Branch Rickey, the old Brooklyn Dodger executive, famously said, “It is better to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”
What he meant, of course, was that a club should deal a player when he is at his peak, thus ensuring maximum return. Don’t wait until the player starts trending downward, because by then his trade value will be diminished.
And that brings us to Miguel Cabrera.
The question is simple: Should the Detroit Tigers trade him?
As he crawls his way up the franchise leaderboards, Cabrera will probably go down as the greatest Tiger hitter ever if not the best position player the team has ever seen. Indeed, he is one of the top sluggers ever to play the game. But this discussion is not about what he has done. It is about what he will do going forward.
His fourth batting title in five years is a virtual lock at this point. Still, it has been a trying season for Cabrera, and not just because the Tigers are in last place. This is now the third consecutive year that his power numbers have fallen off in the second half of the season. Here’s the breakdown (2015 totals are through games of September 21):
In 2013 and ’14, injuries were cited as the reason for the drop-off. On July 4 of this year, a calf strain landed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He missed almost a month and a half. He initially came back hitting like gangbusters.
But here are some additional figures that should give the Tigers cause for concern: Since Cabrera’s average hit a season-high .371 on August 25, he has 18 hits in 85 at-bats. That’s a .212 average. He has only 10 RBIs in that 24-game stretch. His slugging average is a woeful .282. He has only one home run, and that came on August 26.
Since it’s a safe bet that Cabrera has not suddenly forgotten how to hit a baseball, the only conclusion to draw is that some physical ailment is bothering him. Again.
This precipitous dive in production the last month has gone largely under the radar, since most fans stopped paying any attention to the Tigers long ago.
Cabrera is 32 years old. He will be 33 by the time the 2016 season gets underway. The prime physical years for a baseball player are roughly from their late 20’s to early 30’s. Cabrera’s body may no longer be able to withstand the rigors of a 162-game season. He has now reached the point in his career where we can expect him to start trending downward. And thus, down in trade value.
The issue of whether or not the Tigers should trade Cabrera hinges on a basic question: Do you think the team can seriously contend for a World Series title next year or in 2017? If you answer “yes” to that question (and I’m not sure how many people would), then the Tigers will need Cabrera to help them climb that mountain. If, however, you answer “no,” then the organization may be better served to deal him while his value is still high, and get some young, promising players in return, with an eye to the future.
“But the contract!” you say. Yes, I know Cabrera’s prohibitive contract is an albatross that not many teams are willing to take on. But if we’ve learned anything from the Prince Fielder situation, it is that there are always ways to make a deal. There’s always a team that feels it is just one player away from the Promised Land, and willing to get that player no matter what it takes.
And here’s another factor to consider in answering the Cabrera question: What kind of organization do the Tigers want to be in this post-Dombrowski era? On the flip side, what kind of organization do you as fans want them to be? New General Manager Al Avila has gone on record as saying that he wants to Tigers to focus more on the analytics side when making player decisions. He quickly hired Sam Menzin, a sabermetrics guy, to be the team’s new director of baseball operations.
You can take that any way you wish, but I interpret it thus: Gone are the days when the Detroit Tigers are going to outspend everyone else on lead-footed, one-dimensional sluggers like Prince Fielder, or re-sign 35-year-old gimpy-kneed designated hitters to crippling long-term deals. Instead, the team will make more economically-sound, baseball-savvy decisions, and develop a top-notch farm system capable of churning out players with multiple skill sets that can fill various roles. I know Avila was part of that regime that made the Fielder and V-Mart decisions in the past, but he is the boss now, and I fully expect him to implement a new philosophy.
The Fielder signing was hailed by everyone at the time, and rightly so. The Tigers felt a left-handed power hitter was the final piece to their World Series puzzle. The team rolled the dice with owner Mike Ilitch’s “Win Now at Any Cost” philosophy. It didn’t work. All across baseball, teams are hiring younger and younger GM’s. The Brewers recently robbed the cradle when they promoted 30-year-old David Stearns. These young GM’s are tech-savvy, baseball-smart, and steeped in sabermetrics. And they dislike bloated contracts on aging players.
Avila could do a lot worse than try to mold the Tigers in the image of the St. Louis Cardinals. Their players come and go, but through shrewd trades and a bountiful farm system, they always manage to stay ahead of the curve. And they do it all with a payroll that is only 11th in Major League Baseball in 2015 (The Tigers, by contrast, are the fourth highest.).
Case in point is Albert Pujols, the player whose situation is so similar to Cabrera’s. Coming off a world-championship season in 2011, the Cardinals made the unpopular decision not to re-sign him, even though he was still one of the best hitters in the game, a box-office draw, and the face of the franchise. But instead of breaking the bank to retain him, they used the money to invest in other player personnel needs.
The experts thought St. Louis would fold, but they keep rolling along. They’ve made the postseason three years in a row, and will do it again this year. Meanwhile, Pujols hasn’t been the same player since arriving in Los Angeles. He’s 35 years old, and hitting .236 at this writing. The Angels would probably love to unload him and his fat contract.
So what is the future for the Tigers and Miguel Cabrera? Trading him while his value is still high is probably the right decision at this point. Fans will be upset, TV ratings will go down for a while, but winning is what the game is all about.
So where do you stand? Should Miggy stay or should he go?