Cabrera and teammate Omar Infante (No. 4) celebrate the Tigers 6-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Oct. 1, 2012, a win that gave them the AL Central Division championship.
MCT via Getty Images

It’s also why, when Cabrera is asked what the difference was for his production in 2012, he always cites Fielder — and Fielder alone.

Both Dombrowski, the Tigers’ general manager, and Al Avila, the Tigers’ assistant general manager, have literally watched Cabrera grow up. They were together in the Marlins front office in 1999 when they signed Cabrera, who was then a 16-year-old hotshot shortstop from Venezuela. They thought so highly of Cabrera — his athletic ability and his family (his mother, Gregoria, played shortstop for Venezuela’s national softball team, and his father, Miguel, was a baseball player) — that the Marlins gave Cabrera a $1.8 million signing bonus which, at the time, was unheard of for a teenager.

After Dombrowski and Avila left to rebuild a storied Detroit franchise that was in shambles, Cabrera debuted as a left fielder for the Marlins in 2003 and helped lead the team to a World Series championship. Ever since, he’s been one of the game’s best and most consistent hitters, averaging .321, 34 homers and 118 RBIs from 2004-’12, while rarely taking a day off (he’s had one, total, the past two seasons). He’s also finished in the top five in the MVP vote a staggering five times before finally winning it last year. Still, other hitters, like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Alex Rodriguez, always got more publicity and more fanfare. Really, and probably unfairly, it took a Triple Crown to even get Cabrera featured in some commercials.

Part of that is circumstance. Cabrera played the first five years of his major league career for the Marlins, a team that generates little exposure in South Beach, let alone ­nationally. Also, his Cy Young–winning teammate, Justin Verlander, who uses his downtime to ham it up on Conan and hit the golf links at Pebble Beach, definitely steals much of the thunder.

“It’s amazing,” Casey says, “that it took an MVP and a Triple Crown to say, ‘Wow, this guy’s probably the best player in the game.’ ”

And perhaps even in Tigers history. Jerry Green, a longtime-but-now-quasi-retired Detroit sportswriter, already puts him just behind Kaline but still a ways behind Cobb. Others would put him ahead of Kaline. There’s still time for Cabrera to climb that ladder, of course. He’s a Tiger, by contract, for at least three more seasons, though Dombrowski says he hopes Cabrera retires as a Tiger. That would give Cabrera ample time to accomplish in Detroit what Kaline did in 1968: win a World Series title. The Tigers finished just four wins short in 2012. And getting over the hump, without a doubt, is the prime focus for 2013. After signing Hunter, the veteran outfielder, and re-signing playoff pitching hero Anibal Sanchez — plus Martinez is now healthy — the Tigers are among the heavy favorites to get the job done, along with the Angels, the Washington ­Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I just go out there and play hard to win a championship,” Cabrera says. “I never go out [thinking I’m] gonna win this or win that. I always go out there and do my best. I do everything to win.”

The World Series, that is.

Not the Triple Crown. Or the MVP. Or anything else that’s more about him than his team. Cabrera is plenty content letting all that other stuff speak for itself.



Tony Paul writes about all things baseball for The Detroit News.