By: Will Burchfield
Ron Gardenhire is plenty familiar with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, even if he’s yet to greet them in person since taking over as manager of the Tigers.
For years, he watched them batter his ball clubs in Minnesota.
“Oh, I saw them. Believe me,” Gardenhire told 97.1 The Ticket. “They whacked us enough.”
In a combined 380 games against the Twins, most of which came when Gardenhire was the team’s manager, Cabrera and Martinez have racked up 70 home runs and 260 RBI. Cabrera, in particular, was a thorn in Gardenhire’s side.
Miggy knew it. In fact, he delighted in it.
“He’d wink at me an awful lot,” Gardenhire recalled. “I’m like, ‘No, no, no. You’re not getting me.'”
But Cabrera got everyone those days. Martinez did, too. They were two of the best hitters in the game in the prime of their respective careers. Their skills have faded in the years since, mostly because their bodies have begun to break down. Last season made this painfully clear.
Hampered by a crippling back injury that trickled down to his hip flexor and groin, Cabrera played in just 130 games, the second fewest of his career, and hit .249 with 16 home runs and 60 RBI. Martinez, who lost significant time to an irregular heartbeat, a condition that required offseason surgery, hit .255 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI.
For both players, 2017 was a career nadir.
The question is: Now what?
The Tigers have $18 million invested in Martinez and $30 million in Cabrera in 2018. They’d like to see more return than they did last year. General manager Al Avila expects the duo to be fully healthy by the start of spring training, and he’s banking on a bounce-back season from both.
But starting healthy and staying healthy are two very different things. Martinez is 39 and Cabrera will be 35 in April. Especially in the case of Cabrera, 2017 offered startling evidence of the danger of playing through injuries. If Gardenhire senses either player is banged up this season, he won’t hesitate to remove them from the lineup.
“I know they’re going to argue against me, but ultimately I have that ink pen and I will sit them down when I have to,” Gardenhire said. “We did this with my guys in Minnesota, (Joe) Mauer and (Justin) Morneau. They wanted to play all the time, and there’s just times when you’re not playing. I don’t care what you say. You might come in and pinch hit, but you’re not starting that day.
“We just did it to protect ourselves and them.”
Gardenhire’s predecessor, Brad Ausmus, was often criticized for being too soft with the Tigers’ veteran stars. Fair or not, he was deemed a pushover. The frustration within the fanbase reached new heights toward the end of last season when Ausmus continued to play Cabrera, at Cabrera’s behest, despite the slugger dealing with two herniated discs in his back.
The veteran Gardenhire won’t be as obliging. If a player, any player, is banged-up, time off will be considered. And for Cabrera and Martinez, it will sometimes be required.
“Of course. That’s a constant. It’s conversation, it’s communication,” Gardenhire said. “Knowing where they’re at in their careers, that’s going to be a big job here. We need those guys healthy, we need to keep them healthy. We need to use them in the right way, and I will have those big conversations with them.”