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Health of Cabrera, Hosmer is key to race between Tigers, Royals

For Kansas City and Detroit, the production of Eric Hosmer and Miguel Cabrera could have the biggest impact on the race for the AL Central crown.

On the surface, Miguel Cabrera and Eric Hosmer don't have a whole lot in common besides playing first base for the top two teams in the American League Central. One's a two-time AL MVP carving out a path to Cooperstown; the other is a former third overall pick who has only intermittently lived up to expectations during his four-year major league career. But with the Royals clinging to a half-game lead over the Tigers with less than four weeks to play, the pair are worth keeping an eye upon, as their production could have an outsized effect regarding which team finishes atop the division.

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​Cabrera enjoyed a huge day on Monday, going 4-for-5 with two homers in a 12-1 rout of the Indians. Such outbursts have been few and far between lately; he hit just .252/.354/.336 in August, with his lone home run coming back on Aug. 2, a span of 121 plate appearances, by far the longest drought of his career. His overall numbers (.304/.367/.501, 19 homers, 138 OPS+) mark him as the league's most productive first baseman besides Jose Abreu, but they pale in comparison to his combined .338/.417/.620 and 176 OPS+ showing in 2012-2013, a span that included the Triple Crown in the former year, the slash-stat Triple Crown in the latter, and 44 homers in each.

As I noted last week, this has an all-too-familiar ring. Last year, Cabrera was hampered down the stretch by a variety of abdominal injuries. He never went on the disabled list but instead played through pain at considerably less effectiveness. He slugged .333 in September and made several early exits from games, then .405 in the playoffs with the Tigers finishing short of their World Series destination.

Cabrera underwent offseason surgery to repair a groin tear and other core muscles, and while he proclaimed himself much improved back in February, he conceded in mid-June that he still hadn't fully healed, telling USA Today's Jorge L. Ortiz, "There are times when I feel good, but there are always muscles that are tightening, muscles that are not functioning properly."

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Even so, Cabrera hasn't gone on the disabled list this year either and has played 134 of the Tigers' 137 games, with two of his days off coming in the past 10 days on the heels of doubleheaders. His latest physical complaint is the lingering right ankle injury that forced his exit from the nightcap of Saturday's doubleheader, an injury he refuses to talk about, though manager Brad Ausmus said earlier this week that he didn't expect his slugger to be 100 percent until after the end of the season. Ausmus recently considered sitting Cabrera for four or five days; here's what he told MLive's Chris Iott after Saturday night's exit:

"[T]his thing comes and goes. Prior to today, the last couple days he said it felt really good. Then today it flares up again. I don't know if four or five days — although we've discussed it — I don't know if four or five days would do anything, because sometimes he comes in from sleeping overnight and it feels good."

Whether or not that means giving Cabrera a few days off here and there, the Tigers need Cabrera to be something closer to his usual self, because their best hope is to pummel opponents into submission. While their offense scored 4.58 runs per game in August — a rate that took smoke and mirrors given season lows in batting average (.263), slugging percentage (.386) and OPS (.710) — Detroit's pitching staff surrendered 4.74 runs per game despite the arrival of David Price. With Anibal Sanchez still on the shelf, Justin Verlander in far less than mint condition himself and a bullpen that could give the Springfield Tire Fire a run for its money, every run is that much more necessary for them to stay on par with the Royals, which is why Monday's outburst was so welcome.

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Monday also marked a return to action for Hosmer, who missed all of August due to a stress fracture in his right hand. While his overall numbers — .266/.312/.375 with six homers and a 90 OPS+ — are nothing to write home about, the 24-year-old first baseman was in the midst of his best stretch of the season before he was hit by a Jon Lester pitch on July 20, batting .429/.492/.664 in 63 plate appearances from July 1-19. His injury was initially diagnosed as a contusion, but after sitting for two days and going 1-for-12 in four starts, x-rays revealed that he had a stress fracture, sending him to the DL on Aug. 1.

With Hosmer on the shelf, the Royals suddenly turned into the majors' hottest team. They were 48-49 through July 20, seven games behind the Tigers, but went a major league-best 26-9 from that point through Aug. 27 before losing three straight — and trailing 4-2 in the 10th inning of a suspended game — to end the month. In Hosmer's absence, manager Ned Yost used Billy Butler as his first baseman for every start except one, with Raul Ibanez and August trade acquisition Josh Willingham sharing the bulk of DH duties. The combination worked, in that Butler's bat finally sprang to life (.288/.347/.450 with four homers) and Willingham provided some additional punch (.267/.377/.489 in 53 PA); Ibanez struggled, albeit in limited duty (.185/.290/.296 in 31 PA).

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There's a reason that Butler was long ago cast as a full-time DH, however; even at the easiest defensive position on the diamond, he stinks. Via Defensive Runs Saved, he’s 21 runs below average in 393 games there for his career, -7 per 1,200 innings; in the small sample of 36 games this year, he's at -3 runs, or -11 per 1,200 innings. While he's made just two errors at first this season, one came with two outs in the 10th inning of Sunday night's game; his booting of Jason Kipnis' grounder opened the door to a two-run rally just before rain forced play to be halted with the Indians up 4-2. That game will be completed on Sept. 22 in Cleveland.

Though Hosmer won the AL Gold Glove last year, the advanced metrics don't suggest he's Keith Hernandez’s heir; he's been +3 according to DRS in both 2013 and 2014, but is still -2 per 1,200 innings for his career, and the story is similar if one uses other metrics. The bottom line is that over the remainder of the season, he still should represent a defensive improvement worth one or two runs. Regaining his stroke following a hand injury is no given, but he did homer in one of his two games during his rehab assignment, and went 1-for-4 against the Rangers in Monday's return; he did make an error in the field, but it was far less costly than Butler’s.

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​Hosmer's return gives Yost the ability to mix and match at both first base and DH, a potentially scary thought given that the K.C. skipper is hardly the second coming of Casey Stengel — or even Bob Melvin — when it comes to platooning. Hosmer and Ibanez are lefties, while Butler and Willingham are righties, but Yost told reporters prior to Monday's game that he plans to play the hot hand. For Monday, that meant Butler, who had gone 6-for-32 over his past nine games, and Willingham, who is battling soreness in his rib cage, rode the pine.

Even coming off a month in which they scored 4.41 runs per game, the Royals' offense can use all the help it can get, and by increasing their options on both the offensive and defensive sides, Hosmer should be able to provide some. Whether it will be enough to propel the team to its first playoff appearance since 1985 remains to be seen, and Cabrera could have a big say in that.