LAKELAND, Fla. -- It was a terrifying thought. Dave Dombrowski tried to push it out of his head, but it kept coming back:
Suppose the Detroit Tigers had to start the season with no Miguel Cabrera and no Victor Martinez. Maybe for just a couple of weeks. But maybe for longer. The prospect hung over the Tigers’ president, CEO and general manager like a polar vortex.
“It was not a refreshing feeling,” Dombrowski laughed about it Thursday morning, as not much more refreshing 42-degree temperatures and 20-mile-per-hour winds whipped through Joker Marchant Stadium, on the day Tigers pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.
But fortunately for the GM and everyone around him in this camp, that feeling passed. Those fears abated. And the increasingly upbeat medical prognoses for his team’s two injured mashers inspired Dombrowski to make three head-turning proclamations Thursday:
• He wouldn’t be surprised, he said, if Cabrera, who is coming off ankle surgery, “put up the biggest numbers this year that he’s ever put up.”
• Martinez is making such good progress following knee surgery this month that Dombrowski predicted, confidently, “He’ll be ready” by Opening Day.
• And Dombrowski said that after reading all the dire predictions and projections for a team that has dominated its division for the last four years, he has concluded, “I don’t think people know how to look at our team.”
So why does he feel that way? Here’s how the GM explained his reasoning behind all those proclamations.
The two-time MVP is essentially right on schedule in his recovery from surgery last October to remove bone spurs and bone chips from his right ankle and to repair a fractured navicular bone at the top of the same foot, a surprise injury that the team wasn’t even aware of before the surgery.
The projected recovery time of six months would put Cabrera back in the Tigers’ lineup in mid-April, possibly sooner. But while he wasn’t ready to attach a date to the current prognosis, Dombrowski said Cabrera’s rehab has gone remarkably well, especially considering the extent of his injuries.
After the surgery, Dombrowski said he was “shocked” by the size of the bone chips and the bone spur that were removed, by the surprise navicular fracture and by the fact that Cabrera was still able to bop 52 doubles and hit .313/.371/.524 while playing in so much pain and discomfort.
“I said at the time, 'I don’t know how anybody would ever, ever question, one iota, Miguel Cabrera’s toughness, after what he’s gone through the last couple of years,'” the GM said. “With the core muscle [which Cabrera tore in 2013], I don’t know how he played with that. But then with what he went through this past year, I have no idea how he played with that either. I mean, he was the player of the month in the American League in the month of September.”
But now that Cabrera finds himself on the road to recovery from both of those major injuries, Dombrowski believes the people who think Cabrera is “on the downhill side” of his career before he even turns 32 are going to be in for a shock.
“I don’t buy that at all,” Dombrowski said. “The people who say that, they don’t know the extent of the injuries he played through the last couple of years. Look, I know he’s a big guy, and people talk about the aging process. But they don’t know his drive to excellence and to be a winner. So he plays through these types of injuries. But also, he wants to play at a high level until he’s 40. And he will work hard to do that. He will make adjustments if he needs to.
“I know that at 37 and 38, he won’t be the same as he was at 28 or 29. But if you look at history, even before this era [of performance-enhancing drugs], the premium hitters -- I’m talking about the best hitters -- many of them continued to hit until they were 38 to 40 years old. You start looking at the Ted Williams, the Stan Musials and the Hank Aarons. Well, Miguel Cabrera is in that conversation. So I don’t know why he can’t be a productive hitter till he’s 37, 38, 39. In fact, I’ll be surprised if he isn’t.”
Dombrowski made it clear he’ll be even more surprised if Cabrera doesn’t do some serious raking this year “because really, he hasn’t been healthy the last couple of years.” But the GM made it just as clear that the Tigers also need that to happen -- because Miguel Cabrera “is as valuable as any player in the game.”
As confident as he is in Cabrera’s eventual return to health, Dombrowski said he’s even more confident that Martinez will be fine by Opening Day.
After Martinez had surgery Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus, doctors projected his recovery time at four to six weeks. So “even if he’s on the long end of that recovery time, which would be six weeks, that would still give him the last two weeks of spring training” to get ready for Opening Day, Dombrowski said.
If Cabrera isn’t ready by the opener, that would at least make Martinez available to hold down first base until Cabrera is healthy. But unlike last year, when the Tigers occasionally let Martinez catch during interleague games to keep him and Cabrera in the lineup, you won’t be seeing Martinez in shin guards any time soon this year -- if at all.
“We don’t plan on that,” Dombrowski said. “We were even debating, as it was, how much we would have Victor catch. Who knows, later in the season. But we only play 10 interleague games [in NL parks], and three of them are the second week of the season, at Pittsburgh. So I’m sure he won’t be catching those games.”
And what happens if both Cabrera and Martinez suffer setbacks in their recoveries this spring and neither is ready to start the season? “To be determined,” Dombrowski said.
The Tigers' demise
Dombrowski said he tries to ignore all the skeptics who look at his team and ask, “Are the Tigers done?” But obviously, he hasn’t been able to ignore all that talk -- because he feels a need to respond to the folks who don’t “know how to look at our team.”
One reason, he said, is health. He ticked off all the significant players who are working their way back from major injuries: Cabrera, Martinez, shortstop Jose Iglesias, reliever Bruce Rondon and two of his most important starters, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.
“Hey, those are six big guys,” Dombrowski said. “But my instincts have always been pretty good about those guys, when you talk to the medical people. You put those six guys in, and you put them in playing real well, that’s a lot different club.”
The other reason, he said, is that this team has had an unusual amount of roster turnover, dating to last year’s trading deadline. And he isn’t sure the critics have gone all the way back to last July in their evaluations of what the Tigers have set out to do -- particularly in the way they look at the starting rotation.
“I keep hearing that [new acquisitions] Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene are replacing [Max] Scherzer and [Rick] Porcello,” he said. “Well that’s not true. David Price is replacing Scherzer. That’s why we got David last July. So if people are saying that Simon and Greene are not as good as Scherzer and Porcello, that’s not what we’re asking them to do.”
So what he sees is a team that has, in effect, added key pieces like Price, Joakim Soria, Iglesias, Rondon, Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes -- none of whom were around last year at this time -- and he likes this group’s chances.
Now if the jury is out everywhere but Lakeland and Detroit, “I understand that,” Dombrowski said. But his strong words, on the day his 2015 edition reported to spring training, made it clear exactly what the architect of this team really thinks is about to unfold in the long, and hopefully warmer, months ahead.