When the Tigers take the field Thursday to the pageantry of Opening Day at Comerica Park, Miguel Cabrera won’t be watching from the dugout, waiting for his first at-bat. He’ll be manning his old, familiar spot at first base.
“Miggy’s going to play first, absolutely,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I think he gives us the best chance to win at first base.”
In a season that begins with a pair of milestones within Cabrera’s reach, getting back to first base is one thing he won’t have to wait to accomplish.
“I miss a lot playing first base,” Cabrera told reporters on the final weekend of last season. “I hope they can give me more time next year to play first and be in the field.”
For a 37-year-old slugger with a history of knee and back injuries who had spent a season and a half as exclusively a designated hitter, the comment seemed more like optimism than a goal. The Tigers moved Cabrera to DH full-time in the summer of 2019 to keep him playing every day after he was diagnosed with chronic knee problems that forced him to change his swing.
Hinch said after his hiring in November that he was open to the idea of Cabrera playing first base. Cabrera used it as motivation in his offseason to improve his agility and slim down his frame a bit. He said early in Spring Training that he felt the same way he had felt in 2014 or '15, when he was in his early 30s, a perennial batting champion and an everyday first baseman.
Cabrera returned to first base with not only experience but enthusiasm and energy. He made a diving attempt at a ground ball in his first game there. In another game, he ran across the infield to execute a rundown between third and home, nearly pulling off a double play.
“First off, he’s a student of the game,” Hinch said. “Like, he watches everything and sees everything. He’s very energetic on the bench. I don’t think I realized how much into the game he was. That quadruples whenever I put him at first base. I mean, he’s just so energetic and into the game, and he watches everything.”
That energy carries into the rest of Cabrera's game.
“You’ve seen it this spring. He’s bouncing around like a little kid again,” general manager Al Avila said. “I know he’s excited about that. I think it’ll do him well from a mental aspect.”
Once the Tigers opted not to carry Renato Núñez on the Opening Day roster, the stage was set for Cabrera to get the start at first. And with an Opening Day lineup and no need to rest anybody yet, it made too much sense for Cabrera to start the first game in the field, despite temperatures projected to be in the 30s all day Thursday.
The real debate will be how often to play Cabrera in the field moving forward; the Tigers plan for a couple of games a week. They have an off-day after the opener, followed by five consecutive day games at home. The weather is expected to improve greatly, warming into the 70s over the weekend.
“The main thing is to be careful with him and not overdo it,” Avila said, “and that’ll be up to A.J. and his staff to make sure that they manage the amount of time that he’s on his feet at first base. That’ll be monitored very closely. Our training staff, we have good technology now where we can tell if a guy’s a little bit more fatigued or whatnot. And so, all eyes will be on Miguel Cabrera, how many innings he’ll be playing at first base, to make sure that he stays healthy.”
Tigers to get vaccinated in Detroit
Avila said he’s hopeful that the Tigers can get COVID-19 vaccinations for all players and staff who want them during their season-opening homestand.
“The expectation here is to have the majority vaccinated before we go on the next road trip, and then get back to as much normalcy as you can,” Avila said Tuesday as part of a wide-ranging interview with reporters heading into the season. “That’s what we’re working on.”
The Tigers’ first road trip of the season begins April 9 with a 10-game trek to Cleveland, Houston and Oakland.
• The Tigers reassigned Núñez, relievers Ian Krol and Erasmo Ramirez and catchers Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase to their alternate training site following Tuesday’s game. They’ll be joined there by some players who were optioned to Triple-A Toledo earlier in camp.