If Tigers Play Ball In 2020, Cabrera Has Chance To Turn Back Time

It's a sight we'd all like to see. 

Will Burchfield
March 18, 2020 - 4:00 pm

Ron Gardenhire had a good feeling about Miguel Cabrera this season when the Tigers reported for spring training. Cabrera, as promised, was leaner, lighter and more limber than he's been in years. (Dare we say lithe!) If Gardenhire needed any reassurance, he got it a couple weeks later when Cabrera blasted a home run off Gerrit Cole that, for all we know, is still coming down. Cabrera went deep again the next inning, just to be sure. 

"That ball you’re talking about went to left center, and I think it left the ballpark," Gardenhire told the Jamie and Stoney Show. "I’ve never seen one hit that far at this ballpark in Lakeland. The wind was blowing out, but it didn’t matter. He crushed the ball."

It's something we used to say about Cabrera often, and something we've rarely said of late. Injuries have caught up to him in recent years, partly because he gamely played through them in the prime of his career. And partly, if we're being honest, because Cabrera has often played overweight. So he made changes this offseason, changes to his diet and to his workout routine, and came to camp looking like a different player. 

"Oh, no doubt," said Gardenhire. "He’s moving well, he looks great, you can tell he feels great. He's eating great. And he’s got bat speed he didn’t have last year. He’s using his back leg a lot better. He’s just stronger. If you can lose that much weight and still stay strong, that's impressive. Tip your hat to him, because he went and did what he said he was going to do this winter: lose weight, get in great shape and be an impact player again. And from what we saw, he’s 100 percent right." 

'Embarrassed' Miggy Making Changes To Last Four More Years

We should pause here to acknowledge we've heard this story before. The offseason makeover, the Grapefruit League glow, the hope for a revival. And we know how it ends. Just last year Cabrera bashed the ball in spring training, then limped his way through the worst season of his career. Why should this year be any different? It's a fair question, and Cabrera has lost the benefit of the doubt. He hit seven more homers in 2016 than he has in the past three seasons combined. He has chronic knee problems. He turns 37 next month. 

So maybe we're naive in citing reasons to believe. Maybe we're pasted to the past, like moths to a flickering light. And maybe we'll never find out, with the baseball season in question as the coronavirus sweeps across the country. But at the risk of falling for the same mirage, this new Cabrera looks for real. The changes he's made to his body seem like they could last. And by all accounts, that old bat speed is back. 

We return to those homers against Cole. The first came on a 95 mph heater, poured over the middle of plate. So next time Cole ramped it up to 98, with some down-and-in sink. And Cabrera beat him to the spot again, pulling his hands inside and driving the ball straight out to center. Cabrera doesn't catch up to that pitch last year. If he does, he pounds it vainly into the ground. With the ability to drive off his back leg again, this year could be different.

"His body wouldn’t let him do his thing," Gardenhire said of 2019. "He would see pitches and his back leg wasn't good and he just couldn’t get to them. That really frustrated him, because here’s a guy that’s as good as it gets. Age and health are part of the problems that older players have, but when he came into camp it’s unbelievable. Watching this guy, I feel like I’m seeing him from the other side again when he pounded my team." 

If it's an image Gardenhire would rather forget, it's one Tigers fans remember fondly. And it's one we'd all like to see again, even in some watered-down fashion. Cabrera was 'embarassed' by his performance in 2019, according to Al Avila. His massive contract isn't up until 2024. A pleasant ending here is hard to envision. But a renaissance in 2020 feels possible, if the Tigers play ball. With the team's future still a couple years away, a flash of the past would be a welcome sight indeed. 

Other highlights from Gardenhire's interview on 97.1 The Ticket:

On the suspension of the season due to the coronavirus: "Everyone’s trying to figure this thing out and see where it goes, so there really are no answers. Baseball and basically every sport has decided to back down here. Make sure that all the people in the game are taken care of, all the fans are taken care of and just try to find a way to stop this disease and go from there. It’s more about health than anything else, and that’s the right thing." 

On his message to the team when the players dispersed: "You can sit there and try all different ways, there’s no precedent. The only thing I remember that shut down baseball like this that I was involved in -- of course there’s been a strike or two -- but 9/11, where all of a sudden baseball just stopped. That’s kind of what we’ve done here. All of a sudden we finish a spring training game and now baseball’s done, and for how long remains to be seen. But it’s one of those things where we talked to the players and said, 'This is what baseball wants. It’s not what I want, it’s not what Al wants.' Major League Baseball set this up and they’re dong the best they can with the Players Association to make sure we do all the right things."