- There's no question that Miguel Cabrera will one day be enshrined in Cooperstown. In the meantime, can he bounce back from a miserable 2017 season to make any of the remaining six years on his contract worthwhile for Detroit?
Lost amid this season's home run bonanza has been the apparent beginning of the end for Miguel Cabrera. Because this is baseball and because human beings have yet to find a way to reverse the aging process, it was inevitable that even someone as good as Cabrera—a two-time MVP, 11-time All-Star, future first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best righthanded hitters in the history of the league—would start to decline; for proof, consider the heart-breaking decay of Albert Pujols, who was everything Cabrera was but better. But what makes Cabrera's fall so tough for both him and Detroit is how quickly we seem to have reached the part of the rollercoaster where the cars plunge with gut-shaking speed.
To wit: the entirety of Cabrera's 2017 season, which has been an abject disaster. On the season, the Tigers' superstar is hitting a meager .249/.329/.399, all of which are career lows and a sharp drop from last year's .316/.393/.563. He's homered just 16 times, which would mark only the second time since his rookie season (all the way back in 2003, if you want to feel completely ancient) that he's failed to break the 20-homer mark; the last time was in '15, when he missed a month of the year with a serious calf strain but still hit .338/.440/.534 when healthy. His WAR on the season (-0.8) is negative for the first time ever; he's been worth less in 2017 than Darwin Barney and Gorkys Hernandez, among several other less-than-notable names. In the span of 12 months, Cabrera went from one of the league's best hitters to someone putting up the kind of numbers you'd more closely associate with the likes of Jeff Mathis.
Worse for Cabrera, it's clear that, at age 34, his body is breaking down. On Sunday, Detroit learned that Cabrera, who had to leave Saturday's game early with back pain, has been diagnosed with two herniated discs in his lower back, with manager Brad Ausmus telling reporters that his star may not play again this year. Back issues have been a problem for Cabrera since he played for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic back in March and are the latest in a litany of aches and pains he's dealt with since turning 30; as Ausmus put it, "This has probably slowly been developing for years."
Surgery is unlikely for now, with treatment limited to anti-inflammatory injections, but those kinds of injuries rarely get better over time. Don Mattingly's career was brought to an early end in part thanks to chronic back pain; David Wright's career is on the same trajectory; and herniated discs and muscle strains have cost Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw huge chunks of both this season and last. A chronic injury with no permanent medical solution that could linger for the rest of his career is not the ideal state for Cabrera or the Tigers, especially when you factor in the $184 million (!) he's owed over the next six (!!) seasons.
Let's not get it wrong: Cabrera earned every penny of the $248 million the Tigers gave him right before the 2014 season. But there's a reason handing that much money to a big-body player who now has over 2,000 games of wear and tear on him was a risky move from the moment Cabrera's pen touched paper. That's without getting into the fact that he provides negligible (if not negative) value defensively and on the bases (and is almost assuredly headed for full-time designated hitter status, possibly as early as next season, in an effort to keep him upright). Everybody breaks down, even guys like Cabrera, who was as automatic as possible for close to 15 years, but ideally, they don't do so with a nine-figure contract attached to them. And for even the most deep-pocketed franchise, that kind of financial commitment can quickly become a hideous burden; ask the Angels how they're feeling about all the money they'll be paying Pujols over the next five years to post a sub-.700 OPS.
There's nothing that says Cabrera is necessarily done for sure: Older players do bounce back (see Zimmerman, Ryan), particularly if they can get and stay healthy, and Cabrera's baseline on offense is already higher than most. But for all the money they've committed to Cabrera and for as untradeable as that contract makes him, the Tigers are now in the unenviable position of betting against the aging curve. Either Cabrera magically returns to his MVP-level self, or he continues to put up numbers like this year's, a shell of himself on a rebuilding team, the latest sad proof that time always wins.