The Detroit Tigers are going to have to try to turn their season around without Miguel Cabrera. Detroit manager Brad Ausmus announced Saturday morning that Cabrera is expected to miss six weeks after suffering a Grade 3 strain in his left calf in Friday night’s 8–6 win over the Blue Jays. That will keep Cabrera on the shelf through mid-August, past the non-waiver trading deadline, robbing him of half of the remaining season and putting the possibility of the Tigers extending their streak to five straight division titles (and playoff berths) in serious jeopardy.
Cabrera is nothing less than one of the best hitters of his generation. The first triple-crown winner in 45 years in 2012, the slash-stat triple-crown winner in 2013 and the winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player award both seasons, Cabrera was back in the MVP mix this season, hitting .350/.456/.578 with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs while leading the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS (1.034) and total bases (186) at the time of his injury. Despite Cabrera’s contributions, however, the Tigers have gone 29–37 (.439) since jumping out to an 11–2 start, giving them the third-worst record in the AL and fifth-worst in baseball since April 20; the Tigers entered Saturday's action in third place in the AL Central and just one game over .500. One would assume that the biggest reason for the Tigers’ poor record has been the poor performance of their pitching staff, but their lineup has pushed across just 4.18 runs per game over those last 66 contests even with Cabrera.
Without Cabrera, the Tigers will first try catcher Alex Avila at first base. Avila, who was just activated from the disabled list on Friday, made his first major-league start at first base Saturday afternoon (he had previously played five innings there over two games earlier this year with his only other professional experience at the position being a single game in Double A in 2009). Avila, who had been out since early May with a left knee injury and has a troubling history of concussions, has likely lost the starting catcher job to rookie James McCann, but given Avila's .227/.334/.369 performance at the plate since 2012, he seems unlikely to be productive enough to keep the Tigers above-water at first base (the average AL first baseman has hit .250/.331/.444 this season).
Detroit’s current alternative to (or potential righthanded platoon partner for) Avila is rookie Jefry Marte, who was called up to take Cabrera’s spot on the roster on Saturday. A former Mets and A’s farmhand, the 24-year-old Marte has hit .273/.337/.497 with 13 home runs and 55 RBIs for Triple A Toledo this season, but he’s just a .258/.324/.386 career hitter in the minor leagues, has all of 10 games experience at first base (he’s primarily a third baseman) and will be making his major-league debut with his first appearance for Detroit this season. Toledo’s current first baseman, meanwhile, is 37-year-old Mike Hessman, a career .288/.272/.422 hitter in 250 major-league plate appearances, the most recent coming in 2010.
With Cabrera hurt, the Tigers’ lineup will be extremely dependent upon J.D. and Victor Martinez, the only two men in the Detroit order currently producing at a rate significantly above average. Coming into Saturday’s games, potential All-Star Yoenis Cespedes had slugged just .439 since May 5, fellow All-Star candidate Jose Iglesias had hit a flat .293/.337/.315 line since the start of June and Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos and Anthony Gose, the lefty in the team’s centerfield platoon, had all had OPS+ figures of 91 or lower on the season, while McCann has struggled to keep his on-base percentage above .300.
The Tigers might need to consider finding a superior backup for Cabrera, as, while this is his first disabled-list stay, lower-body injuries are becoming something of a trend for the big-bodied 32-year-old. Cabrera slumped in late 2013 due to an injury to three muscles in his groin that connected to his abdomen which required off-season surgery. Last year, Cabrera again had late-October surgery, this time to remove bone spurs from his right ankle and repair a stress fracture on the top of his right foot. This is thus his third lower-body injury in the last three years and seems like a portent of things to come given Cabrera’s size (he’s listed at 6’4”, 240 pounds), age and mileage (his 1,896 career games played are 11th among active players and he’ll move up that list next year as at least one of the men ahead of him, Aramis Ramirez, will retire after this season).
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Indeed, Cabrera’s injury could be a turning point not only for the Tigers’ season, potentially making them sellers rather than buyers at the trading deadline, particularly with Cespedes, ace David Price and closer Joakim Soria all due to become a free agents after the season, but for the franchise in general. A calf injury may seem like a small thing, but given its timing and its victim, it could mark the end of the Tigers’ dynasty in the AL Central.