Henning: Hearts – not head – guided decision for Miguel Cabrera to return to Tigers in ’23

Detroit News

Two weeks ago, the Tigers unveiled their new front-office boss, Scott Harris, a bright-light young man charged with sculpting Detroit’s MLB roster into a playoff-grade art piece.

Twelve days later, the Tigers announced Miguel Cabrera, six months from 40, and long removed from a time when his Hall of Fame bat was dynamic, would return for the 2023 season.

Cabrera since July 6 has a .410 OPS – half what a team ideally would want from its designated hitter. It is a good 300 points beneath a percentage most MLB teams would find acceptable from a DH. He has five home runs on the year – two since May 15.

The Tigers are advertising Harris as a dashing replacement for Al Avila, a man fired in August because of an eight-year playoff drought and a 2022 season that will end this week with 90-plus losses.

And yet they are telling Harris that his freedom to make changes in bettering this roster, and buoying manager AJ Hinch’s daily lineup, comes with a caveat: You must find work for Cabrera, who next year will make $32 million in the final season of his 16-year stay in Detroit.

Cabrera, of course, is up there in Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Charlie Gehringer, and Hank Greenberg elevation as a Tigers deity. He is one of the most spectacular hitters in MLB annals. He helped drive the Tigers during a string of dreamy playoff years and summers when 3 million fans were packing into Comerica Park. He was a centerpiece in 2012 when the Tigers cracked the World Series, and was so a year later when they should have won the whole shebang but were sabotaged by a bullpen breakdown against Boston.

Cabrera will be an instant Hall of Fame selection when, probably in the autumn of 2028, he becomes eligible. He almost certainly will wear on his Cooperstown plaque a Tigers cap.

None of this justifies Cabrera returning in 2023. Not if the Tigers are serious about winning baseball games, which would seem to be a first priority for any professional sports team, particularly one that just changed front-office chiefs in a bid to end this long run of bad baseball.

Here is what should have been planned, or should yet occur, with respect to Cabrera and the Tigers heading into 2023:

Cabrera, the front office, CEO Chris Ilitch, and Cabrera’s agent, sit down and discuss the viability of Cabrera playing productively in 2023. Medical experts would naturally be part of the conversation.

Seemingly, two objectives would be collectively agreed upon.

Cabrera, a proud man who understands a MLB team’s needs and what his body can realistically achieve, would agree the Tigers need to get on with serious business. Also, that he probably needs to do what an overwhelming number of Hall of Famers long have done by age 39, if not well before: Enjoy retirement and freedom from travel and a 162-game grind when it has become obvious to all parties that a man’s quality competitive days have passed.

The Tigers would abide by all follow-up responsibilities, with gusto.

Cabrera has a guaranteed contract that runs through 2023. No hang-ups there. Cabrera would receive, with Tigers thanks, his $32 million, which would not be in dispute as the parties shake hands.

Next spring, when the weather warms, a gala Miguel Cabrera Celebration would be held, spanning an entire weekend in Detroit. It would dwarf any past farewell to a Detroit sports icon.

It would be majestic, fittingly so for a man this distinguished in Detroit and MLB history.

Remove sentiment

Some background, at this point, must be considered.

Cabrera was extended in 2014 with an eight-year package that guaranteed he would remain in Detroit for the next 10 seasons at overall pay of $292 million.

This never made sense, fiscally. It was overly generous, almost absurdly optimistic, from the Tigers’ standpoint when career projections and the MLB actuarial were applied.

But this was not, realistically, intended to make business sense. It was rather a token of late owner Mike Ilitch’s eternal appreciation for a Tigers superstar who might forever wear a Tigers uniform.

It also was something of a thank-you check. Ilitch appreciated that Cabrera was MLB royalty; that he was helping deliver those playoff seasons; and that he had been a drive-train to those years of box-office gold as the Tigers four times drew 3 million.

Yes, he was hoping Cabrera could last until 40. But there was always the knowledge, particularly in a front office never in accord with such a lavish extension, that the final years could be dicey. The Tigers might, very possibly, need to eat some money.

The time has come. But it’s not about owing Cabrera cash that has invited this 2023 news or its issues. For all parties, it appears this more is about sentiment. Cabrera wants to play. The Tigers, nice folks they are, don’t wish to hurt his feelings or have his most adoring fans squeal.

What instead should be agreed is that sentiment has no integral place in a MLB team’s roster composition. It’s about performance. Period. Or, rather, it should be unless a team decides one player is more important than giving itself a fuller shot at winning games.

Tough, but necessary, moves

Some insist this is no big deal because the Tigers won’t be all that good in 2023, anyway. Why not allow venerable “Miggy” to make this his exclusive decision?

If that’s the disposition, then fans, along with the Tigers officialdom, should hush if fortunes turn bleak or less than thrilling in 2023. Because a team that this season was shut out a record number of times will have only itself to blame if the Tigers DH too often is an out waiting to happen. And all at a point when a new front-office boss ostensibly was hired to make tough moves in the name of winning baseball games.

Another option, popular among procrastinators, is that the Tigers bring Cabrera aboard for 2023 spring training and see how it goes.

News flash: It will go just as it has gone the past week and months. Cabrera, unless injured, will doubtless decide he can give it a try. The Tigers will accommodate.

If anyone thinks this situation will become more comfortable next spring, with a happy resolution that needs only a few more months to gestate, or by way of a semi-miraculous physiological flip as Cabrera turns 40 in April, they are kicking the can down a bad stretch of road.

The time for a more sensible, more just decision, is now, even if the Tigers and Cabrera don’t care to face facts.

Some will say this debate is all a media person’s grievance. That it’s personal.

As they deftly say in England − rubbish.

Many hundreds of thousands of words, at least, have been written here documenting Cabrera’s glory since the day the Tigers traded for him, during the 2007 Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.

The last personal exchange with Cabrera, during spring camp in March, was for a handshake and congratulations on him reaching 500 home runs and being a few days from 3,000 hits.

No animus. Not in the least.

What instead matters is competitiveness as a sports ideal. Such a quest, to win as many games as possible, is based upon roster strengths and weaknesses. A team is obliged to maximize the former and reduce the latter.

This decision by Cabrera and the Tigers to try again in 2023 to achieve what hasn’t been in the cards for some years now is not benefiting Detroit’s baseball team, its fans, or its 121-year-old brand.

There is yet a productive way, earlier advanced, out of this well-intentioned but thoroughly misguided mission.

Sit down in a few weeks. Examine comprehensively physical and competitive realities. Ponder them fully, minus a heart’s soft-spots guiding thoughts that are better assessed, cerebrally.

Then, after deciding it is time to call it a career, get busy planning that Miguel Weekend Party in 2023. It merits being everything Cabrera deserves − everything Detroit blissfully can offer as thanks to an eternal baseball treasure.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit news sports reporter.

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