DETROIT — The door has been cracked open, and now it’s going to be difficult to close.
By raising the issue of his retirement even for a very brief moment — maybe even accidentally — Miguel Cabrera has provided the opening gambit in what will be a very delicate and diplomatic dance between now and next season.
On Aug. 4, Cabrera was asked a series of questions that ended with the elephant in the room: His plans for 2023.
“I’ve got to talk to my agent, I’ve got to talk to the GM, I’ve got to talk to everybody (to) see what’s going to be the plan for next year,” Cabrera said in that interview. “Right now we don’t know. We’re focused on today. We’re going to go day by day and see what happens. I don’t think about next year. I’m thinking about trying to finish healthy this year.”
Cabrera was hardly declaring his impending retirement. But it was pretty clear that it was something that we were now finally allowed to talk about publicly.
But less than 24 hours later, Cabrera approached a reporter for the Detroit News to say unequivocally that he was not going to retire.
“Next year I’m going to be right here,” Cabrera said.
What’s really going on here?
It’s possible that Cabrera did exactly what he said he was going to do in the initial interview: He talked to his agent.
Cabrera is under contract through 2023, owed at least $32 million and may have been advised that it’s best not to undermine his negotiating position.
Then again, what is there to negotiate?
The separation wouldn’t be overly financially complicated, because no one — including the Tigers — anticipates a scenario in which Cabrera would return millions of dollars out of the goodness of his heart.
In addition to the $32 million Cabrera is owed for 2023, he has two contract options for 2024 and 2025 that almost certainly won’t vest but would require an $8 million buyout from the Tigers.
The Tigers could ask to spread out that $40 million over several years (decades?) or they could do the opposite and negotiate a lump-sum payment for a slightly smaller sum.
The diplomatic aspect of it will be much more complicated than the financial part.
Publicly, the Tigers will say all the right things about Cabrera returning in 2023. Privately, the possibility of freeing up a spot for a more productive player has to be tantalizing.
Although he has hit for average for much of this season, Cabrera has not been very good. He has a .648 OPS and 88 OPS+ in 362 plate appearances. His power has all but abandoned him, due in large part to his chronic knee problems that are increasingly visible and difficult to ignore. His production is below average, especially for a designated hitter, and especially for a designated hitter making $32 million.
But Cabrera’s struggles have been overlooked because, within the context of the struggling Tigers, they’re barely worth mentioning. In fact, the Tigers have been so bad that for much of the year Cabrera was actually their best hitter.
Javier Baez, Jonathan Schoop, Jeimer Candelario and many others have underachieved this year. Cabrera has performed exactly the way you would expected for a 39-year-old with a shoddy knee and a steady decline since 2017.
So what happens next?
There’s no real urgency to reach a conclusion and it might not happen until this winter.
The best-case scenario would be a retirement announced jointly by the club and Cabrera, with everybody on the same page.
The worst-case scenario is that Cabrera’s name appears on the transactions wire one day under released players with no further fanfare.
That was what happened with Albert Pujols, whose timeline for retirement didn’t fit the plans of the Los Angeles Angels.
But Pujols was always a Cardinal, not an Angel. (In some sense, the Cards got the best of all worlds. They underpaid for his early-career production, watched the Angels overpay massively for his late-career decline and then welcomed Pujols back into the fold for a final farewell).
The Tigers aren’t the Angels. Cabrera has played his prime years and his decline years here. He’s made a lot of money. The team has stuck by him through thick and thin. He considers Detroit one of his homes, and he wants to be part of the organization in some way after his retirement.
All those factors make it likely that no matter what happens in the next few months, it will be friendly.
And let’s not forget one final possibility. There are 52 games left in the season. Maybe Cabrera’s knee starts to feel a bit better, he gets hot at the plate and he ends the season as the club’s most productive offensive player. If he does that and decides he wants to stick around and try it again in 2023, are the Tigers really in a position to say no?