LAKELAND, Fla. — He’s of the greatest players in franchise history, a future Hall of Famer who’ll be alongside Cobb, Greenberg, Kaline and Trammell in Detroit Tigers’ lore, but today, he is considered an albatross.
Miguel Cabrera is on a team going nowhere this season, a franchise building for the future, but one that’s paying an enormous disproportion sum of money for his performance of the past.
Cabrera, 35, may be viewed an aging first baseman these days, but was considered one of baseball’s most feared hitters a few years ago. He was a back-to-back American League MVP, a Triple Crown winner, nearly winning a second, and leading the Tigers to two pennants, four division titles and five playoff berths.
Those glory years rewarded him with a glorious amount of money.
These days, Cabrera symbolizes the risk and fear of long-term contracts.
This is a man who was given an eight-year, $244 million contract extension from the Tigers in 2014, and considering he still had two years left on his first extension, was guaranteed $292 million over 10 years. Cabrera was worth every penny the first three years of the deal, but he hasn’t been an All-Star since 2016. The past two seasons, he’s missed 156 games with injuries.
And he’s owed $162 million through 2023, at a time when he will be 40 years old.
Cabrera hears the ridicule, scorned by the same fans who wear his autographed jersey. He wrinkles his nose, shrugs his massive shoulders, and isn’t about to apologize.
And neither, he said, should Albert Pujols, Chris Davis, Robinson Cano, or anyone else with bloated contracts reviled by their own fanbases.
“I don’t know why people get mad at us,’’ Cabrera tells USA TODAY Sports. “They don’t like it when we get money. Why weren’t people mad the first five years when I wasn’t getting paid?
“People can say I’m not worth this contract. They can say whatever they want, really. But they’re not going to hurt my feelings.
“I’m not going to apologize. Why should anyone be sorry? I don’t see any teams losing money. They all have it.’’
Cabrera can’t fathom why there’s so much ridicule and scorn over the record-setting contracts paid to three of the greatest young stars of the game in Bryce Harper of Philadelphia (13 years, $330 million), Manny Machado of San Diego (10 years, $300 million) and Nolan Arenado of Colorado (eight-years, $260 million).
These players don’t deserve it? They’d rather watch their favorite teams lose 100 games a year while touting their farm system?
“I don’t get it, it’s crazy,’’ Cabrera said. “These are great players. They are franchise players. You look at Harper and Manny. They’re already great players, and they’re not even in their prime yet. They’re still learning. We’ve got to open our eyes because they’re going to do some unbelievable things.’’
And sell a whole lot of tickets and jerseys. The Phillies sold about 220,000 tickets in the first three days after the Harper signing. There were more Harper jerseys sold in the first 48 hours, according to retailer Fanatics, than any athlete in sports’ history.
“You know how many people are going to go to their games?’’ Cabrera said. “You know how many people are going to show up on the road to see them? You know what this guy brings to a team?
“I remember when we were good those years in Detroit, it was unbelievable. Everywhere we went, it was full. Everyone wanted to see us play. It’ll be like that in Philly.”
Sure, there are going to be seasons when Harper and Machado struggle. Harper isn’t going to win 13 consecutive MVP awards. There are going to be seasons Machado won’t make the All-Star team. And who knows if their teams will win a World Series while they’re wearing that uniform?
Cabrera himself doesn’t even know if the Tigers will be back in the playoffs by the time his contract expires.
Still, if you’re going to complain he’s making $30 million a year, he asks, where was all of the noise when he earned less than $500,000 the first four years of his contract? Why talk about Boston Red Sox MVP Mookie Betts’ $20 million contract now when no one worried about his contract being renewed two years ago?
“You’ve got to understand you’re not going to put up the same numbers every year,’’ Cabrera said. “Sometimes, things are going to happen. Sometimes, you get bad luck and you get hurt. You’re not going to be great every year, and people don’t understand that.
“But my motivation isn’t to prove people wrong, or that I’m worth the contract, but it’s to win games. Perform the best you can, and win, everyone is happy. Winning takes care of everything.’’
Really, it has been only the injuries that turned Cabrera’s contract into a liability. He missed 199 games the last three seasons after being out only 33 games from 2004-2012. The Tigers placed all of their high-priced players on the market when they initiated their rebuild, but not a single team asked about Cabrera.
“Obviously, he needs to perform on the field,’’ Tigers GM Al Avila said. “Nobody expects him to perform like when he was 28 years old, but if he’s healthy, he’ll put up numbers. That’s why we gave him the contract we did.
“Believe me, I don’t spend a minute thinking about him how I could get rid of this money. That’s not going to help us. You plan with what’s in front of you. He’s going to be here a long time.”
Cabrera says he’s all-in, and has no interest in going anywhere else. He wants to be around when the Tigers win again. He wants to be the guy who leads them back to the playoffs.
He’ll then let everyone else define his legacy.
“The legacy that he’ll leave will forever be tied to the Detroit Tigers franchise,’’ Avila said. “When he goes into the Hall of Fame, and he will, he will go with Tigers cap. That was important to Mr. (Mike) Ilitch (the late Tigers owner). I know that for a fact.’’
Certainly, the saga of Cabrera hardly will dissuade Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno in his pursuit of making sure Mike Trout spends his entire career with the Angels. The same with the Boston Red Sox, who have the same aspirations to lock up Betts before he also hits free agency after the 2020 season.
They just may become baseball’s first $400 million players.
“I think Trout and Mookie will stay where they are, and they’ll get that money, too,’’ Cabrera said. “If you’re comfortable in one place, you don’t want to change. I was comfortable, and I stayed because they offered me such a good deal. How are you going to say, ‘No.’
“It’s the same with those guys. I know (GM Dave) Dombrowski. He’s not going to let Mookie go. Anaheim isn’t going to let Trout go. No chance.
“When they sign, it’s going to be great for the game. Everyone will be happy.’’
Cabrera stops, exhales, and says quietly, “I just wish everyone was happy now.’’
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