Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire spoke to reporters ahead of the team's winter caravan kickoff Thursday afternoon. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Detroit – Not since he was a boy in Venezuela had Miguel Cabrera been estranged from the game of baseball for as long as he was last season. His season ended on June 12 after he ruptured a tendon in his left biceps. He left the team, had surgery and was essentially gone the rest of the year.
“It was hard,” he said Thursday before joining his teammates for the annual winter caravan hike through the state. “I feel like somebody took something away from me.”
As he sat, smiling and joking around with the media Thursday, he had the look of a man out to reclaim everything that was taken away – most specifically, his status as one of the premier hitters in the game.
“I want to be,” he said. “I want to be back. Because when you don't play, you're not going to post your numbers. And it's more than just numbers. But right now, I feel healthy. Right now, I can say I'm going to go out there every day and work hard.
“I want to be dangerous (laughing). No. You have to be confident at home plate. Not like you have to be cocky, something like that, but you have to confident and feel like you can still do it. I'm going to play my best.”
Cabrera, a two-time MVP who has amassed 465 home runs, 1,635 RBIs, a .946 career OPS and 151 OPS-plus, is no longer mentioned among the elite players in the game. He was not even considered among the top 10 first baseman in the game right now by MLB Network.
He’s battled through injuries and declining production the last two seasons. He’s made headlines off the field for a nasty paternity suit which as settled last week, a Florida judge ordering Cabrera to pay $20,000 a month in child support for two children he fathered with an ex-mistress.
He’s also been left to watch helplessly as his homeland is on the verge of political and economic ruin.
“It's hard when you can't go back to your country,” he said. “It's a hard situation. Hopefully we can figure out how to calm down the situation and be a healthy country.”
Again, though, as he spoke Thursday, there was a lightness to him, almost a sense of rejuvenation. That maybe some of the outside noise was quieting down, that he could get back to being just Miguel Cabrera, baseball player.
“You are trying to play and you’ve got things outside going on that are a big part of your life,” manager Ron Gardenhire. “Then you finally kind of clean everything up, get it settled and now you can do your thing, baseball-wise. It’s got to be a relief.
“I’m not in his shoes, I don’t know how stressful it’s been for him. I am sure it’s been very stressful. But I do know this. It’s very nice just to concentrate on baseball and on enjoying baseball.”
Tigers GM Al Avila spoke with reporters ahead of the team's winter caravan kickoff Thursday afternoon. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Gardenhire is going to give Cabrera a lot of rope in spring training and allow him to work his way back at his own pace. It is possible that Cabrera will split time between first base and designated hitter, but Gardenhire won’t even try to put a percentage on it right now.
“My goal is to not push him too hard,” Gardenhire said. “He’s the one who is going to know what’s really going on. If we can get him through spring training and then we will go. We need him. It would be the best thing in the world if we can have him on the field and in the clubhouse.
“We missed him when he was gone and it showed the second half of the season. This guy is a Hall-of-Famer. If he’s healthy, he can flat-out hit and that makes a big difference with our ball club.”
Cabrera was cleared to swing the bat in December and has finally started to feel normal and strong the past couple of weeks. Still, he has not faced live pitching since the injury.
“Hopefully soon,” he said of stepping in against a pitcher. “Hopefully in spring training. I think it's going to be one of my goals, face a lot of pitching, see and track (pitches) in the machine, and try to get ready for the season.”
Cabrera used the extra rehab time to strengthen and condition his entire body – legs and core muscles especially. He has also done a lot of stretching and agility work.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel like I can be healthy this year. I'm feeling more positive. I feel like we're going to have a good season. ... I want to play. I've been a long time sitting and watching games. I think I'm ready to go into the field and be with the team and play baseball.”
All thing being equal, Cabrera would prefer to shoulder the bulk of the work at first base, even though he will be 36 in April. But if he’s asked to DH more often than in the past, he’s willing to discuss it.
“If they tell me they're going to DH me, I'm going to think about it,” he said. “I think you have to do whatever it takes to improve the team, help the team get better. I'm open to everything. I don't care how many times they want to put me at DH, how many times they want to put me at first base.
“I'm open to everything. I want to be on the field. That's it.”