Henning: Cabrera should be fine in '19 as Tigers consider 1B options

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

When he walked away during — not after — his at-bat Tuesday night at Comerica Park, a gut feeling from all who have seen in their lives too many sports injuries was that this would be bad, very bad, for Miguel Cabrera.

Once the game had ended, and the clubhouse doors had opened after a marathon post-game session among the team’s bosses, Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire was left to say, in an even voice, that Cabrera will be gone for the remainder of 2018. He has a ruptured biceps tendon.

Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera will miss the rest of the season with a ruptured biceps tendon.

Surgery is scheduled for Thursday, Tigers general manager Al Avila said during a Wednesday conversation.

“For the long term, I don’t want to put any doom and gloom on this,” Avila said. “Hopefully, the rehab will go well. I’ve talked with Miguel. I know where his head is, and I think he’ll be fine.”

So do the doctors.

“My expectation would be that there will be no limitations next year at spring training,” said Robert Kohen, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon for Beaumont Hospital. “The surgery takes 30 minutes and, sometimes, people are able to use their arm right away. Sometimes, they’re in a sling for a few weeks.

“He’ll look like a normal person in a week or 10 days. I tell people that in four months they can lift weights.”

First glance

So, the prognosis is good. What the Tigers do at first base for their remaining 94 games was a Tigers front office’s stickier task Wednesday.

Avila said the Tigers will go with a unit of young players, including John Hicks, Niko Goodrum, and Ronny Rodriguez. They will not shift Nick Castellanos from right field to first base, as had been a thought given Castellanos’ infield background and the Tigers’ overload of outfielders. Nor will they sign an elder such as Adrian Gonzalez, 36, who was released earlier this week by the New York Mets.

Avila wants to see what his young players can do while Cabrera heals and the Tigers continue to look at their long-term rosters. Cabera, assuming he makes it back intact, will be working more as a designated hitter in 2019 when Victor Martinez no longer is in Detroit.

The Tigers believe they can continue to use Hicks as a primary fill-in, with Grayson Greiner getting more work as Detroit’s backup catcher. Goodrum’s not particularly deft at first base, but the Tigers want to see what he can do as a hitter, which is their plan as well as with Rodriguez.

Castellanos stood as a possibility because of basic arithmetic. The Tigers have a surplus of outfielders between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo: Castellanos, Leonys Martin, JaCoby Jones, Mikie Mahtook, Jim Adduci, Mike Gerber, Christin Stewart, and even Jason Krizan, who has been batting .300 in 2018 while flashing an .858 OPS.

More: Reaction to Miguel Cabrera's season-ending injury

That made a plausible case for Castellanos moving to first base because of his years as a left-side infielder and because of Detroit’s outfield glut. But, for reasons that also make sense, the Tigers have no such plans.

They are happy that their best hitter, now that Cabrera is gone, has relocated comfortably to right field. They don’t care to unsettle Castellanos, particularly when first base defense is tricky and Castellanos might prove to be less than a happy transplant there.

So, they’ll work with a committee and see what shakes out for the remainder of 2018. A team still deep in its remodeling job, with big roster changes coming in 2019 and in 2020, wants to know what its existing inventory can do as the makeover continues.

 An over-arching question hangs over Cabrera as he heads for surgery.

Cabrera's comeback

What does a ruptured biceps tendon portend for him and for the Tigers beyond 2018? Cabrera turns 36 next April. He has been hurt or has been playing with pain for much of the past five years. He is under contract through at least 2023, with some $180 million yet on the books.

This is one more trip to the disabled list, one more season wrecked by injury, this time for the remainder of a superstar’s year.

Last year, it was his back. The thought here was Cabrera would be fine in 2018 when doctors expected his herniated disks to behave and his old hitting prowess would return.

In fact, his back has been fine. But then a strained biceps, followed by a hamstring, followed by a shredded biceps, combined to cost him virtually all of May ahead of Tuesday’s rupture that has finished him for 2018.

Fans naturally doubt Cabrera’s prospects when he has been dealing in past seasons with groin, ankle, and back problems. Now it’s his left arm.

Cabrera’s big-league average season, after 15 years on the big stage, are: .316 batting average, 33 home runs, 117 RBIs, .946 OPS.

Last season’s numbers: .249, 16, 60, and .728.

This year’s stats: .299, 3, 22, and .843.

Some believe Cabrera is finished as a productive full-time player. They might be right.

Injuries have become a bigger issue in the past few seasons for Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, right.

But that wasn’t the word Wednesday from Kohen, a doctor with expertise, who expects a recovery as clean as the Tigers anticipate.

Kohen mentioned how rare in baseball is a biceps rupture, which more often happens to football players.

But it happens, as the Tigers know. Dean Palmer, the old slugging third baseman, had the same injury when he was with the Rangers before moving to Detroit. Palmer played eight more big-league seasons. He had medical issues, but none tied to his biceps.

It’s perhaps a different story with Cabrera because of his past series of aches and breakdowns, and because the Tigers are contractually bound to pay him the remainder of his $180 million.

Those paychecks must be cut, no matter how Cabrera’s health and future play out, which was late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch’s gamble and responsibility when Ilitch, solely, and with no heavy resistance from then-GM Dave Dombrowski, decided to make Cabrera and his bat a permanent fixture in Detroit.

Cabrera’s paydays, $30 million per season, rising to $32 million in 2022 and 2023, can potentially be offset, to a degree, by insurance that tends to be purchased on expensive players.

The Tigers aren’t offering any details here, but the typical payoff on a player disabled for all (or nearly all) of a season is 50 percent of salary. Insurance premiums run about 7 percent, as an industry standard, which tells you that money wasn’t much of an issue as far as Ilitch was concerned when the extension was offered. It was going to be one of American sports history’s richest deals and an owner wanted it to be just such a landmark.

Will it affect coming years and the team’s plans, if he can’t play at full throttle, or if he in fact must call it a career?

Of course. But, again, contrary voices were few when the Tigers and Cabrera had their happy press conference announcing the mega-pact. That an immediate risk and some potential regrets might someday clash was all part of the Ilitch-conceived investment in a Hall of Fame player.

So, it’s best to let the bookkeepers and Ilitch Holdings worry about payroll and financing Cabrera.

It’s more worthwhile to contemplate first base. What the Tigers can do about it today, and in future months and years, as this latest chapter in the Cabrera biography is written, perhaps ruefully.