Mensching: Cabrera's health makes Martinez deal risky

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

The last words you expect to put together in a sentence are "Miguel Cabrera" and "worried."

Yet here we are, with Cabrera undergoing surgery for a second consecutive offseason after his body broke down during the season, and it's a good time to start being worried about Cabrera and the Tigers both.

This year a doctor found a stress fracture in Cabrera's ankle while repairing bone spurs. At this time about a year ago Cabrera had surgery to repair a sports hernia.

In both seasons, Cabrera could be said to be having an off year -- "by Cabrera's standards." Which is to say, most players would dream of having the kind of season Cabrera has even in years his body betrays him.

Even as he played on a bum ankle, Cabrera went 4-for-11 with a home run in the ALDS, following a September in which he batted .379 with eight home runs.

But that late-season burst belies the fact Cabrera hit his lowest batting average (.313) since 2008 and fewest home runs (25) in a full season in his 12-year career.

Cabrera is 31 years old. He's averaged 157 games a year, most in the field, across the past 11 seasons. It appears to be taking a toil.

It's not a stretch to wonder if his best years are behind him.

Cabrera is signed through 2023 for a guaranteed $248 million with vesting options for 2024-25 worth up to $60 million more. Clearly this could be a big problem down the road.

Finding a way to keep Cabrera healthy and contributing at his highest level should be a priority for the club at this point.

It's too early to talk about making Cabrera a full-time designated hitter; besides that, he really wouldn't like it. Somewhere along the way, though, you have to find a way to preserve Cabrera's body for the long haul.

So maybe it's time to stop having a full-time DH and open the door for Cabrera to take more days off from the field.

The problem is, keeping designated hitter Victor Martinez is almost a necessity at this point. He's a team leader in the clubhouse, and he's coming off the best season of his career at the plate. It's hard to picture the Tigers without him at this point.

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports Martinez is seeking a four-year contract. Paying a player coming off a career year is already a bad business proposition. Making a deal of that length is just begging for an unhappy ending by 2018, when Martinez will be 39 and -- if you can imagine it -- even slower on the base paths.

Worse yet, it's a deal that would force the Tigers to keep Cabrera in the field for the next four years unless they cut ties with Martinez before the end of the contract.

Setting aside the Martinez end of the equation, it's hard to find any justification for keeping Cabrera in the field for that many years either, especially given his health issues of the past two. Even if he's a better defender at first base than he was at third, he's hardly a great fielder and it's only going to get worse.

This offseason was already going to be an interesting one. Whether you believe teams have championship windows or not, you can't overlook the fact the Tigers are an expensive, aging team without a lot of depth in the farm system. And nobody wants to go back to a lengthy rebuild when you enter the season knowing baseball is only a placeholder until football talk returns in July.

Signing Martinez may be the right move to give the Tigers a chance at a championship in 2015, but signing him to anything more than a two-year contract threatens to make the long-term health of the team -- and its aging future Hall of Fame first baseman -- an issue.

That's a tough problem for the Tigers to solve, and all the more reason to be worried about Cabrera's future.

Kurt Mensching is editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.