Miguel Cabrera doesn’t like talking about his right knee.
On Thursday, though, the 39-year-old didn’t hesitate to discuss the subject. A few reporters approached Cabrera’s locker in the clubhouse after the Detroit Tigers DH sat out Wednesday’s series finale in Minneapolis. Understanding what was happening, the 20-year MLB veteran — a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame — met them in the middle to talk about his health.
There’s a chance Cabrera is playing his final season.
He is undecided about his status for 2023.
“I got to talk to my agent, I got to talk to the GM (general manager Al Avila), I got to talk to everybody to see what’s going to be the plan for next year,” Cabrera said. “Right now, we’re focused on today. We’re going to go day-by-day and see what happens. I don’t think about next year right now. I think about trying to finish heathy this year, and we’ll see.”
Cabrera is owed $32 million from the Tigers for next season. He has spoken multiple times over the past two seasons about his goal of winning a World Series with the Tigers and his plan to retire after the conclusion of his contract, but this time, he wouldn’t commit to 2023.
“I don’t feel well right now,” Cabrera said. “I’m trying to do whatever I can to go out there and play, but I don’t feel really good right now.”
It’s always been a matter of “when,” not “if,” for the two-time MVP and his ailing right knee. He was diagnosed with a chronic right knee injury in 2019, but following the recommendation of four specialists, including sports physician Dr. James Andrews, he did not opt for surgery.
Cabrera’s knee pain would only get worse with time.
Everyone knew that.
“It’s a chronic thing where he’s going to have to live with it, and through treatment, you’re going to have to put him on the field,” Avila said in June 2019. “The bad news, obviously, is it’s going to get worse as you go along. It’s incumbent on him to stay in good shape, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure we should give him proper treatment and rest. It’s a combination. If you keep that going, we should be able to keep him productive on the field for the remainder of his contract, so that is our expectation and hope.”
Now, time is catching up to Cabrera, the third player in MLB history to reach 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 600 doubles, along with Albert Pujols (playing his final season in 2022) and the late Hank Aaron.
The tread is wearing thin on the tires.
“The last three weeks, it’s hurt more,” Cabrera said. “I’ve had that problem for the last three or four years. Right now, I’m trying to get more training. I got to deal with it.”
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The 12-time All-Star, including an “All-Star Legends Selection” to the 2022 edition of the Midsummer Classic, posted a .308 batting average across 70 games through July 6, just prior to being named to the squad despite only seven doubles and three home runs.
Since then, Cabrera is batting .132 with two doubles and one home run over 20 games. In total, he has a .271 average with nine doubles, four homers, 36 RBIs, 23 walks and 82 strikeouts in 90 games.
Often, Cabrera takes funky swings and can’t rotate his right knee while trying to attack pitches in the batter’s box. Performing without a healthy back knee means Cabrera, who averaged 33 homers per season from 2004-16, is unable to generate power.
“I feel it when I swing,” Cabrera said. “When you see me hitting a lot of ground balls to my right side, it’s because of the pain. … I’m going to try to do more exercises to get my quad or my (hamstring) or whatever around my knee stronger. We’ll see what happens.”
The Tigers are taking a proactive approach to the situation, with Cabrera and manager A.J. Hinch working together to determine his playing time for the remainder of the season.
Cabrera and Hinch haven’t spoken about 2023, but they’ve mapped out the current homestand at Comerica Park, which lasts from Aug. 4-11 with an off-day Monday. The Tigers play the Tampa Bay Rays through Sunday, then the Cleveland Guardians from Tuesday-Thursday. The Tigers will reassess Cabrera’s health before preparing his schedule for the second half of August.
“He’s hurting,” Hinch said. “He’s not moving around great. He’s playing through the pain.”
Until further notice, Cabrera is scheduled to serve as the Tigers’ designated hitter every other day, and when he isn’t in the starting lineup, he will be available to pinch-hit. The Tigers, as they have for several years, will monitor his activity on the base paths.
For now, the Tigers hope Cabrera can avoid the injured list.
He has been placed on the injured list once — a 10-day stint in April 2021 due to a left biceps strain — since a ruptured left biceps tendon in June 2018 sent him to the 60-day injured list and ended his season.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s the solution,” Hinch said. “If this continues into later in the month, I think we’re going to have to consider it. But he can give us what he’s got.”
Cabrera loves playing in games, exemplified by his playful personality on the field, and spent the 2020 campaign begging the organization to let him return to first base, which Hinch — unlike former manager Ron Gardenhire — allowed for 44 games of his 130 games last season.
But Cabrera hasn’t operated at first base in 2022. He gladly relinquished his infield spot to 22-year-old rookie Spencer Torkelson, who proudly took the field as the Tigers’ Opening Day first baseman. The Tigers demoted Torkelson to Triple-A Toledo in mid-July, but when that happened, Cabrera didn’t plead for a return to first base.
He also didn’t put up a fight about losing playing time in the final two months of this season due to his lingering knee injury. He said he is willing to give up some of his at-bats to younger players so the Tigers can “see what we got for next year.”
“I don’t want to hurt the team,” Cabrera said. “I don’t want to put myself in a bad position. I’m not performing, so I’m OK with that. I understand that. This is always a problem I’ve had with my knee, so that’s OK. I love this team. I don’t want to hurt this team.
“You got to understand your body. I understand my body and my position on this team. I’m still going to work, and every time they give me a chance to play, I’m going to go out there and do my job. That’s the bottom line, and that’s what matters.”
All signs point to the fact that the end is near for Cabrera, one of the best players to ever wear the Old English “D” on his chest. When baseball’s most recent Triple Crown winner decides to hang up his cleats remains a mystery.
But Cabrera will eventually play his final game.
Maybe sooner than expected.
“I think that’s a big step for him and also a big step for any athlete that starts talking about the inability physically to do some things,” Hinch said. “I wouldn’t say it sounded the alarm, but it certainly made it a more open topic that we’ve been talking about behind closed doors for a bit.
“I hate that he’s not feeling great. He’s played through so much pain in his career that we probably can’t even fathom, but this time, I think it convinced him to openly talk about it and make sure we’re doing the right thing.”