LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jose Cabrera reported to Spring Training on Sunday to play ball with the kids. In this case, it was a Miggy Ball youth baseball event on the field at Joker Marchant Stadium.
He'll turn his attention to the Tigers' rebuilding project and his young teammates on Monday. For Sunday, at least, the 34-year-old showed no intention of accepting a decline in the standings or at the plate.
"The difference [this year] is everybody right now expects we're going to lose," Cabrera said. "Before, they expect we're going to win. So now, we have to change that. We have to change that to, 'We can be a good team, we can be underrated, we can go out there and compete.' In baseball, you never know what's going to happen. I'm not saying we're going to make the playoffs, but you have to try. You have to try, and you have to feel proud about trying to win."
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That includes Cabrera himself, coming off the worst season of his Major League career. After back issues hobbled him in the field and hampered his swing, leading to a .249 average, .399 slugging percentage and .728 OPS, Cabrera said he focused his offseason workouts on his core muscles to create more flexibility, rather than focusing on strength like past offseasons.
"This is an issue I've had for a lot of years. I think it affected me more last year because I was not able to move this part of my body," said Cabrera, pointing towards his core. "It was locked. I think it was a big issue for me because I lost a lot of power, I lost strength at home plate. I was not able to hit a ball like I'm used to, not even hit the ball in gaps. You can see my performance last year. I don't have any excuse, but it is what it is."
He feels good now, he said, and began swinging in the offseason earlier than he had in years to test it out. He felt good, but now he has to maintain it.
"I have to stretch every day," Cabrera said. "I have to move every day. Because if I don't do that kind of stuff, my back is going to be tight again like last year. So I have to keep working and never stop."
Once he does that, bringing himself back to being an elite hitter, he can focus on being a leader.
"My first focus is to be healthy. The second one is to help these guys get better," he said. "And these guys are going to help me get better, too. It's going to be a combination: You help me, I help you. We're a team. We stay together."
Cabrera said he has talked with new manager Ron Gardenhire about his role and about the direction of the team.
"It was fun," he said. "At the same time, it was like, 'OK, it's time to get serious.' So I talked to him and said, 'What's the plan for this year?' We'll talk tomorrow again, and we'll move forward."
Gardenhire said Sunday he'll talk with Cabrera about where he feels comfortable in the lineup before putting together a batting order. He has batted third for most of his Tigers tenure.
As for his spot in the field, Cabrera said the back issues made it tough for him play day in and day out at first base last year. Asked if he can play every day at first base this season, he smiled.
"Let's see," he said. "I'm going to try."