Two injury question marks loom for Tigers

Miguel Cabrera underwent surgery for the second straight offseason.

Miguel Cabrera underwent surgery for the second straight offseason.

When it comes to the health and welfare of the Detroit Tigers, there are two big questions that need answers.

First, why isn’t the club being fully informed about the physical condition of their franchise player? When a recent foot surgery on Miguel Cabrera revealed a serious stress fracture, club president/GM Dave Dombrowski said management hadn’t known the extent of the problem. It apparently came as a complete surprise to the club that Miggy’s foot was seriously injured and that, as a result of the corrective surgery, he will be facing a recovery period that may extend well into spring training.

This marks the second consecutive off-season during which Cabrera has had a procedure to correct a problem that his employers seemed not to clearly comprehend. Last winter it was “core surgery” that left Cabrera clearly weakened, at least during the beginning of the season.

It seems that Cabrera, like many athletes, likes to insist he is healthy and wants to play every day, even when actually he is not 100 percent (and sometimes quite a bit less than that). He tries to play through injuries and hide or diminish the extent to which he is hurting. And club management, giving him superstar treatment, lets him get away with it.

That’s hardly an optimal scenario for the top player on the team who is signed for big bucks to a long-term contract. An unhealthy player should not be concealing or minimizing his injuries, and the Tigers should not be running him out there every day when he is hurt. Trying to play through injuries is a dangerous practice: they don’t usually get better and often get worse. In Cabrera’s case, especially, the gamble of causing a more lasting or permanent injury is not worth the risk. Without Miggy, the Tigers are toast.

The second injury-related question on the team is this: why does Alex Avila suffer so many concussions? In this situation the club has been appropriately cautious, sidelining him until his recovery seems to be complete. Of course this all comes during a time when awareness of the cumulative effects of repeated head trauma is increasing—yet still not completely known. It’s a scary situation.

Are Avila’s frequent trips to the concussion DL just a function of increased awareness of the seriousness of head injuries and teams being more willing to diagnose these injuries? It seems not. I have never seen a catcher take so many foul balls off the mask and get hit so often by bats on backswings. Maybe Avila is just unlucky. Or maybe it has to do with his positioning when and after pitches are delivered.

Isn’t there something Brad Ausmus can do? As you are well aware, Ausmus is a former defensive standout at Avila’s position. It seems possible to me that Avila is moving in the wrong direction when a batter swings, leaning into instead of away from danger. Avila gets a lot more concussions than the typical catcher. Maybe he could make even a subtle adjustment to prevent these incidents from happening so frequently. Ausmus should study this problem closely and come up with an answer.

It’s a bit troubling is that the club seems to be giving up on Avila. His offensive production has fallen off, even as his defensive abilities seem by most measures to be solidifying or sharpening.
Catcher is one position where good defense is at least if not more valuable than offense. Yet James McCann is lurking in the wings. The club thinks highly of him, and he is rated as a top prospect, and he undoubtedly will see more playing time in 2015 with a view to taking over the No. 1 catching duties in 2016. This scenario leaves Avila out in the cold—either facing the rest of his career as a backup catcher or playing on another team. But whether Detroit plans to keep him or use him as trade bait, keeping him healthy should be a top priority.