With a huge milestone in sight, Cabrera is focused on winning

March 14th, 2022

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Miguel Cabrera gave his seal of approval to right-hander Beau Brieske as the Tigers prospect fired a particularly nasty pitch to Cabrera during a round of live batting practice Monday.

“Bueno,” Cabrera said from the batter's box.

It’s the same kind of feedback he gave to Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning when they were prospects trying to work their way to Detroit over the previous couple of years, and to Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris before that.

Mize, who followed Brieske on the mound Monday, drew the next level of feedback from Cabrera -- including some salty words in Spanish -- to describe his stuff.

It’s high praise and welcome feedback from someone on the verge of becoming the seventh player in Major League history with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. But while Cabrera enters this season just 13 hits shy of 3,000, he’s more eagerly anticipating the chance to play for a winning team again.

Cabrera earned his only World Series ring as a 20-year-old rookie with the Marlins in 2003, and he played through a multitude of injuries to try to earn one with the Tigers. He won his third consecutive batting crown and the Tigers’ third straight division title while playing through a groin tear down the stretch in '13. He played the final month of the '14 season with a broken foot to help the Tigers, and he hobbled on a bad right ankle to try to get the Tigers back to the playoffs in '16. He paid the physical toll over the last few years as his body began to wear.

Now, as Cabrera nears his 39th birthday next month and the next-to-last guaranteed season of his contract, the Tigers are coming out of their rebuild. The days of Cabrera reporting to Spring Training in the supposedly best shape of his life are over -- it’s a really hard claim for anybody to make at that age -- but the days of Cabrera coming to camp with hope are back.

“Our manager and our organization last year said it's time to start winning. They showed that this past offseason,” Cabrera said. “They signed two big guys for our team. Hopefully, we can stay healthy and go out there and compete. ... It means a lot. Your goal every year is to win. I think we have an opportunity to do that here, so I'm really excited. We're ready to go.”

The desire to win again is strong enough that Cabrera is willing to put aside his joy of playing first base to let Spencer Torkelson, Detroit's No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, play there full time. He’s ready to watch Riley Greene roam the outfield at Comerica Park after jokingly pleading with the Tigers to let him stay when the then-teenager put on a show in batting practice at Comerica Park in the summer of 2019.

“I’ll take the DH [slot],” he said. “I have to talk to the manager, see what he has planned. I’m open to everything. I’m here to help, go out there and play my best baseball and try to help everybody here.”

That doesn’t mean he’s ignoring his run toward 3,000 hits. After powering through the quest for 500 home runs last summer, he not only kept most of his equipment from the honor -- the ball, the bat, his jersey, his helmet and his batting gloves -- he also held on to an appreciation of what it means to get to such a milestone amidst a rush of attention.

“It's really hard, because you don't look for home runs,” Cabrera said. “When you try so hard, you make too many mistakes at home plate. At home plate, you have to be relaxed and focused and try to have good contact.”

He needed 11 days after hitting his 499th home run to hit his 500th. He expects his hit chase to go a little easier.

“I mean, yes, because it's hard to hit home runs,” he said. “Hits? I can bunt and get a hit. I might bunt.”

Then he burst out laughing.

“Maybe. I'm going to try. No, no. No chance.”