Where does Cabrera rank among Tiger greats?

Miguel Cabrera has won two batting titles, two home run titles, and two RBI titles in just five seasons as a Tiger.

Miguel Cabrera has won two batting titles, two home run titles, and two RBI titles in just five seasons as a Tiger.

As if to say “How you like me now?” or “See, I told you so,” Miguel Cabrera is off to a red-hot start to the 2013 season on the heels of his MVP campaign.

It’s amazing that there were people who felt that Mike Trout – not Miggy – deserved the Most Valuable Player award in 2012. Cabrera led the American League in batting, home runs, and runs batted in, becoming the first batter to win baseball’s Triple Crown in 45 years. He did that while playing a position he hadn’t played regularly in five years. The more facts I write here, the more ridiculous it seems that anyone with half a baseball brain actually debated whether or not Cabby should have been given the MVP Award last season.

At what point does a hot start stop being a hot start and become simply “another incredible season”? We’re 1/4th of the way into the ’13 season, and the Tiger slugger is leading the league in hits, on-base percentage, runs batted in, and he’s in the batting lead (again). If Cabrera wins the batting title again this season, they may want to consider renaming the trophy “Miggy’s Toy.”

As Tiger fans, it’s a treat to witness the incredible talent that Cabrera brings to the plate 4-5 times every game. His bat speed, his strike zone recognition, his coordination and opposite field power, and his ability to pull inside pitches, is all impressive. He’s the baddest man with a baseball bat in his hands. I’m talking Michael Jackson bad, here.

Now in his sixth season as a Tiger, Cabrera is starting to reach milestones with the club. This season he collected his 1,000th hit in a Detroit uniform. Later this year he’ll belt his 200th home run as a Tiger. Impressive, especially considering that the other Tigers to reach that plateau had the benefit of hitting in cozy Tiger Stadium. Cabrera hits home runs in Comerica Park or Yosemite National Park, it doesn’t make a difference to him.

Cabrera has two more years after this season on an 8-year deal with the Tigers. We can assume that before that expires, Mr. Ilitch will pony up and pay him a monster load of money to remain a Tiger for the rest of his playing career. How much should Miggy get in a new deal? I’m reminded of what Joe DiMaggio said when he was asked how much money he could have made if he had put up his statistics while playing for Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.

“I would walk into his office”, DiMag said, “shake his hand, and say ‘George, we’re about to become partners.’ ”

Ilitch might have to split his empire with Cabrera in a few years when he’s a free agent. Maybe also rename the pizza shops, “Little Miggy’s”. Whatever it takes, Cabrera deserves to wear the “D” on his uniform for the remainder of his Hall of Fame career.

Which begs the question: 11 years into his career and six into his tenure in Detroit, where does Cabrera rank among the greatest Tigers of all-time? Though still piling up credentials, Cabby seems to have done enough to warrant placement among the very best ballplayers to play in the Motor City. But where?

For a franchise rich in tradition and batting greatness like Detroit, the conversation of “Greatest Ever” begins with Ty Cobb. Miggy would have to win 10 more batting titles (yes, really) to equal the number Ty won as a Tiger. Cobb was a center fielder and one of the greatest baserunners in baseball history. When he retired he owned more than 100 major league records. Not only is “The Georgia Peach” the greatest Tiger of them all, he can legitimately be discussed as perhaps the greatest player in baseball history.

Then we have Al Kaline, a Tiger for 22 seasons and a living legend in the city. There are three reasons Kaline is a greater Tiger than Cabrera (as of right now): (1) He has the advantage of the career numbers, which Miggy has to climb towards, (2) He was a better all-around player than Cabrera. Kaline won a bunch of Gold Gloves and he deserved every one, and (3) Kaline won a World Series with Detroit.

However, and I know this will irk the legion of Kaline fans out there, Cabrera is a better hitter than #6. He has more power, he pulls the ball better, he goes to the opposite field better, and he is a better RBI man than Al was. It’s not a knock on Kaline, because Cabrera is one of the best hitters to ever play the game. He has a career .320 batting average and his slugging marks are among the best of the last 25 years. Kaline had 3-4 seasons that were really good, but he was always getting hurt for three or four or five weeks a season, which kept his numbers down a bit. Cabrera has missed a grand total of 18 games in his six seasons as a Tiger. He’s in the lineup every day mashing.

The Tigers have several other Hall of Fame greats who starred in their lineup: Charlie Gehringer, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, and George Kell among them. But Cabrera has already established himself as a better offensive player than those fellas. Which is why it’s a dead-certain lock that Miguel will have his mug on a plaque in Cooperstown some day.

There’s one more player I’d put ahead of Cabby as of now, and he’s the former Tiger who is most similar to the current Detroit star. Hank Greenberg was a powerful slugger who played first base, hit mammoth home runs, and drive in runs like it was a bodily function. What matches him well with Cabrera is the fact that Hank also hit for a high average. Baseball history has been filled with sluggers who could smack home runs and drive in runs. But the ability to do that and also hit for a high average is rare. Very rare. That’s why there have been so few Triple Crown winners. That’s why the list of guys who have even won an unnatural Triple Crown (led the league in HR, RBI, batting at any time in their career) is short too.

Given his fantastic season so far and his stellar career numbers to this point, Miguel Cabrera is already one of the four greatest Tigers to ever wear the uniform. Give him another 5-6 seasons and he’ll move up that list.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.