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Henning: Count on Cabrera to bounce back with boffo season

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Although wagers are neither ethically, nor financially, encouraged in this business, it would be tempting to drop a shekel or two on the belief Miguel Cabrera’s numbers in 2018 will land somewhere in this vicinity:

Batting average: .310. Home runs: 30. OPS, the tight offensive stat that combines on-base average and slugging percentage: .900.

This forecast, which Las Vegas might or might not agree with, is tied to two truisms.

Cabrera is a man who two months ahead of birthday No. 35 has the skills to at least sniff a second Triple Crown.

Also, Cabrera’s back doesn’t feel as if it’s been invaded by pitchforks.

This is not an explanation favored by those who insist Cabrera’s catastrophically bad 2017 season had to be sourced in something deep, dark, or tawdry. He happens to be locked in a court battle with a one-time mistress and mother of his two children outside of Cabrera’s marriage. Therefore, drama fans insist, last year’s hitting plunge was all about domestic turmoil and its assault on a man’s psyche.

But it was his back, not a “Days of Our Lives” script, that explained why a man closing in on Cooperstown last year batted .249, with 16 home runs and a .728 OPS. Cabrera’s career batting average is .317. He has averaged 34 homers per season and an OPS of .948.

Familiar form

His drop-off in 2017 was more like a cliff dive. And it was all the product of herniated discs that didn’t keep Cabrera out of the lineup but for sure kept him from swinging a bat with his customary oomph.

He and the Tigers’ medical brass decided to press on and treat his back during the offseason, minus surgery. The plan was for a no-frills rehab program that doctors promised by February would restore his old comfort and crunch.

Cabrera showed up Sunday in spirits so bubbly you wondered if the Tigers had quietly extended his contract by another three years and $100 million.

Monday, during the team’s first full workout of spring camp, Cabrera grabbed a bat and parked at the plate on one of the TigerTown quadrant’s back fields. Bareheaded as Florida’s noon sun burned down, he coiled and unloaded, hammering pitch after pitch. His bat through the hitting zone was its old blur.

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“I know he feels really good,” said Ron Gardenhire, the Tigers manager who once upon a time watched Cabrera maul Twins pitchers when Gardenhire worked at Minnesota. “There was a little pop in his step and pop in his bat.”

Gardenhire remembers those days when the Tigers and Twins dueled like dogfight aces.

“I never really liked it from the other side,” Gardenhire said. “I will like it from this side.”

Amen from the Tigers followers. They know about the past 10 years, nine of them anyway. Cabrera blasted pitches to distant places and made hitting seem matter of fact. Then, last season, with his lower body on sabbatical because of the bad back, when he got a hit it most often was a single. The old dynamism was gone.

Folks with a taste for off-the-field theories might have known better. Cabrera had dealt before with issues, including some alcohol-related, and it never seemed to have affected his bat as the home runs and batting championships and one-man demolitions of assorted big-league pitching staffs mounted, season after season.

Old Miggy on display

The Oliver Stone crowd was unmoved. It was either depositions, or divorce (a petition later withdrawn by his wife), that was chewing him up at the plate. Or, some insisted, as they had decided about Justin Verlander during a slump five years ago, it was the case of a final curtain on a career.

It was nonsense then. It’s nonsense now. With one qualifier.

Cabrera, in fact, might have peaked as one of the best hitters in the game’s annals. Baseball can be merciless on aging players, batters particularly. And a man eight weeks from 35 almost always has begun to lose a tick or two in his timing.

But this is not a mainstream big-leaguer. He is Cabrera. His athleticism is all but unparalleled when it comes to mashing a baseball.

Even his deftness at first base, which always has been underappreciated, was on display again Monday during drills on the Cochrane Field at TigerTown, where he neatly snared ground balls, flipped tosses to pitchers covering, and danced to the bag with choreography rare for a man so big.

He was Cabrera in all other ways Monday. In the hours before a workout that lasted from mid-morning until early afternoon, he was joking in the clubhouse. He locked up in a grand good-to-see-you hug with Nicholas Castellanos and with teammates galore.

Then he went to the baseball field and began reveling in the day and a game he has always played with a unique brand of brio. Pointing at infielders, directing throws, urging on countrymen in Spanish, he was back in baseball’s realm, minus last year’s miseries that so often made him wince.

Those numbers, again: .310, 30 home runs, .900 OPS. Take them to your bookie.