Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

MLB News arrow-downArrow Down icon Arrow Up icon

Appreciating Miggy, regardless of his contract

Cabrera's season-ending surgery brings Tigers' investment into question
June 13, 2018

At any given moment during a season, there are roughly 30-40 players who will someday make the Hall of Fame on an active roster, future Hall of Famers who you can just go out and see, anytime you want. Some of them are Hall of Famers you don't know you're

At any given moment during a season, there are roughly 30-40 players who will someday make the Hall of Fame on an active roster, future Hall of Famers who you can just go out and see, anytime you want. Some of them are Hall of Famers you don't know you're watching; if you were at Dodger Stadium on June 24, 1998, you might not have noticed the kid batting eighth for the Dodgers, but now you know he's one of the greatest third basemen of all time. But sometimes, you're watching a sure-fire Hall of Famer and you know it.
Of the many reasons to be bummed out about the torn left bicepsJose Cabrera suffered during the Tigers' 6-4 loss to the Twins on Tuesday night, this strikes me as the most painful one: There's an all-timer, slam-dunk Hall of Famer playing every single night that we don't get to watch any more this season. Someday, Cabrera is going to retire, and you'll never get to see him play again. Players like that must be appreciated while they're here, and that was ripped away from us last night.
This was not the case of a once-great player just merely hanging on either. Cabrera's profound struggles of 2017 -- in which he only hit .249 with only 16 homers -- were mostly in his rearview mirror this season. He wasn't vintage Cabrera; the power that vanished last year hadn't returned this year, with only three homers in 157 plate appearances, which is somehow fewer than Kolten Wong. But his hit tool had mostly come back, with his average hovering around .300 all year and his OBP the highest he's had it since 2015. He wasn't Prime Cabrera, but he was a key player for a Tigers team that has been a little bit better than you thought it would be; his 129 OPS+ is the highest on the team. His defense at first base takes away some of that value, but the Tigers are not a better team, and certainly not a more enjoyable team to watch, without Cabrera. We all lose something by his absence.
Of course, this is baseball in 2018, and we don't just talk about baseball players as baseball players in 2018. Miguel Cabrera is not just Miguel Cabrera; he is Miguel Cabrera and Miguel Cabrera's Contract. And that's where this gets complicated.

It has been just more than four years since the Tigers signed Cabrera to an eight-year extension, even though he still had two years left on his deal at the time. Often, when big contracts are signed, a brief era of good feeling ensues even if there are some lingering doubts about the deal, a moment when everyone smiles and cheers on the superstar who just got big money and can have his moment in front of reporters where he says, "I always wanted to finish my career here." Even Jose Pujols' contract with the Angels, now widely considered one of the most onerous in baseball history, was greeted with cheers when it was signed; for all the talk about how "smart" the Cardinals were for not matching it, the team was devastated when Pujols left. Usually, you can at least win the press conference.
But the Cabrera deal looked shaky from the get-go, no small feat when you consider he had just won two straight MVP Awards. Fangraphs said the contract was a "ridiculous overpay" and that "in a few years, the Tigers will wish they had let Cabrera go."
The context of the Cabrera deal is important, but the thing about context is that time makes context vanish. You can try to put yourself in the mindset of the 2014 Tigers, a franchise that had some great teams, but had never won the World Series, and say, "Hey, if you don't give Cabrera an extension, you'll likely lose him, and then you'll never win that World Series."

But the way we discuss baseball today, in this wonky, efficient, coldly logical way that makes total sense but has a tendency to sometimes miss the larger point, distracts us from talking about Cabrera as we should. Most discussion about Cabrera's injury the day after has focused on that contract, and how he's not going to be worth it over the next five -- five! -- years. But the Tigers knew that when they signed him and did so anyway. They knew the cliff was coming, and that there would be a rebuild, and soon. That they never won that World Series is not Cabrera's fault. And while the contract itself isn't exactly something that's going to provide a high return on investment, it's also worth noting that, well, it's not really hurting anybody.
Cabrera spent the first seven years of his baseball career wildly underpaid relative to his performance; he'd been on the MVP ballot five times before he ever made more than $500,000 in a season. Sure, he's overpaid now, but he wasn't, for a long time. And why are we begrudging a Hall of Famer making a ton of money anyway? More to the point, though, how much is this contract really hurting Detroit? The Tigers did what you want a team to do, really; they tried to win it all when they had a roster that gave them a chance, and retreated when it became clear it wasn't going to happen. Cabrera making $30 million for the next five years is not going to change their plan, or the direction of the franchise. The Tigers just lopped off $70 million in payroll in a year with Cabrera, and smartly: Tigers fans are intelligent enough to know their team doesn't need to get back in the free-agent market. (They'll drop even more this year when Victor Martinez and Jose Iglesias drop off the books.) Cabrera's contract (and Jordan Zimmermann, which is similarly burdensome) is going to remain on the Tigers' payroll for the next few years, but it's tough to make an argument that the contract changes the Tigers' fortunes during that time in any appreciable way. The Tigers' plan moving forward will succeed if they develop young players and it won't if they don't. Cabrera's contract isn't keeping them from anything.
In fact, is there not some value -- maybe not $30 million a year's worth, but some -- in having Cabrera do exactly what he said he was excited about doing when he signed: Retiring as a Tiger? By the time his contract ends, he will have played for the Tigers for 16 seasons (assuming the Tigers don't pick up his 2024 option and, uh, don't count on it). That's a Hall of Fame player spending nearly two decades of his career in your town. That's not nothing, right? Cabrera will hit his 500th homer as a Tiger; he will get his 3,000th hit as a Tiger; he will be the guy whose shirsey kids will be wearing at Comerica Park for the next 20 years. And he will go into the Hall of Fame as a Tiger, and only a Tiger. That has value. Of course it does.
If his contract isn't keeping the Tigers from doing anything they would otherwise do (and it isn't), and he's remaining a franchise icon who gives fans the opportunity to see a future Hall of Famer when they wouldn't be able to otherwise (and when he isn't tearing his bicep, he is), and he is a player who young players can emulate and learn from, then ... what is the problem? Yes, you wouldn't sign Cabrera to that contract today. But this was the downside you knew when you signed it four years ago.
So, a plea: When we lament Cabrera's season-ending injury, we lament losing him, the player, the future Hall of Famer, the guy who has provided us such joy over the years and surely has more joy to provide. We don't obsess over his contract, which is inefficient and excessive but not particularly harmful. We are missing out on seeing one of the best hitters of our generation. Let's be sad about that, not a piece of paper he signed four years ago. Next year, Cabrera will be back on the field for the Tigers. His teammates will be happy to see him. We should be, too.

Will Leitch is a columnist for