Tigers’ Top 5 first basemen: Beck's take

March 30th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jason Beck’s ranking of the top five first basemen in Tigers history.

1) Hank Greenberg, 1930, '33-41, '45-46
This was an incredibly difficult choice. On many other franchises, Miguel Cabrera or Greenberg would be a clear top pick. As it is, they’re grouped with Ty Cobb among the top three hitters in Tigers history in terms of career OPS and slugging percentage. Adding to the challenge is the fact that Greenberg sacrificed four seasons in his prime years to serve his country in World War II.

Despite those lost seasons, Greenberg posted an amazing 1.028 OPS for his 12-year Tigers tenure, and 1.017 for his career, the latter ranking sixth-best in Major League history. Even if you adjust for the era and the ballpark in which he played, his adjusted OPS+ of 158 ranks 16th all-time, and second only to Cobb among Tigers. He returned from the war at midseason in 1945 and hit .311 in 78 games for the eventual World Series champion Tigers, including a go-ahead ninth-inning grand slam on the final day of the regular season to clinch the AL pennant. Then he hit an AL-high 44 homers with 127 RBIs the next season at age 35.

The legacy Greenberg left with the Tigers, on and off the field, is indelible: Two MVP awards, three home run titles, two World Series crowns, a 184-RBI season in 1937, a '38 run at Babe Ruth’s home run record, and his No. 5 retired on the outfield wall at Comerica Park.

So, too, is the legacy Greenberg left across baseball. Ted Williams called Greenberg “my favorite player” in a 2000 interview with the New York Times.

2) Miguel Cabrera, 2008-present
The late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was looking for a superstar when he suggested then-general manager Dave Dombrowski look into trading for a young Marlins slugger. What the Tigers got, for the price of a handful of prospects, was one of the greatest hitters of his era.

“He’s one of the best right-handed-hitters that I’ve ever seen with my own eyes,” Albert Pujols said in an MLB.com video interview last year.

For the first half of the last decade, Cabrera was the best pure hitter in baseball, winning back-to-back MVP awards and four batting titles in a five-year stretch from 2011-15. That includes the first batting Triple Crown in a quarter-century when he led the AL in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBIs (139) in 2012. He had an OPS of .996 and an OPS+ of 170 during that stretch. He led the Tigers to four straight division titles while playing through injuries that included a torn groin one year and a broken foot in another.

While Cabrera has a lower bWAR than Greenberg in their 12-year Tiger tenures, 51.3 to 53.0, Cabrera has a higher offensive WAR, 56.7 to 51.3, helped in part by having more plate appearances. Cabrera’s 42.4 Win Probability Added as a Tiger ranks second to Al Kaline in franchise history. With good health and conditioning, Cabrera could eventually end up among the handful of greatest Tigers ever, and maybe even the best at first base.

3) Norm Cash, 1960-74
While Kaline and Willie Horton were the stars of the Tigers lineup in the 1960s, Cash put up power numbers as big as his personality, and bigger than many might have expected when then-Tigers GM Jim Campbell acquired him from Cleveland in 1960 for Steve Demeter. The deal turned out to be one of the best in Tigers history. After a quietly productive first season, Cash hit a league-best .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs in 1961, a season that only a Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home run chase could overshadow.

“I owe my success to expansion pitching, a short right field fence, and my hollow bats,” Cash was widely quoted as saying about that season.

Cash never approached those numbers again, but he averaged 28 homers a season for the decade with a 142 OPS+. He was a productive hitter in the 1968 World Series, batting 10-for-26 with five runs and five RBIs. He hit 32 home runs with 91 RBIs as a 37-year-old in 1971, and his 373 career homers as a Tiger rank second in franchise history, trailing only Kaline.

4) Cecil Fielder, 1990-96
Though Fielder’s Tigers tenure lasted seven years, which is shorter than others on this list, he packed a ton of production into that time. More importantly, he breathed new life and energy into a team with an older roster and a closing window of contention. He arrived from Japan in 1990 as a curiosity signing and turned in baseball’s first 50-homer season in 13 years and the Tigers’ second in franchise history. The chase for 50 became a summer-long saga at Tiger Stadium until he hit the mark with a two-homer game at Yankee Stadium with three games to go in the season.

Fielder led the league in home runs in back-to-back years, and in RBIs for three consecutive seasons. On a Tigers roster that still had franchise icons Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, Fielder became a star in his own right, and stayed that way until his trade to the Yankees in 1996. There’s an MLB commercial on YouTube that shows Fielder with Aretha Franklin promoting the game.

5) Rudy York, 1934, '37-45
York burst into the Tigers lineup as a catcher when he replaced an injured Mickey Cochrane in 1937 and hit 18 home runs with 49 RBIs in the month of August, an AL record for homers in a month. But he eventually settled in at first base as a young slugger behind Hall of Famers Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer before leading the Tigers through the war years in the first half of the 1940s. His 239 home runs, 933 RBIs and 2,353 total bases from '37-45 led all Major League hitters, four more homers than Hall of Famer Mel Ott. York earned five of his seven All-Star selections as a Tiger, and led the American League with 34 home runs and 118 RBIs in 1943.