February 29th, 2012

Day 10: Why Miguel Cabrera gets it

I am not going to go on my blog and complain about spring training. It was 86 degrees and sunny today in Lakeland, while it was maybe half that temperature back home.

That said, listening to Miguel Cabrera talk about Venezuelan food after his Wednesday workout, around lunchtime, was killing me.

“This thing, arepa, it’s like bread, but they make it with corn,” Cabrera told reporters when asked about his favorite food. “We put everything [in it]: Cheese, steak, everything. It’s so good, so I’ve got to stop.”

It makes me hungry just writing it. It has to make him hungry describing it.

Yet when another reporter asked him if he missed it, Cabrera was fine.

“No. Right now, no,” he said, pointing to his head.

Miguel Cabrera gets it. If he wants to make this move to third base work, if he wants to move better — and especially important, if he wants to remain a durable, productive player well into his 30s — he can’t eat like he used to.

“It’s hard to stop that,” he said. You eat all your life like that, and you’ve got to change.”

He’s serious about this. He has someone helping him out with that.

“It’s kind of helped me a little bit,” he said of his new diet. “You know, you’ve got to sacrifice, you’ve got to do it, and you’ve got to work hard to get better. That’s what I want, to get better every day and try to do my best.”

Cabrera didn’t get into too many specifics a couple weeks ago when he talked about his workout program and his weight and his move to third base, but that was then. As he moves around third base, as he moves around Tigers spring training, as he works out separately in the early morning, he’s in a very happy place. He’s a loud presence in team workouts, in a constructive way, encouraging guys, recognizing nice plays, teasing hitters who had to face Justin Verlander Wednesday morning.

When I wrote about Cabrera’s move to third base a few weeks ago, I wrote that it would be a challenge, but that his enthusiasm about the move and determination to make it work were the strongest points in his favor. I think his enthusiasm is more than even I expected.

“I’m happy,” he said, “because I’ve got Prince hitting behind me. We have a very good team. We’ve got a chance to win more games. I’m happy because I see Verlander, he’s more strong.

“I see a lot of things around me. I see these guys work hard [like] Peralta. I think when you’re around great guys like that who want to win, you enjoy it more. And like I said, I like to play third. They gave me a chance to play third again, so I don’t want to miss the opportunity. I want to do much better over there. I want to be in the best shape I can be to move around at third base.”

Just as encouraging for the Tigers, and especially for Cabrera’s agents, is the fact that he’s doing this while looking towards the second half of his career. He didn’t mention anyone by name, but he has seen injuries hamper players in their mid-30s. Carlos Guillen, one of Cabrera’s mentors, is a non-roster invite in Mariners camp. Magglio Ordonez, with whom Cabrera worked out the past two offseasons, might well be done despite his great shape.

Cabrera wasn’t around when Dmitri Young was a Tiger, but Young was in Venezuela this year trying to revive his career. Weight, among other things, took a toll on Young’s legs.

“Everybody talks about the knees,” said Cabrera, whose Tigers contract runs through 2015. “When you [get to] 30-something, you start to have problems with your knees, with your hamstrings, obliques, back. So you’ve got to see other players at 37, 36. They play for a long career and they don’t have injuries, and you have to look to them. They’re in good shape. So why don’t you do it? Why don’t you follow the right step? When you get to that age, if you’re lucky, if you have a chance to play to 37, 38, you’re still in your best shape.”

If Cabrera someday ends up in the Hall of Fame — look at the similar batters list on Cabrera’s baseball-reference page, and you see that path — this might be the defining point that gets him there. If this Tigers infield works, even to a respectable level, this might be a pretty important point to a Tigers championship season.

Actual workout note of the day: Justin Verlander continues to approach his spring training workouts with game-like intensity, and his second session against live hitters Wednesday was no different. He had a game-like tempo, he shook off signs once in a while so he could work on particular pitches, and (like most pitchers in camp) he declined to use the batting practice screen.

Hitters are catching up to pitchers, but not really to Verlander. So imagine Verlander’s surprise when 20-year-old Avisail Garcia smacked a comebacker that skirted Verlander’s feet along the ground on its way to center field. It was close enough that Verlander paused a few seconds and breathed a visible sign of relief, and an audible exclamation.

“That wasn’t a little grounder,” Verlander confirmed. “That was hit hard.”

How close?

“Really close,” Verlander answered.

Actual workout note of the day, part 2: What breaks up a boring spring training workout better than sliding drills? No much, I say. Maybe sliding drills that involve Cabrera, Fielder and Delmon Young. Pictures below.

Non-workout note of the day: Leyland has a lengthy note of caution for reporters Wednesday not to jump to conclusions about the fifth starter. A lot of the candidates will get an inning on Friday against Florida Southern, followed by a piggyback start Wednesday against the Braves, but a different guy will get the start each time.

“I can promise you, the minute I find out about the starters, we’ll have a press conference and you’ll know it,” Leyland said. “I’ll announce it. You won’t have to worry about.”

Quote of the day: “Gold or old?” — Jim Leyland, when informed that former Red Sox manager turned ESPN analyst Terry Francona called him the gold standard of managers on television.

Verlander starts Monday, 5th starter Wednesday

The Tigers rotation is set for the first week or so of spring training, including the first look at the fifth starter competition.

Andy Oliver will start Friday’s exhibition against Florida Southern and lead a procession of young pitchers to pitch an inning apiece. Doug Fister will start the Major League spring training opener Saturday against the Braves at Disney World, then Max Scherzer will start Sunday in the back end of the home-and-home set.

Justin Verlander’s first start of 2012 will come Monday against the Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium. Rick Porcello will make his first spring start Tuesday against the Marlins in Jupiter.

That leaves Wednesday as the fifth starter day. Jim Leyland didn’t say who would start, but said the order isn’t going to be important. It’s a piggyback day, meaning one starter will follow another and throw roughly to the same pitch count. A different candidate will start each time the fifth starter spot comes up.

Normally, you can take the spring training rotation, project it out every five days and figure out the pitching order for the first few games of the regular season. And sure enough, if you project Verlander out every five days, he’d be in line to pitch opening day on an extra day of rest, not that there was any doubt he’d pitch the opener anyway. But with scheduled off-days April 6 and 9, it’s very difficult to take this pitching order and figure out who will start the second and third games against the Red Sox April 7-8.

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