Can Cabrera stay healthy as he enters the second half of his career?

In 2014, Miguel Cabrera returns to first base, a less demanding defensive position.

In 2014, Miguel Cabrera returns to first base, a less demanding defensive position.

The last time the Detroit Tigers played a regular season game they were no-hit. Remember that? A young, untested pitcher for the Miami Marlins, held the Tigers hitless on the final day of the 2013 season. Ouch.

Sure, the Tigers didn’t need that game, it meant nothing to them since they’d clinched the AL Central division title a few days earlier, but it was still embarrassing. It was also part of a larger late-season trend that saw the team score just 14 runs in the last week of the season, an average of two per game. The Tigs went a mediocre 13-13 in September, and after entering the final month of the season with an 8 1/2 game lead over the Indians, they barely staved off the Tribe by one game. While they averaged a hefty 5.1 runs per game through August, Detroit pushed across only 3.7 in September.

What was the biggest reason the Tiger offensive machine stalled over the last few weeks of 2013? Miguel Cabrera, that’s what. Cabrera was punchless down the stretch for Jim Leyland. After August 26 he had exactly four extra-base hits — one double and three home runs — in 36 games including the post-season. Observers knew that Cabrera was ailing — his gimpy gate and un-Cabrera like plate coverage were giveaways. We found out later that Miggy had strained an abdominal muscle. During the off-season he had something called “core muscle surgery” to repair the damage, which was certainly not helped by him playing with the pain for six weeks.

Does anyone outside of a specialized medical professional know what core muscle surgery is? Could some of us be forgiven if we don’t know whether we have core muscles ourselves? A trip to Wikipedia reveals that we all have core muscles (congratulations!) and yes, they can be injured. It’s an injury that old timers used to call abdominal strain. Now, with more advanced machines that can show the tiniest spec and deepest muscles in the human body, they call it core muscle injury. In Cabrera’s case, apparently, he strained and tore a small muscle tissue in the trunk of his powerful body. Ironically, Justin Verlander suffered a similar injury in November while performing off-season strengthening exercises. JV also went under the knife.

Does any of this medical mumbo jumbo concern any of you, dear readers? It does me. I don’t worry about Verlander, a great physical specimen who works hard to keep himself in shape and combines that with laser-like focus to drive himself to greatness. But Miggy is a different animal. He’s a big guy, a large man-child with a thick mid-section. He’s struggled with his weight in the past and at the age of 31 (in April), he’s entering a phase of his life where nagging injuries start to turn into serious concerns. baseball history is filled with stories of sluggers who were studs in their 20s and duds after they turned 30. Cabrera is entering his 12th big league season, fresh off two MVP awards and three batting titles. He’s the best pure hitter in baseball. It’s a testament to his greatness that he still won the MVP Award last season despite being punchless for the last month of the campaign. Like a great thoroughbred who built a massive lead, Cabrera held on and still crossed the finish line ahead of his competition.

Seeing as he played through the worst injury of his career and missed significant playing time for the first time (he’d averaged 158 games a season in his first nine full seasons), you’d think #24 would have reported to Lakeland in fit shape. Instead, Cabrera seems to be carrying as much weight on his big frame as he did last season. Increasingly, when we see Cabrera trot around the bases after a homer, he seems to be laboring, not to mention when he actually has to leg out a double or go from first to third or second to home on a hit. Does Miggy resemble former teammate Prince Fielder or his papa, Cecil? No, he’s not that big. But it would have been nice if Cabrera had reported more trim and fit, especially after undergoing off-season surgery.

News out of this spring training has already been dominated by injuries: Jose Iglesias, who seems to be acquiring a “glass man” reputation, is suffering from shin splints again; Andy Dirks, who missed stretches of ’13 with all sorts of bumps and bruises, will miss at least three months. Add in the fact that Detroit has different faces in five of their defensive positions from opening day last season, and there are plenty of questions about this team with less than three weeks to the start of the regular schedule.

The Tigers are not likely to be no-hit on opening day, and they have enough offensive firepower and exceptional starting pitching to win a fourth straight division crown. Hopefully Cabrera’s late-season injury in 2013 is an aberration, a blip on his career record that will lead him to Cooperstown some day. But now that he’s older, Cabrera needs to be careful with his weight and his health. The switch to first base will help relieve some of his defensive responsibility, but if the Tigers want his potent bat in their lineup for the bulk of the season, the big fella needs to work hard to keep his weight under control. Otherwise, the Detroit offense could be very ordinary without his MVP bat.