One swing of the bat. Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster and former catcher Jim Price always said that this team, particularly its harder-hitting versions in the earlier part of this decade, could change its fate with one swing of the bat. While Price’s statement always came from a place of optimism, the line was no less true last night, albeit in a far unhappier context, when Miguel Cabrera swung through a 1-1 breaking ball from Minnesota’s Jake Odorizzi in the bottom of the third inning of what eventually would be a 6-4 loss to the Twins and ruptured a tendon in his left biceps. Later that night the news that would become this morning’s headlines arrived: Cabrera was done for the year.
The 2018 season began as a hopeful one for Cabrera. After missing significant time in 2015 and 2017 with leg and back injuries, he reportedly entered the current in good health and physical condition. Early returns on the field backed up that story. His March/April (154 wRC+) was one of his best starts of the last five years. Some trouble surfaced at the end of April, though, when spasms in his left biceps caused him to leave an April 29 game in Baltimore. A few days later, he made his return in a game in Kansas City but again left early, this time hitting the disabled list with a hamstring strain.
Cabrera, seemingly frustrated, was in no rush to return from the hamstring injury:
Nobody appreciates when you play hurt, so I’m going to take my time and play when I’m good. I play a lot of years hurt here in Detroit. They don’t appreciate that. When you are doing bad, they crush you. They crush you. They say you are bad. You should go home. You don’t deserve anything. That you are old. I say “OK. I’m done playing hurt.” When you are going good they say, “Oh, oh, you’re good.” Now I take my time.
That Kansas City game ended up being the only game in which he played in the month of May.
After a twenty-six-game absence, Cabrera returned to action in a home win against the Blue Jays on June 1 and didn’t miss a game this month. He struggled (June: .244/.367/.293, 86 wRC+) in his return, however, exhibiting weak power at the plate. And now he’s done for the season. His 2018, comprised essentially of a good month and a bad half-month, sum to .299/.395/.448, 128 wRC+, 3 HR, 0.8 fWAR/0.4 bWAR/0.5 WARP. In large part due to the time he missed prior to last night’s injury, Cabrera has been the Tigers’ seventh-most-valuable player in 2018, behind Jeimer Candelario, Leonys Martín, Nicholas Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Matt Boyd, and Joe Jimenez.
Now is the time on Sprockets when we provide the obligatory reminder that Cabrera is thirty-five years old and has, beyond 2018, a minimum of five years and $16 a2 million remaining on his contract. While I’ve argued it wasn’t crazy to believe that Cabrera might continue to earn that contract for a few more seasons if you believe that a win currently is worth $10 million, Cabrera already was likely to be shifting to DH on a much more consistent basis in 2019 (following Victor Martinez’s exit), and this injury raises new and serious questions about his ability to contribute going forward.
Comments from doctors and trainers experienced with this type of injury will appear in the coming days and provide a somewhat clearer picture of Cabrera’s possible future with the Tigers. In the meantime, I suggest we might consider the case of former Tiger Cameron Maybin, who, while playing for the San Diego Padres, ruptured a tendon in his left biceps four years ago while making a defensive play during a spring training game. Maybin, who was a month shy of his twenty-seventh birthday at the time and had missed most of the prior season with wrist and knee injuries, chose a rest-and-rehabilitation approach over surgery and was given a two-to-three-month return timetable. Maybin was back in the Padres’ lineup faster than that, though, missing only about a month of the regular season. (Articles about Maybin at the time note that the injury is more common in football and cite the case of John Elway, who also chose the non-surgical route and returned to action after just three weeks off.) Maybin’s somewhat stunted and injury-riddled career makes it difficult to compare his performance before and after the injury. Moreover, the numerous differences between Cabrera and Maybin, including age, body type, and style of play, probably limit the usefulness of the comparison for the purpose of understanding Cabrera’s prognosis. In addition, the fact that Cabrera is choosing surgery suggests that his injury is more severe than Maybin’s, although there aren’t many details available right now.
With Cabrera out, the already probable likelihood that the Tigers try to sell at the trade deadline becomes a certainty. Last night’s loss bumped Detroit out of second place in the AL Central, and one assumes that the team will continue to follow that trajectory in the standings. Keep an eye on some of those players listed above, especially Iglesias and Martín, as trade candidates next month. Expect General Manager Al Avila to field plenty of calls about Michael Fulmer. Look for the new-faces trend to continue. Hope that Cabrera can make a full and productive return in 2019.