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Miguel Cabrera's ankle, contract could alter AL Central

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Extensive surgery puts Opening Day at risk, and highlights risk of monstrous eight-year extension

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Miguel Cabrera had a down year in 2014 by his standards, which means he won't win the MVP for a third straight season. He hit .313/.371/.524 with 25 homers, well short of the 44 he posted in both 2012 and 2013. Pitchers seemed to sense a vulnerability, as he struck out nearly twice as often (117) as he walked (60). Both of those numbers were his worst since 2008, his first season in Detroit.

(White Sox pitchers had plenty to do with that last stat -- one walk, 18 strikeouts over 76 plate appearances. He went 0-for-9 with seven strikeouts against Chris Sale alone).

This is the kind of scrutiny one receives when one is one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the game's history. Another thing he shares with Frank Thomas? An ankle injury, the extent of which wasn't discovered until he underwent surgery:

Cabrera underwent surgery to have bone spurs in his right ankle removed Wednesday, but he also had two screws inserted to help repair a stress fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot.

"We were surprised," [Detroit GM Dave] Dombrowski said. "We did not know that there was (a stress fracture) in there. After he saw the doctor at the end of the year in Miami, he had mentioned something possibly with the navicular bone, but they really didn't know and they told me they wouldn't really know until they went in there.

"We were surprised. We did not anticipate this."

With help of the DH spot, Cabrera somehow played 159 games. That number may take a hit next season, as Dombrowski said he won't be able to be evaluated until late January, which could put Opening Day in question if there's a setback. Athletes seldom encounter the worst-case scenario when it comes to rehab, though, so I'd wager he'll be in the lineup to start the season if I were a betting man.

The bigger problem for the Tigers is the contract. Cabrera signed an eight-year, $248 million contract extension last winter, and it doesn't kick in for another year (he wasn't due to hit free agency until after 2015). That's similar to what they did with Justin Verlander before the 2013 season, agreeing to a seven-year, $180 extension with free agency two seasons away.

Hindsight asks, "What was the rush?" Had they waited, Verlander would've hit the market after posting a 4.54 ERA and matching John Danks' bWAR total (1.1) over just 13 more innings. Cabrera might be able to shrug off his surgery, but he's 32 and a large fella, so it's not like he'll be at a decreased risk for complications down the road.

I can see why they wouldn't want to know how highly the open market would've determined his worth, but sometimes that insane inflation brings clarity. Albert Pujols was 31 when the Cardinals let him explore free agency. He signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels, with St. Louis only putting forth a token effort to keep him.

It didn't make sense for the Cardinals to push hard to sign a first baseman past age 40, and the production on each side since 2012 reflects that:

Year G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Pujols 412 1808 223 446 106 1 75 274 140 202 .273 .332 .478 .810
STL 1B
486 2095 244 546 120 12 60 293 143 422 .285 .341 .455 .796

That's more or less the same -- except Pujols made $51 million over those three years, while the Cardinals paid close to the league minimum for their three years. Having a farm system made that decision easier, but there are other solutions between the extremes that I'm guessing St. Louis GM John Mozeliak would've pursued.

It's a little too simple to say the Tigers are screwed. Cabrera is the best of the best as a hitter, Mike Ilitch has a lot of money and Dombrowski has wriggled out of worse deals (Prince Fielder). It's also not novel to say these deals never end well. The problem is they're supposed to start better than this. I wonder if these stories and others (Ryan Howard's is particularly onerous) will dissuade GMs from pursuing mega-extensions for late-prime players. It saves a little bit of money, but it doesn't put much of a dent in the overall risk.

Star-divide

While googling these deals, I discovered that Jon Heyman is nothing if not consistent. On Cabrera:

Yet, sportswriters were so sure the Cabrera contract is a mistake, they said so. Really? What do they think Cabrera is worth? Three years?

Who's to say he isn't a $50-million player as a free agent in two years? Who's to say he couldn't leave Detroit the way other superstars have left their previous teams?

On Howard:

But the belief among skeptics of the deal that this was an obvious overpay isn't reflected one bit among baseball people. In fact, a few inside the game remarked that the package was strong though not unreasonably so and one actually opined that it was light. I agree with the prominent competing agent who said, "The $25 million AAV (average annual value) reflects fair market value.''

As boring as it sounds, it was a good deal for both sides.

Halfway into that deal, from Heyman:

The Phillies are said by rival executives to be working hard to find a suitor for Ryan Howard, presumably in the American League.

Word from competing execs is that Philly would be willing to eat much or most of the $70 million remaining on his deal. On Wednesday, news leaked that the Phillies have considered whether just to cut Howard after the year. It's hard to see how that could help his trade value, which has to be severely limited as it is.