Miguel Cabrera has grown into MLB’s best


Two images of Miguel Cabrera -- early career and current.
It wasn’t long ago that Miguel Cabrera, a skinny, baby-faced rookie from Venezuela, made his debut with the Florida Marlins in 2003.

The kid had a knack. He had a fluid, speedy swing that seemed to find the ball every time. He was an aggressive hitter and very productive in the field. Originally drafted as a shortstop, he would later be moved to third and then the outfield.

In his first major-league game, Miguel Cabrera hit a walk-off home run against Tampa Bay’s Al Levine. This marked the third time since 1900 a player hit a game-winning homer in his big-league debut. That year, the Florida Marlins defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series, giving Cabrera a ring in his rookie season. Not bad for a first season, right?

“He’s a can’t miss,” Jack McKeon, then manager of the Marlins said of Miguel Cabrera shortly after their 2003 championship run. “When you see something like that, from a kid, not letting anyone throw him off, that stays with you.”

Fast forward 10 years later. The kid is now a veteran. A man. The best player in baseball?

Since Miguel Cabrera’s debut in the bigs, much has changed in baseball. PED scandals have rocked the baseball world and have made everyone think twice about the league’s past and present players. Roger ClemensBarry BondsSammy SosaKen Griffey Jr. and Pedro Martinez are gone. Derek JeterTodd Helton and Ichiro are old men. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are the next generation of Cabrera-like players, the Houston Astros are now in the American League and the Florida Marlins are now the Miami Marlins.

It’s safe to say Miguel Cabrera has changed with the times, too. His once 180-pound wiry frame is now a hulking 240 pounds. He’s overcome alcohol-related issues that threatened his baseball career. He has matured. He also has shifted from outfield to first base and now to third base, where he plays in the American League for the Detroit Tigers.

Last season was Miggy’s best. He took home the Triple Crown, a feat last accomplished by Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. He won the American League MVP award and helped push Detroit to a World Series appearance. In mid-July 2012, he hit his 300th career home run, making him the 11th youngest player and 14th to reach the milestone before his 30th birthday. That home run also made him the second Venezuelan-born player with 300 home runs, joining Andres Galarraga.

This season, Miguel Cabrera’s off to a great start, atop of the league in just about every category. He has been on a number of hitting streaks and is flirting with, yet again, more history. At 30 years old, he’s now in the prime of his career and out front of every single player in the league. All eyes are on Miggy now; it’s his time to shine.

Miguel Cabrera is a different sort of player. Even in his younger years, he was seen as the start of the next generation of ballplayers to change the game. His knack for hitting the long ball isn’t muscling them out of the park, such as Bonds, McGwire and Thome did. He has more elasticity in his swing. Bat speed, reaction and control are the essence of his game.

Baseball Writer John Sickels wrote a report on ESPN.com on Miguel Cabrera while he was in double-A Carolina in 2002:

Cabrera is a physical specimen. Originally a shortstop, he has outgrown the position and is now at third base. His arm is very strong and his hands aren’t bad, but his range is only average even at third base. He might end up at an outfield corner eventually, but he’ll stay at third as long as possible. He lacks pure speed, but gets a decent jump and is a fundamentally sound runner who can’t be ignored. Scouts also like his work ethic and enthusiasm. For all those positive qualities, his bat draws the most notice. Scouts are taken with his bat speed and project excellent power to come. He makes good contact and does not strike out excessively. His strike-zone judgment is mediocre, though it’s shown signs of improving. He’ll never be a big walk machine, but he does not swing wildly and does a decent job working counts. He’s improved his ability to go with the pitch and shows good pop to all fields. He looks like a genuine Seven Skill player, if he can show range at third base. Even if his defense proves disappointing, he will be a complete hitter.

His ’01 and ’02 numbers don’t look too hot on the surface, but there are things to like. He’s been extremely young for his leagues and has managed well against older competition. Forty three doubles in the Florida State League, renowned for big parks and thick air, is very impressive and a statistical indicator of more home run power to come. In ’03 he’s been unstoppable in Double-A, showing all the early signs of a major breakout, hitting for increased power and a high average, plus a better walk rate and fewer strikeouts. Even his excellent steal ratios are a good sign: he isn’t a blazer, but has a great steal success rate, a sign of his strong baseball instincts.

Health Record

Cabrera has had no major injury problems, although a strained back cost him a few games in 2001. Like most physically fit, fundamentally sound players, he loads the odds in his favor by staying in shape and playing the game correctly.

What to Expect
Judging players in context is crucial. Although Cabrera’s numbers on the surface aren’t eye-popping, the fact that he’s held his own against older competition is a huge factor to consider. The doubles last year were a sign of an approaching breakout, which was why I rated him so highly in my book this year (giving him a Grade A-) even though his surface numbers weren’t tremendous. He’s exceeded the expectations of even his strongest supporters so far in ’03, and while he won’t keep hitting .400, he will have an excellent year. The Marlins don’t need a third baseman immediately, giving him plenty of time to develop his skills further. 

Miguel Cabrera has developed his swing in recent years. In 2009, nearly all of his home runs were pulled. Now, he’s been able to become an exceptional directional hitter, driving the ball the other way, but still has the essential power to hit it out.

The Venezuelan-native doesn’t sit far behind some of the greatest right-handed hitters in history. Right now, he has 340 home runs, which ranks him above Willie Mays through the age of 30, but not as high as Juan Gonzalez and Andruw Jones. He’s fifth in RBIs at the age of 30, behind Jimmie FoxxAlex RodriguezAlbert Pujols and Hank Aaron. It’s a good bet he will pass Aaron this season, but has a ways to go in breaking Aaron’s career RBI record of 2,297. Like Aaron, in order to achieve this record, he’ll have to stay durable and productive until he reaches 40.

Will Miguel Cabrera beat Hack Wilson’s single-season RBI record of 191, set in 1930? It’s highly unlikely, but there is a chance. Since 1950, only nine players have driven in 150 runs: Manny Ramirez’s 165 in 1999 has been the closest. Wilson batted cleanup and hit .356 for the Cubs in 1930. He knocked 56 home runs, so he drove himself in a lot. He also played on a team that scored 998 runs, so he had many more opportunities to drive runs in than Cabrera will. As it stands now, the Tigers don’t even get on base enough for Cabrera to rack up RBI.

There are many great players in today’s game, but no one has the upside like Miguel Cabrera has. He’s a threat every time he steps up to the plate and produces more times than not. He’s a solid glove at third and is apart of a team that has a chance to win multiple titles.

Excluding this season, Cabrera has batted over .300 seven of the 10 years he’s played. He’s also hit 20+ home runs in every season but his first (He only played in 87 games in 2003).

Now, a player can hit out of his mind, but if he can’t play a lick of defense, then he’s not a complete player. Since 2003, Miggy has played 609 games at third base. In those 609 games he has compiled 992 assists, 67 errors and a .950 fielding percentage. This is well above the average third baseman in the league.

There are a number of players who contest Miguel Cabrera as the league’s best player, but it’s hard to look past his consistency and overall dominance in the decade he has played in Major League Baseball. It will be fun to see where his career goes from here.

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