Miguel Cabrera is a first-ballot Baseball Hall of Fame inductee. He could retire now, never play another game, and that would still ring true, thanks to his 2,676 hits, 465 home runs, career .316 batting average, and a list of legendary accomplishments that no active player, save maybe Mike Trout, can even line up with.
With a career as distinguished as his, the Detroit Tigers first baseman shouldn’t have anything to prove to anybody. However, in light of the case of Albert Pujols, a similarly talented right-handed hitter and smooth-fielding corner infielder who has aged horribly, Cabrera will be a man on a mission in 2019: the two-time American League Most Valuable Player can’t end up like Pujols.
If you are a longtime baseball fan, you remember when Pujols was the best player on the planet. From 2001 to 2011, the righty commanded a St. Louis Cardinals squad that, with Pujols on the roster, was a dangerous postseason team every single year. In his stretch with the Cards, Pujols twice led the team to a World Series title (2006, 2011), won National League MVP honors three times and finished second four times, was named to nine NL All-Star teams, won the Gold Glove at first base twice, and won six Silver Slugger Awards.
The 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, Pujols’ stat line in his 11 seasons with the Cardinals looked like this: .328/.420/.617 slash line, 1.037 OPS, 170 OPS+, 2,073 hits, 445 home runs, 1,329 runs batted in, and 251 intentional walks. If not for the late-career dominance of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, it’s likely Pujols would have won more MVP awards and more batting titles. If all that stands between you and being the best player in the game is Barry Bonds, then you must be pretty good.Miguel Cabrera could retire now and be a Hall of Famer. But he still has a mission to fulfill; as he ages with a big contract on his shoulders, he can't end up like Albert Pujols.Click To Tweet
But then came the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim, maybe, I don’t know, they have changed their name 400 times). On December 8, 2011, fresh off his second World Series title, Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels, a deal that pays him $30 million a year until he is 41 years old. It was also a contract littered with special performance incentives, such as a $3 million for his 3,000th career hit, $7 million for the all-time home run record, and a $10 million “personal services contract” paid after his standard player contract expires.
It was too much for Pujols to turn down. After all, he deserved it, and fans around baseball saw the lucrative deal he inked as more of a foregone conclusion than a big surprise. But after the move to Orange County, Pujols saw his performance take a steep decline.
His first year with the Angels was a good one, but a little underwhelming. He knocked 40 home runs and 95 RBIs in an All-Star worthy campaign, but he hit just .242 and came in at only 4.2 bWAR, which was the lowest single-season mark of his career. It only got worse for “Prince Albert” as his tenure with the Angels progressed.
From 2013 to the end of the 2018 season, Pujols’ stat line looks like this: .255/.310/.441, .751 OPS, 108 OPS+, 431 strikeouts compared to just 252 walks and 158 home runs, and such poor mobility at first base that he has been worth -5.2 defensive bWAR. He is not — in any way — the player he was 10 years ago, and his presence is detrimental to the Angels’ ability to give Trout and Shohei Ohtani some support on a team without much star power.
Pujols was in the same boat as Cabrera is now: he could have retired in 2011 and been a Hall of Famer. Nothing could have tarnished Pujols’ long-term legacy, the same way we’ll remember Cabrera for his power, discipline, and insane all-fields contact hitting. But in a way, Cabrera’s career trajectory has been eerily similar to that of Pujols.
It isn’t a coincidence that when Pujols knocked his 3,000th career hit midway through the 2018 season, all anyone wanted to talk about was his prowess with the Cardinals. In every major print or online publication, and on the majority of television programs, his time in St. Louis was the main talking point. Nobody wants to remember Pujols for his work with the Halos, because that side of his career has diminished the public view of him. Baseball fans see Albert as the fat guy who is so far past his prime that you might as well forget about him, instead of the future Cooperstown staple he is.
Cabrera is an absolute icon, but to this point, he has built his career the same way. From when he was a rookie taking Roger Clemens deep in the World Series to when he was a 30-year-old winning the Triple Crown, there was nobody like Miggy when the big right-handed batter took the field. Cabrera has made 11 All-Star teams, won two American League MVP Awards, won four batting titles, and is the active leader in career batting average at .316.
Between his phenomenal rookie season with the Florida Marlins in 2003 and his second AL MVP campaign in 2013, the seven-time Silver Slugger Award winner’s stat line was as good as any player in the sport. He slashed .321/.399/.568 with a .967 OPS, 154 OPS+, 365 home runs, 1,260 RBIs, 62.8 offensive bWAR, and five hits shy of 2,000 for that stretch. Just like Pujols, he was a superstar who deserve a major extension with major money.
But also just like Pujols, he started to fall off as soon as his massive late-career contract was signed. On March 27, 2014, four days before Opening Day, Cabrera and the Tigers agreed on a contract even more lucrative than the Pujols deal, with an eight-year, $248 million deal that pays Cabrera $30 million per year on average through 2023 (and possibly even longer, because vesting options could extend the contract to 2025).
He wasn’t like Pujols in that he instantly struggled right after signing his big contract. In 2014, he led the AL in doubles with 52 and hit .313 and 25 home runs. The next season, 2015, he led baseball with a .338 batting average in 119 games.
But through injuries and struggles to stay consistent, Cabrera has failed to live up to the $30 million average annual value the Tigers are paying him. Over the past two seasons, he has only played 168 games, hitting just 19 home runs with a .260 batting average and playing abysmal defense at first base (-1.9 defensive bWAR since 2017).
In 2019, Cabrera has something to prove. In a career that has been so eventful and so legendary, the former MVP still has a mission: don’t fall apart and be like Pujols, his longtime counterpart. At 35 and entering the season healthy once again, Cabrera still has time to get off the Pujols trajectory and instead carry out his Hall of Fame career in a different way, collecting the 3,000 hit and 500 or 600 home run milestones in a way that contrasts Pujols.
If Cabrera hits .280 with 25 home runs, 75 walks, and an .850 OPS, then he has completed the mission in the eyes of many. Maybe those projections should be a little more conservative with a player coming off of injury, but anything better than Pujols, and anything that allows Cabrera to remain a consistent, fearsome force at the plate in some way, is a win.
Fans should remember Cabrera for what he was and can perhaps continue to be, not the guy who prolonged his career just to collect a paycheck and hit counting stat milestones.
In the twilight of his storied baseball career, the rebuilding Detroit squad will give Cabrera — a megastar in the area — plenty of opportunities to flip the script this season. Whether he can separate himself from a guy who has aged horrifically in Pujols and create his own story, or fall into the same pathway as the Angels first baseman, is up to him and him alone.