Tigers' AJ Hinch takes on responsibility, and 'privilege', of managing Miguel Cabrera
Lakeland, Fla. — The thing about using Miguel Cabrera at first base occasionally this season is, it’s not just about appeasing the desires of the franchise player — though there is certainly an element of that involved.
It goes deeper.
“My plan is to provide an opportunity for him to be little more of a complete player and not just let him fall into the designated hitter category,” manager AJ Hinch said Sunday on the eve of the first full-squad workout. “Part of that is for Miguel and letting him have that kid spirit and play both sides of the ball.
“But the other part of it is for reasons of the team. If he can play first base, whatever that timeline is, one or two times a week depending on weather and schedule and his health, that frees me up to use the DH to open up playing time for a lot of different guys on our team.”
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Hinch would like the ability to use Wilson Ramos in the DH spot on days he’s not catching. He’d like to use it to work the fourth outfielder into the lineup more often. He could use it get Jonathan Schoop off the field for a day and keep his bat in the lineup. He could use it to get more out of utility players like Niko Goodrum and Harold Castro.
“There’s a lot of flexibility that comes with just having that once or twice a week,” Hinch said.
Cabrera, who turns 38 in April and is entering his 19th big-league season, has made no secret of his desire to play in the field. Going back to spring of 2020, he has trimmed and toned his body to facilitate not only getting through a season healthy but being able to play on defense.
Hinch is mindful of that.
“But what I won’t do is break him,” Hinch said. “I’m not interested in playing him so much at first base that it hinders having him available throughout the rest of the week.”
Cabrera arrived in camp on Saturday and has taken ground balls and throws at first base the last two days.
“He’s in good spirits,” Hinch said. “He’s always been a joy in terms of his spirit. He just wants to have fun and do well. We’ll lay out his spring and tell him what our expectations are and get his feedback on how many at-bats he needs this spring and things like that.
“When you get into Year 19, you’re in a separate category in terms of preparation and planning. We want to keep him healthy but also get him ready.”
Hinch has been down this road before with players on the back end of their career. He got 129 games out of a 40-year-old Carlos Beltran in 2017, for example.
“Communication is the key,” Hinch said. “Some guys want a big say in their preparation and in their situation and some guys don’t. But what I’ve found is, all of them want structure. They all want a framework of expectation to work under.
“A lot of people try to tiptoe around veteran players and older players with some status in the game. The reality is, you have to coach them just like you coach a young up-and-comer. They want structure. Some guys just want to be part of the team. Some guys don’t like to be king of the clubhouse.”
Cabrera, though, is a different animal. A two-time MVP, four-time batting champ and a Triple Crown winner — he’s going to be the king of this Tigers’ clubhouse, whether he wants to be or not.
“It’s somebody that we all deeply respect,” Hinch said. “I want him to have an understanding on where we’re at. He’s going to carry a lot of weight in the clubhouse and in our style of play. Young players, whether they’re on our team now or coming later, are going to turn to him.
“He’s a great influence on our guys and I want to make sure we’re in lockstep and that he understands where we’re coming from and where we’re going.”
Hinch is mindful, too, that Cabrera enters the 2021 season on the brink of some serious historical markers. He needs 13 homers to reach 500 and he’s 134 hits shy of 3,000.
“It’s a privilege to get to know him and a privilege to be his manager,” Hinch said. “I’m going to develop a rapport with him so that he gets to celebrate his individual accomplishments that are coming, but we do it in a win.”