Henning: What Miguel Cabrera’s remaining contract means for Tigers

Detroit News

We’ll take a break from our regularly scheduled Miguel Cabrera home-run vigil to ponder some future realities that affect the Tigers, Cabrera, and baseball at-large in Detroit.

Specifically, there is the issue of his contract, which until details were examined, was believed to extend for the remainder of our natural lives.

In fact, as we know, it essentially runs out in two years, after the 2023 season (you can assuredly forget those 2024 and 2025 triggers — Cabrera needs to finish in top 10 Most Valuable Player votes). For all the thrill about this 500th home-run chase, and the 3,000-hit safari which will follow, the Tigers won’t mind issuing that last, ample Cabrera paycheck.

It calls for Cabrera to get a raise the next two years — from the $30 million he makes in 2021 to $32 million in both 2022 and 2023. Apparently, there were people who foresaw the 2021 home-run and 3,000-hit runs in 2021 and decided they would be worthy of a pay hike.

Or something like that.

What matters is that the Tigers owe a 38-year-old man $64 million after 2021’s party has wrapped up. Is it possible this astonishingly great hitter (career), based on his midseason rejuvenation (comparative, anyway) can somehow contribute and mitigate that salary that looks like something Congress might have appropriated?

The Tigers will gulp hard and say: We sure hope so, knowing there will be no realistic way to justify a sum so large for production that likely will be so excruciatingly limited.

Mike Ilitch wasn’t overly bothered by salary and production numbers in 2014. when the late Tigers owner extended Cabrera with money that made most objective observers cringe. But then, Ilitch was not objective. He was a romanticist with respect to his superstars, whether Tigers or Red Wings.

He wanted Cabrera’s whopping contract package to represent two objectives: keeping Cabrera in Detroit for the remainder of his career, and, yes, serving as a thank-you to a hitter and player then so majestic the Tigers would simultaneously gift him for a wondrous playoff run that lacked only a final grand prize: a world championship.

Ilitch believed one of those trophies was yet in the cards. He had seen another man, then of Cabrera’s current vintage, David Ortiz, deliver the Red Sox a World Series, at Detroit’s tortured expense, in 2013.

It never happened, that World Series parade. Nor has Cabrera quite followed Ortiz’s example of what can be achieved as a player’s late 30s give way to 40.

The unvarnished story, as told by numbers:

Cabrera has a .699 OPS in 2021 and a minus-0.3 WAR. Pretty grim, especially when he is batting third in AJ Hinch’s lineup and, as mentioned, is drawing paychecks worth $30 million.

The brighter side is Cabrera has been quite effective since he came alive in June. His OPS numbers the past three months: .850, .753, and to date in August: .806.

The digits aren’t about to make his salary digestible, but it offers perhaps some degree of hope Cabrera won’t be a complete ball-and-chain in 2022 and 2023.

In fact, the Tigers don’t have much choice but to hope the glass can be somewhere close to half-full during those final two seasons.

If you’re into comparisons that in this case are more like rationalizations, you also can  draw upon Ortiz’s final three years, when he was 38, 39, and 40.

Get a load of these OPS bonanzas for a guy who supposedly was playing out the string: .873, .913, and 1.021.

Incredible, and not only because it suggested Ortiz might want to stick around for a 1.200 OPS season at age 41.

His home-run totals those last three years: 35, 37, and 38.

So, throw out the Ortiz-Cabrera graphs, because this isn’t going to be a case of any similar parallel, or intersecting, lines.

What can be viewed as feasible for Cabrera is what he has done since June, after he spent April and May with a dreadful OPS in the .500s. His batting averages each month since: .329, .280, .257. His slugging percentages: .494, .427, .429.

That’s all worth a fraction of what he’s being paid, of course, but when that particular load of hay already is in the barn, the Tigers have no choice but to focus on anything remotely close to an upside.

Another point must be pondered: health.

Cabrera has had a blessed 2021. Nothing has knocked him out of the lineup for any extended time, which, based on recent history, is stunningly good fortune for him and for the Tigers.

Does the good luck, physiologically speaking, continue in 2022 and ’23?

We’ll see.

He has been living with his chronic knee issues, and who knows how many other gremlins that can flare up in a body so large and so vulnerable to stress.

For now, little else matters but the suspense and the drama that accompany a march to 500 and 3,000.

That’s as it should be. Cabrera has been here for 14 seasons, most of it Hall of Fame stuff. He has a couple of years to go. The Tigers, no matter what dollars or numbers or anything inanimate stipulate, will enjoy the ride with a man to whom each party is married — for better, for worse, for richer (Cabrera), for poorer (the Tigers).

Till baseball longevity and contract realities do they part.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

On deck: Angels

Series: Three games at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday — 7:10 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1

Probables: Tuesday — RHP Dylan Bundy (2-9, 6.17) vs. RHP Casey Mize (6-6, 3.66); Wednesday — RHP Shohei Ohtani (7-1, 2.93) vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (8-10, 4.10); Thursday — LHP Patrick Sandoval (3-6, 3.62) vs. RHP Matt Manning (3-5, 6.10)

Scouting report

Bundy, Angels: He is back starting after a stint the bullpen. He’s gone six innings once in his last eight starts. The Tigers made him throw 81 pitches to get through four innings in Anaheim on June 20. His four-seam and two-seam fastballs sit at 90 mph, but he still gets a lot of swing-and-miss with his slider.

Mize, Tigers: Half the hits he’s allowed in his last two starts (12) have been home runs (six). Four of the six homers were hit by left-handed hitters. His two-seamer has been hit hard — .559 slugging percentage against. He also leads the American League with 11 hit batsmen. A lot of those have been two-seamers that rode in too far. When he commands that pitch, it opens up the plate for his slider and splitter.

— Chris McCosky

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