A 'good soldier' during rebuild, Miguel Cabrera could be rewarded with another playoff run

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Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila sat down with Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera to explain his plan for the future. Not long after Avila became the organization's leader in August 2015, the franchise was entering a full-fledged rebuild.

"We all knew Cabrera was the one guy I couldn't trade," Avila said earlier this month, six years after assuming the general manager role. "He understood what was going on."

The Tigers missed the playoffs in 2016, their last-ditch effort for a World Series championship. Over the next four seasons, they endured a 198-345 record and three last place finishes in the American League Central.

HOW IT ALL STARTED: Scouts couldn't believe what they saw when they met 15-year-old Miguel Cabrera

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Detroit Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera smiles in the dugout after his solo home run against the Toronto Blue Jays in the sixth inning at Rogers Centre. The home run was the 500th of his career on August 22, 2021.
Detroit Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera smiles in the dugout after his solo home run against the Toronto Blue Jays in the sixth inning at Rogers Centre. The home run was the 500th of his career on August 22, 2021.

During the early stages of the rebuild, Avila traded away his best players: Verlander to the Houston Astros, Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels, Ian Kinsler to the Angels and (in separate deals, two years apart) Alex Avila and Nick Castellanos to the Chicago Cubs. The Tigers had to boost their farm system by acquiring prospects via trades and amateur drafts.

Cabrera, locked into a mammoth contract and on the wrong side of 30, was essentially unmovable.

"He's been a really important part of this," Avila said. "He's been a good soldier in doing anything we asked him to do. When we went young and weren't playing very good, he tried to do the best he could to be a leader. I've got to give him a lot of credit for that."

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Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera smiles in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays on August 18, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera smiles in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays on August 18, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The baseball scene in Detroit is beginning to change with the arrivals of manager AJ Hinch and the prospects Avila once promised.

Prized pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning are in the big leagues, and feared hitters Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are already in Triple-A Toledo (with an arrival in Detroit impending next season.) Outfielder Akil Baddoo, a 23-year-old selection in the Rule 5 draft, seems like the real deal. Veteran second baseman Jonathan Schoop recently inked a two-year contract extension (albeit with an opt-out after the 2022 season). After a rocky start, third baseman Jeimer Candelario is finally established. The bullpen is headlined by 26-year-old flamethrower Gregory Soto, who became an All-Star for the first time in 2021.

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"I'm really hungry to get back to winning a high percentage (of games)," Cabrera said in February during spring training. "It's no fun at all to play and lose almost every day. Right now, we've got a good club to complete. I think we got very good talent, young talent. If we put everything together, I think we can win more games than last year and the year before."

Hired in late October, Hinch has guided the Tigers to a 60-66 record: 51-42 since May 8 and 20-15 since the All-Star break. With enough spending from owner Christopher Ilitch in free agency, the Tigers could return to the postseason in 2022.

"Miggy cares about winning first," Hinch said. "I know these numbers are big. He appreciates them and acknowledges his place in history, but he's all about winning. I think this season has brought Miggy's spirits back to life in a couple different ways. The personal accolades are always great, but he's doing it in some important games. We're trying to reestablish the English 'D' as a winning franchise.

"His reaction to the wins and losses inside the clubhouse speak to me as a player who really gets it and understands that to win the day matters."

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'He was patient'

The final game of 2019, one of the 114 losses that season, featured this starting lineup: Cabrera, Victor Reyes, Jordy Mercer, John Hicks, Ronny Rodriguez, Christin Stewart, Travis Demeritte, Grayson Greiner and Willi Castro. Candelario and Brandon Dixon entered off the bench.

It was a far cry from the star-studded lineups the Tigers featured in Cabrera's prime. Less than two years later, only three players from that late September starting lineup — Reyes, Greiner and Castro — remained on the Tigers' 40-man roster.

"He was patient," said Candelario, who joined the Tigers from the Cubs in the 2017 trade involving Avila and Justin Wilson. "He knew we were going through a rebuild, and he came with a good attitude for us young guys. It was just awesome to be with him. He always had a smile for us and was trying to help us, no matter what."

