The Tigers will spend the offseason searching for a run producer to plug into their lineup, likely in the outfield or at first base, general manager Al Avila confirmed from baseball's General Managers Meetings on Tuesday. But their best chance at an offensive uptick is a healthy return for Miguel Cabrera.
At this point, Avila made clear, those chances for health are in Cabrera's hands, and their attachment to workout equipment.
"He's committed to a rigorous offseason program," Avila told reporters, including MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez, from the GM Meetings. "If he commits to it 100 percent like the way it looks like it's going right now, he should be fine."
The message from doctors after season's end, as expected, was that there's no surgery to fix the chronic changes in Cabrera's right knee. His best hope at staying healthy and being productive is to strengthen the leg and shed some weight.
"For him, it's all about maintaining his strength and conditioning program, and obviously his diet," Avila said. "These are things that are important for him to stay healthy. The injuries that he has suffered and the surgeries that he's been under are not going away. They're there to stay. There's no surgery to fix what he's already got, so the only way is to really maintain yourself.
"It's no different than a pitcher going through a shoulder program. If a pitcher maintains his shoulder program religiously throughout the season, chances are he's going to stay healthy. If a guy gets lazy and all of a sudden he abandons that program and he does it off and on and he's not, let's say, committed to it, then chances are he might not make it through the season. Now, that doesn't mean you're still not going to get injured. Injuries will happen no matter how hard you work. But at the end of the day, it behooves you to do everything you can to stay healthy."
Though Cabrera's 136 games played this year were his most in a season since 2016, he was hampered for many of them, and limited to designated hitter after receiving his diagnosis in June. He batted .282 (139-for-493) with 21 doubles, 12 home runs, 59 RBIs and a .744 OPS. His .398 slugging percentage was the lowest of his 17-year Major League career.
After a ruptured biceps tendon and other injuries limited him to just 38 games in 2018, Cabrera reported to Spring Training at his usual weight in hopes of regaining power in his swing. The ensuing knee issues forced him to revamp his swing, putting weight on his healthier left leg. Cabrera eventually adjusted, batting .298 with an .839 OPS in his final 44 games, but he was limited in mobility. He rarely played day games after night games as the Tigers tried to manage the issue.
Cabrera acknowledged near season's end that he'll need to lose weight this offseason to ease the wear and tear. He also said he'd like to return to first base at least occasionally next season, something Avila was noncommittal on.
"In a perfect world, I would say for his sake, for our sake, being the full-time DH is probably the best thing to stay healthy," Avila said. "Right now, sitting here in the wintertime, I can't [say] that he won't play first base again. We'll just have to see how good he feels, how hard he has worked to put himself in that situation."
Cabrera has four more seasons guaranteed on the eight-year contract extension he signed in 2015. With 2,815 career hits and 477 home runs, he's within reach of the exclusive 3,000-hit and 500-homer clubs, most likely in 2021. But he has to stay healthy and productive to get there.
Even if Cabrera approaches his old form, the Tigers need help for an offense that ranked at or near the bottom of the American League in several major categories. Not surprisingly, finding a hitter to help is one of Avila's offseason priorities.
"We definitely would like to bring in somebody that can help our lineup," he said. "We do need to help some of these young guys out. What position [that hitter would fill], whether it be in the outfield or first base, we don't know yet. Right now, we're setting the groundwork here to see what we can come up with acquiring."
The Tigers will also look for a veteran catcher to work alongside Grayson Greiner and prospect Jake Rogers, according to Avila. Detroit signed former Draft pick Kade Scivicque to a Minor League deal to provide depth in the farm system.
"We definitely need catching help at the Major League level and depth overall," Avila said. "So catching's an area, like hitting, of importance this winter, for sure."