Tigers' Miguel Cabrera off to slow start

Doug Fister joined the Washington Nationals this winter after a trade with the Detroit Tigers. A left-handed batter and right-handed thrower, Fister will be an asset to this season’s starting pitcher lineup. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Most baseball fans in the Motor City are well aware that Sparky Anderson refused to make any big judgments about his teams until 40 games had been played. So it’s probably no surprise that no one’s sounding any alarms over Miguel Cabrera’s sluggish start this season.

“He certainly hasn’t looked the way Miggy looks when he’s swinging the bat well,” Detroit Manager Brad Ausmus said. “The swing itself doesn’t look that different. He’s obviously not hitting the way he can, but he will. Again, I’m still not worried about Miguel Cabrera.”

After an offseason that included core muscle surgery and a record-setting contract extension, Cabrera entered this season aiming to become the first player to nab three straight American League MVP awards. He’s instead off to the worst start of his 12-year career. Through 15 games, Cabrera has a batting average of .220, on-base percentage of .292 and slugging percentage of .356. He has one homer and more strikeouts (15) than hits (13).

Ausmus said that Cabrera looked good in spring training and hasn’t complained about any ill effects from minor surgery he underwent immediately following last season.

“He hasn’t said anything. . . . He hasn’t, as far as I know, been in the training room,” the first-year manager said. “I mentioned this the other day, if this happens in July, it’s a blip on the radar. Everything is always magnified with statistics the first week of the season because you’re starting at zero.”

Like any ballplayer, Cabrera has suffered through some tough stretches before. He went 0-for-18 during a period his rookie season, 2003. And early in 2012, he suffered through a 0-for-22 stretch that dropped his average to .216 midway through April. He bounced back okay, most baseball observers would agree. His average topped .300 by the end of the month and he went on to claim the game’s first Triple Crown in 45 years.

Cabrera might have been even better last season. He again got off to a solid start and eventually matched his career-high home run total (44) and led the league in batting average (.348), on-base percentage (.442), slugging percentage (.636), en route to winning MVP honors for the second consecutive year. The Tigers rewarded him last month, giving him an extension that will pay Cabrera $292 million over the next 10 years.

Last week he turned 31 years old, prompting many comparisons to the game’s greats. ESPN, among others, pointed out that Cabrera had the same number of home runs (366) and career batting average (.320) as Hank Aaron did when the hall of famer turned 31. Cabrera had 50 more RBIs (1,266); Aaron’s career slugging percentage was .567, one point higher.

The comparisons didn’t gain much steam this weekend because Cabrera again faltered at the plate. He had just one hit and struck out four times in the Tigers’ three-game series over the Los Angeles Angels over the weekend.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia doesn’t put much stock in the early numbers. He said Cabrera is showing the same dangerous bat speed at the plate that made him one of the game’s best hitters.

“It’s just when you start a season off, everything’s naked, everything’s out there,” he said. “This guy’s still dangerous. He’s not the guy you want to see up there in situation where the game’s on the line.”

The Tigers are still finding ways to win games. They entered this week’s series against the Chicago White Sox with a 9-6 record and in their familiar spot atop the division standings. The Tigers have won the American League Central crown three years running and have also appeared in each of the last three American League Championship Series.

But revered manager Jim Leyland retired last year and the infield is largely revamped after shortstop Jhonny Peralta went to St. Louis, second baseman Omar Infante signed with Kansas City and Prince Fielder was traded to Texas. With a hard-throwing pitching staff, the Tigers still entered the season with much of talent that led the team to the World Series in 2012.

Unlike Anderson, the Tigers’ hall of fame manager, Ausmus said he’s not eyeing the season’s 40-game mark for any big evaluations. As a catcher, he was on an Astros team that started the year 15-30 and ended up in the World Series. As Cabrera surely knows, it’s a long, long season, and the most valuable measuring stick isn't always the longest.

“It’s more about what happened today and what can happen tomorrow,” Ausmus said.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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