[ Miggy after hitting 500 home runs: 'I'll always thank God for this moment' ]

"Wasn't fun for any of us," said starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, who came to the Tigers in a deadline deal just before Avila was promoted to GM in 2015. "He handled himself the same way. He went out there and prepared. At the end of the year, he stepped back and said, 'How do I need to get better?' ... Regardless of what we were doing on the field record-wise, what he was doing to better himself to help us as a team — knowing what was ahead of us — was impressive."

Ron Gardenhire managed the Tigers from 2018-20, the worst years of the rebuild.

He leaned on Cabrera to develop the youth movement in clubhouse and on the field. If something happened that needed to be addressed, Cabrera would often look at Gardenhire. In the moments Gardenhire nodded back, Cabrera stepped in.

"I respected that," Gardenhire said. "That's what I hoped for, but you never know."

Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire presents the lineup before the game against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Detroit.
Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire presents the lineup before the game against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Detroit.

Cabrera, a 19-year veteran, first became a leader for the Tigers because of his success. He won back-to-back American League MVPs in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, earning the Triple Crown — leading the AL in batting average, home runs and RBIs — in 2012. He is a four-time batting champion, 11-time All-Star and a 2003 World Series winner.

Then, Cabrera became a mentor.

"Going into it, I knew what we were doing," Gardenhire said. "You're going to take a beating a few times to get it back on track. You basically talked to (Cabrera) about helping us through this thing. Young players are going to be here, and the coaching staff can't always be going over and talking to them. But that really didn't need to be said."

'Jefe, jefe! You see this?'

From 2017-20, Cabrera hit .267 with 41 home runs over 361 games.

Now 38, he has dealt with multiple injuries, including two herniated discs in his back in September 2017, a ruptured left biceps tendon in June 2018 (requiring season-ending surgery after just 38 games) and a chronic right knee problem in 2019.

All while the Tigers kept losing.

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"He was pretty depressed," Gardenhire said about the 2018 injury. "It was tough. You can't swing, you can't do anything. He handled it fine, but it wasn't easy because he likes to play and wants to be involved in everything."

For health reasons, the Tigers pulled Cabrera from first base halfway through the 2019 season. He spent 2020 as the team's full-time designated hitter. Until Hinch started Cabrera at first base on Opening Day in 2021, the aging superstar hadn't played the infield since June 18, 2019.

Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera tosses the ball to first base for an out against the Minnesota Twins in the third inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Friday, May 7, 2021.
Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera tosses the ball to first base for an out against the Minnesota Twins in the third inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Friday, May 7, 2021.

"That was on me," Gardenhire said. "Al said, 'Do what you got to do.' I told him that would be one of my biggest projects. I know he wants to play first base and loves to be on the field. I explained this to Miggy from the get-go: 'Listen, I can't afford (to lose) you right now during a rebuild. We need you in the clubhouse.' ... I told him that's what we were going to do, but he wanted to play first."

Cabrera never stopped taking ground balls in warmups.

"Jefe, jefe!" Cabrera would yell. "You see this?"

"Oh, I see it Miggy," Gardenhire responded.

MIGGY MOMENTS: 10 behind-the-scenes stories of Miguel Cabrera's greatness with Tigers

Exiting the rebuild

This season, Cabrera has played 36 of his 99 games at first base. He is hitting .246 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs, along with 33 walks and 95 strikeouts.

Winning has reinvigorated Cabrera, possibly as much as his personal journey to 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. Because if Cabrera is winning, he knows the milestone numbers will show up. He reached 500 home runs Sunday in Toronto, helping his team to a 5-3 extra-innings victory over the Blue Jays.

"I never imagined I would play with Miguel Cabrera," Candelario said. "I saw him when I was 9-10 years old on TV. Now I have four years playing with him. It's a dream come true. For me, my team and my family, this is history."

Cabrera has two years remaining on his contract, meaning he will be a Tiger through the 2023 season. (After earning $30 million in 2021, he makes $32 million in each of the next two seasons.) About a week ago, Candelario thought about how special it would be for Cabrera — nearing the end of his career — to play in the postseason again and get another chance at winning the World Series in a Detroit uniform.

"He would be so happy," Candelario said. "I know it will come."

"Miggy is living proof that legends exist," Hinch said. "They're not just in your mind. They're in front of us every day. That matters. I don't know how to quantify it or how to describe it other than Miguel Cabrera playing every day on a team that's starting to win feels right."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: As Detroit Tigers exit rebuild, Miguel Cabrera is ready to win again