Detroit Tigers newsletter: Can Miguel Cabrera get to 20th all-time in home runs?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers’ walk-off victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday had a bit of a bittersweet tinge, and not just because now the games will actually count, making it a lot harder to shrug off the eventual blown saves, bases-loaded strikeouts and (new to this year!) pitch-clock violations that inevitably pop up during the course of a 162-game season.

The reason: Before the game, slugger Miguel Cabrera was honored with a short pregame ceremony and given a key to the city of Lakeland, Florida. It was just one more reminder that, no, really, THIS is Miggy’s last year. (Unless he finishes in the top 10 in AL MVP voting and triggers a $30 million contract extension for next season; we’re, uh, not holding our breath for that …)

“We’re going to do that a lot this year,” manager A.J. Hinch told the Freep’s Evan Petzold after the Tigers’ Grapefruit League finale (which you can read more about here). “We’re going to celebrate him in a lot of places. … It was nice to see Miggy loved as usual in his last spring training game.”

Hello, and welcome to Miggy’s Last Tigers Newsletter. (OK, it’s probably not. But save a copy, just in case.)

There will be a lot of other “lasts” for Cabrera this season, starting with Thursday’s game in St. Petersburg: His last Opening Day. Followed a week later by his last home opener. And perhaps somewhere in there, his last first hit of the season. And maybe even his last first home run.

At some point, Cabrera will hit his last, last home run in the majors. When that will be, though, we won’t know for a while. The projections aren’t exactly kind to Cabrera — we’ll get to that in a bit — but he needs 15 to move into 20th place on MLB’s all-time list (currently shared by Willie McCovey and Frank Thomas). Can he get there? Just to give us an idea, we checked out the final seasons of the 27 other members of the 500-homer club; here’s how their dinger damage broke down:

Going out with a bang

Just six topped 20 homers, though, really, it’s surprising there were that many; players with 20-homer power don’t tend to retire, after all. The list is topped by former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who clubbed 38 homers on his way out in 2016 (albeit with only one against the Tigers, after punishing them with 35 homers over his first 19 seasons).

Next are Mark McGwire and Ted Williams, who hit 29 apiece in their final seasons, though they went about it very differently: Williams homered in his final home at-bat at Boston’s Fenway Park, capping a season in which he slashed .316/.451/.645 at age 41; McGwire, meanwhile, stumbled to a .187 batting average in 2001 at age 37. (Oddly enough, he walked exactly as many times as he got a hit, with 56 of each, for a not-all-bad OBP of .316.)

And just last season, Albert Pujols popped 24 homers at age 42 in one last season with the St. Louis Cardinals, capping an unlikely quest to become the fourth player with 700 homers with a blast against his former team in L.A. (the Dodgers, not the Angels) in late September. (And since we’re completists, the other 20-homer guys did it in 2007: Barry Bonds hit 28 at age 42 with the San Francisco Giants and Sammy Sosa had 21 at age 38 with the Texas Rangers. Gee, can’t imagine how those guys — and, yes, McGwire — thrived at an advanced age.)

Double-digit dingers

Another six members of the 500-homer club at least got to 10 homers, though at least one — Rafael Palmeiro, with 18 for the Baltimore Orioles at age 40 in 2005 — probably would have made it to 20 if he hadn’t been suspended for PEDs in August and retired well before the season ended.

Hank Aaron, meanwhile, got to 10 homers despite getting just 308 plate appearances at age 42 with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976. That’s not far off the most recent member of this group, former Tiger Gary Sheffield, who hit 10 homers in 312 plate appearances with the New York Mets in 2009; he was released by the Tigers at age 40 just days before that season began. (The other double-digit sluggers: Mickey Mantle, 18 in 1968; Reggie Jackson, 15 in 1987; and Harmon Killebrew, 14 in 1975.)

Single(-digits) and ready to mingle

Another 12 hit at least one — literally one, in the case of 42-year-old Willie McCovey’s final season with the Giants in 1980 — homer, but fewer than 10, in their final campaigns. Among them, Álex Rodríguez came the closest to reaching double digits, as he took a buyout worth about $30 million from the Yankees in August 2016 with just nine on the year (and 696 for his career).

The final Tiger in the 500-homer club also falls into this bracket: Eddie Mathews hit three homers in 57 plate appearances with Detroit in 1968, with his final two coming in the same game, a 7-6 loss to the Angels on May 27. (The other single-digit sluggers: Jim Thome, eight in 2012; Frank Thomas, eight in 2008; Jimmie Foxx, seven in 1945; Babe Ruth, six in 1935; Willie Mays, six in 1973; Mike Schmidt, six in 1989; Frank Robinson, three in 1976; Ernie Banks, three in 1971; and Eddie Murray, three in 1997.)

