Venezualens Defeating ’09 Concerns

Originally published in the now defunct: Two On One Out | 24 March 2010

For five months, Miguel Cabrera led theTigers’ charge for first place in the Central division.

MVP, MVP, MVP!

With a beastly average of .330 to support 33 home runs and 101 RBI, Cabrera embodied all that was good in Detroit.

He, the young-blooded Venezuelan, along with Justin Verlander and the upcoming phenom Rick Porcello, was among the successful faces of the 2009 season.

Ah, pure rejoicing—the playoffs seemed inevitable.

Deep breath, cross fingers.

But then Saturday, Oct. 3 happened, and it seemed like the wind that was slowly deflating in the final three weeks was simply kicked out of Detroit’s proverbial chest.

In that game, Cabrera went 0-for-4 and stranded six runners in the 5-1 loss to Chicago. Twelve hours earlier, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski had picked him up at a police station following a fight with his wife…apparently after a late night out.

The “Miggy” had what police said was a 0.26 blood-alcohol reading (three times above Michigan’s legal limit for driving, by the way) and a clearly visible bruised and cut left cheek.

Shaking head, putting hand on face, sighing.

Later, Cabrera apologized to his teammates for being drunk on a weekend while the Tigers were trying to hang on to the lead in the AL Central.

The Tigers lost the division in a one-game playoff with the Minnesota Twins that following Tuesday.

For 2009, the damage was done, and Cabrera, the face of the franchise all year, was ironically the face of the collapse.

Muttering incoherent phrases under breath.

From drinking with the enemy, to berating an overweight young man, to causing trouble at home in the wee hours of the morning, Cabrera stirred a reaction from all of us, be it anger (those of us who would never do these kind of things) or understanding (those of us who have been in similar situations and learned from it).

Now, as we are two weeks removed from the start of the 2010 season, where does this put the Tigers’ season, and more importantly, Miguel Cabrera’s?

You see, after spending most of the winter undergoing counseling, he stated that he has quit drinking and doesn’t miss it. Does that mean that Miggy’s problems have disappeared? Does that mean that our concerns should too?

Perhaps.

We need to understand that young, successful men are likely to fall to this type of lifestyle as Cabrera has, but we also know that the same young men are willing to change, become mature, responsible, and worthy of their hefty contract.

Because isn’t representation what a lot of their contract is?

During FanFest this January, Cabrera didn’t hide. He appeared to “face his music” and represent the Tiger organization just as he always has.

He said later, “I’m not an alcoholic, but I made a mistake and I needed to make some changes. I think people who know me know who and what I am. But I needed to make some changes, move on and put that one incident behind me. Talking about it has made it easier to deal with.”

The early sounds of the season suggest that Cabrera has put the incident and drinking behind him. He is hitting .326 in 43 at-bats this spring, and he has reached base in every game since March 11.

However, his Venezuelan counterpart, Magglio Ordonez, who hits before him in the order, has performed even better.

He is hitting at a .333 clip over 36 at-bats after suffering through a rough 2009. Spring training, the World Baseball Classic, and the first half of the season were not exactly what “Maggs” hoped for.

But his early lackluster performances were not unjustified.

He battled three very important issues last year:

The first was the health of his wife, who went under the knife during midseason for cancer. “Last year, personal issues…got Magglio off-track,” Jim Leyland said.

Ordonez himself doesn’t disagree with Leyland. Before the successful surgery, he absorbed the burden of his wife’s illness and the stress upon his kids. Although understandable, it was not something that any fan of the Tigers wants to hear.

The second was the World Baseball Classic. It disrupted his spring schedule and preparation. It had renowned effects on Ordonez, who is no longer a young player like Cabrera, who bounced back fairly quickly.

The third mental roadblock manifested early in the 2009 season. He was facing enormous political pressure from his home country Venezuela.

He had appeared in a television commercial that was pushing for the removal of term limits in the government. This put Ordonez in the camp supporting President Hugo Chavez and out of many of his countrymen’s good graces.

He was constantly booed and threatened early in the season, especially during the WBC.

Regardless of what anyone thinks, a major disruption in a game that is 90 percent mental is a bigger influence on how an individual performs than any kind of injury. Injuries that are serious enough keep you off the field; emotional issues that are serious enough hinder your ability to be productive.

He batted .260 before the All-Star break, .375 after it.

He had a .330 on-base average and a .343 slugging percentage during the first half, but .438 and .540 spanning the second half.

His September-October numbers were scalding: 439 batting average, .486 on-base, and .571 slugging.

This year, Maggs has said, “I feel great, and think I can play four more years. At least I hope so.”

On the physical aspect of 2009, his side was bothering him, which teammates say didn’t allow him to get to fastballs on the inner half of the plate, one of the most important aspects of Ordonez’s game.

This spring, he is back to hitting the inside fastball with ease.

Other Tigers of note

If you want more background on Cabrera’s offseason, Peter Gammons recently wrote about Cabrera…and A-Rod.

Dontrelle Willis is continuing to make his strong case for a starting rotation nod. He threw one inning of relief on Monday against the Blue Jays, and his fastball did not fall below 90 miles per hour. “It’s early,” Leyland said, “but Dontrelle is throwing better than any time since we got him.”

Alex Avila is hitting .370 in 27 at-bats this spring, and the team is going to be forced to make a difficult decision: Make him a big league backup or play him every day in the minors. This is similar to the Buster Posey situation in San Francisco.

Max Scherzer finally had a good spring outing. He pitched five innings against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday (March 23) evening and held them hitless through the first four. I know, I know, it’s the Nationals—a team who lost 103 games last year. But besides the fact that they are notably improved this year, this will do wonders for Scherzer’s mental game.

Bobby Seay has an unknown injury on his left shoulder.

Adam Everett is having a rough spring.

And Austin Jackson continues to impress.

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