41 and in the final season of his 10-year, $240-million deal. He also already eclipsed the 500-home run/3,000-hit plateau. The Angels (14-18) are desperate to make the playoffs, as Mike Trout hasn’t won a postseason game in 11 years of incredible production. Pujols was hitting .198, and the Angels are trying to work in younger Jared Walsh at first.

Pujols and Cabrera are linked by talent and numbers and age, two of the most-acclaimed right-handed hitters in history. Pujols made the bulk of his fame with the Cardinals before signing with the Angels at the age of 31. Now they had little to gain by keeping him. Cabrera has been in Detroit for 14 seasons, won two MVPs and a Triple Crown here, and the Tigers have little to gain by moving on. He’s earned a statue, and the celebrated stature to exit on his terms.

Signs of life

Cabrera missed two weeks in April with a strained bicep muscle, and shortly thereafter went on the longest slump of his career. But there are signs of recovery, as the record book signposts keep coming.

With two hits Friday against the Twins, he passed Babe Ruth for 44th on baseball’s hit list. His career home run total of 489 ranks 30th, four behind Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff.

Asked if he imagined as a kid he’d someday pass Babe Ruth in any statistical category, Cabrera laughed.

“No chance,” he said. “It’s really cool to be next to Babe Ruth, that’s great, that’s awesome. Never in my life would I think I’d have that many hits. I’ve been blessed. I thank God every day for this opportunity, I never take something for granted. People can talk about me bad or good, I don’t really care. I’m going out there to do my job, that’s it.”

He’s not necessarily a mentor for the Tigers’ young hitters, more of a clubhouse and dugout invigorator. Still fun-loving and mischievous, he’s all-business at the plate, and three walks in two games perhaps is an indication his discipline is returning.

“I think he’s been locked in a little bit better, at-bat by at-bat,” Hinch said Sunday before the Tigers-Twins game was rained out. “When you see him walking as well as hitting, taking what the game gives him, that’s a good sign he’s in a good place. … I know with the countdown to the big numbers, you start seeing big names he’s passing on these lists and there’s a lot of attention on his at bats. I think he just needs to be one-ninth of a lineup that hopefully passes the baton to the next guy.”

Cabrera isn’t ready to pass the baton on his career, and his love of the game remains evident. He doesn’t need to reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits to confirm he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He doesn’t need to prove much of anything, really. If he gets to play as long and injury-free as possible, the wait — and the Watch — will be worth it.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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