Zero’s heroes

And yes, that leaves just three who failed to launch in their final seasons. Mel Ott made just four pinch-hit appearances at age 38 for the Giants in 1947, though he was in his seventh season as player-manager. A 39-year-old Manny Ramirez came to the plate just 17 times for the Rays in 2011 before he retired rather than face a 100-game suspension for a positive PED test. And, finally, a 40-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. hung on the longest, making 108 plate appearances over 33 games before retiring in midseason to wrap up his second stint with the Seattle Mariners in 2010. His sudden decline was especially surprising, considering he’d hit 19 homers the season before.

Of course, home runs aren’t the only measure of the quality of a final season.

(Trust us, we ran through the final seasons of the 3,000-hit club this weekend; you can check out our rankings here.) After all, the journey is half the battle is knowing the friends we made along the way, or something like that.

Just remember this: Even great hitters — and Cabrera is certainly among the best of his generation — slow down eventually. And this wont be the last time we have to remind ourselves of that.

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A message from Venezuela

This month also brought another last for Miggy: His last World Baseball Classic — there’ve been five of them, y’know? — playing for Venezuela. And his countrymen took notice, paying tribute to him during the Venezuelans’ finale in the WBC quarterfinals. Our Man Petzold caught up with a few of them in Miami, including one with a special message for Miggy. Head here to find out what it was.

Eye in the sky

As one Tiger’s career winds down, another’s is just starting to rev up. Or, at least that’s the hope as Riley Greene enters his second big-league season. Greene matched Cabrera in homers last season, with five, despite a hard-hit rate that placed him in the 77th percentile, according to MLB’s Statcast. Does that mean more home runs are coming this season? That’s the plan, and what he worked on all offseason; Our Man Petzold has the scoop on what motivated him (and his pals from central Florida) here.

10-step process

Hopes of an offensive improvement across the board are the fuel for any optimism surrounding the Tigers this spring; after all, they hit 46 homers in 32 spring games, second-most in baseball (behind only the Philadelphia Phillies’ 49). (The Tigers were led by Nick Maton and Parker Meadows, who each had five homers.) But that’s just one of 10 things that need to change for the Tigers to prove the naysayers — Us? Is that us? — wrong, or at least to show some improvement, writes the Freep’s Jeff Seidel. Head here to find out what the others are.

Tough choices

Also delivering power were Akil Baddoo and Kerry Carpenter, competing for the Tigers’ fourth outfield spot. Both homered three times; Baddoo added three steals, while Carpenter drove in nine runs with some timely hitting. Assuming only one will make the 26-man roster, well … who will it be? Our Man Petzold took a deep dive into the cases for each here.

The final cutdown

While we’re on the subject of the 26-man roster, Our Man Petzold made one final run at picking out who’s in and who’ll start the season in Toledo. Head here to find out why it comes down to four players fighting for three spots.

Three to watch

Three new faces to keep an eye on this week:

JAVIER BÁEZ: He crushed it in the WBC. Will he keep doing so for the Tigers in Year 2?

CÉSAR HERNÁNDEZ: The 32-year-old appears to have earned a utility spot in the bigs.

JOEY WENTZ: Michael Lorenzen’s groin issue means the 25-year-old lefty is in the rotation.

Gibby’s fight

This season marks 35 years since the Tigers and Kirk Gibson went through a painful divorce that resulted in the native Michigander having a career year with the L.A. Dodgers — and changing the course of World Series history. The Freep’s Carlos Monarrez talked this month with the slugger, who’s still channeling his inner fire into the fight of his life. Find out how, here.

Mark your calendar!

As you might have noticed, the 2023 season starts for real on Thursday as the Tigers take on the Rays at 3:10 p.m. (on Bally Sports Detroit, of course). Getting the start for the second straight season is left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, who is likely hoping for a smoother season than 2022’s campaign derailed by injury/personal issues. He’ll be relying heavily on the lessons learned then, and from mentors such as Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana. The big one? “Try to be a tough guy on the mound,” Rodriguez told Our Man Petzold. “Be aggressive, attack hitters and don’t get caught in situations, just attack, attack, attack.” Head here to find out what his other keys to success are.

Tigers birthdays this week: Denny McLain (79 on Wednesday); Elvin Rodriguez (25 on Friday); Will Rhymes (40 on Saturday), Rusty Staub (Would have been 79 on Saturday; died in 2018).

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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