Remedy for Miguel Cabrera's knee pain: A full-on lifestyle and nutrition change

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — There is no miracle remedy for the chronic pain in his right knee. Miguel Cabrera knows this now. Platelet-Rich Plasma therapy would be at best just a band-aid at this stage of the knee’s deterioration. There is no surgical option, no clandestine, non-certified procedure, no voodoo medicine.

Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera, after taking a short vacation with his family and consulting a couple of specialists, now knows the remedy for his debilitating knee pain is less invasive than any surgery — and it will probably be the hardest thing he’s ever done in his athletic life.

He needs to change his lifestyle.

Through the collaboration of the Tigers’ medical and training staff, Cabrera’s own doctors and his agent, he has been prescribed a rigorous program of fitness and nutrition — not just for the off-season, for as long as he continues to play.

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Because the best way, maybe the only way, to manage the pain and regain some baseball use in the knee is to lessen the weight it has to bear, and to strengthen the muscles around it — including his back and surgically-repaired core muscle area.

Cabrera, who is 36, going into his age-37 season, acknowledged this at the end of the season when he jokingly said, “No more arepas.” But he’s going to have to give up a lot more than just the delicious cakes made of ground maize dough — which are about 214 calories per cake.

He has been advised to hire a nutritionist, to completely change his diet. And he’s been strongly urged to make the fitness program a mandatory part of his daily routine. Cabrera’s listed weight last year was 249 pounds. The same as the listed weight in his rookie season in 2003, when he was 20 years old.

Conservatively, he was at least 30 pounds over that by the end of last season.

For the first time in his 17-year career, Cabrera is being asked to train like an athlete, not just a slugger. The Tigers believe, as general manager Al Avila has said, that Cabrera can still be a productive hitter. But he must commit to getting in shape, losing weight and building strength.

It’s on his shoulder’s now. Period.

Miguel Cabrera

This isn’t the first time Cabrera has been advised to lose weight, of course, and it’s always been a touchy subject for him. He and former Tiger Nick Castellanos were talking in the clubhouse before a game early last season. Castellanos was seated on the floor with a couple of teammates doing yoga stretches and the topic was nutrition and weight loss.

Cabrera shook his head.

“Lose weight, lose power,” he said.

He came to camp in 2017 noticeably leaner but ended up with just 16 home runs that year. He blamed it on his leaner physique.

It’s a different conversation now, at his age, with the chronic right knee issue. His back leg was essentially useless to him in the batter’s box last year. He couldn’t twist or drive off it, and thus, he couldn’t generate any power.

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He finished with 12 home runs and a career-low .398 slugging percentage. It’s a tribute to his elite skill, as well as multiple cortisone shots, that he still produced a team-high 139 hits in 136 games (hitting .282 with a .346 on-base average) hitting essentially off his front foot.

But that was a hollow achievement for him. Punch-and-Judy at-bats, no power — he was miserable. He had to change not only his swing mechanics, but also his approach. He’d always been able to stay back, let the ball get deep and then drive it into the gaps.

He couldn’t do that with the knee pain. He couldn’t keep his weight back. He essentially was lunging and poking at pitches. He was guessing on pitches more than he ever has, too, which accounted for his career-worst chase rate (37 percent).

He watched Magglio Ordonez devolve into that type of hitter at the end of his career. He watched Victor Martinez do the same.

It doesn’t have to be that way for Cabrera.

Miguel Cabrera

Nobody expects him to hit 40 home runs again. But 68 runs created? A sub-.400 slugging percentage? A minus-8.9 offensive WAR? No way. This is a two-time MVP, a Triple Crown winner and four-time batting champion. Even with chronic knee pain and completely out of shape, he had a 44 percent hard-hit rate last season.

Avila is correct. Cabrera can still be a productive hitter. But is he willing to pay the price? Is he willing to alter his lifestyle and his nutrition habits? Is he willing to commit to the fitness program?

Understand this: Cabrera, for all his boyish clowning on the field, is a fiercely proud man. His hard-earned status as an elite, generational star, his legacy in the game — these are major points of pride for him and he’s very protective of them.  

It’s also prudent to remember all the pain he’s played through in his career. He hit .313 with 25 home runs and 109 RBIs in 2014, hitting .372 in September, with a broken bone in his right ankle. His toughness has never been questioned.

But, at this age, with this condition, with all the accumulated wear and tear of 2,400 baseball games in 17 years, he’s facing a different type of challenge. He’s not rehabbing an injury. He’s tasked with overhauling his entire way of living. Not for the winter, but for the remainder of his playing career.      

Cabrera has four years and $120 million left on the guaranteed portion of his contract, which takes him to age 40. Ahead of him are cherished milestones like 3,000 hits (he’s at 2,815), 500 home runs (477) and 2,000 RBIs (1,694).

How much does that mean to him? More importantly, how much does he value an opportunity to write a fitting final chapter to his Hall of Fame-worthy career? To change the narrative from being a financial drag on the rebuilding process to that sturdy bridge that connected to the next competitive era of Tigers baseball?  

We will get our first hint in February if a leaner, stronger-looking Miguel Cabrera strolls into the clubhouse in Lakeland. And we will know even more as the season rolls on if he keeps the weight off.

It may be trending that way, but this does not have to end ugly for Cabrera and the Tigers.

Twitter: @cmccosky