Miguel Cabrera is 'arguably best first baseman' for Detroit Tigers. Here's what this means

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — As the Detroit Tigers prepare to leave spring training, manager AJ Hinch is still searching for a first baseman. Beyond offensive production, he needs someone with strong defensive instincts. 

Here are the candidates for Hinch's top option at the position: Renato Nunez? No way. Harold Castro? Maybe. Jeimer Candelario? Doable, but he is better at third base. Jonathan Schoop? Too soon, considering he will make his career debut at first base later this week. Also, Niko Goodrum is more valuable at numerous other positions, so he doesn't factor into this debate.

Therefore, is Miguel Cabrera the correct answer?

"He's arguably the best first baseman we have," Hinch said Wednesday, as Cabrera gears up for his 19th MLB campaign. "I love having him out there. We need to keep him healthy to keep him out there a couple times per week."

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Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera waves to the fans as he exits the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla. on March 24, 2021.

Cabrera, entering his age 38 season, gave Hinch confidence Wednesday against the Philadelphia Phillies. He charged a weak ground ball from Darick Hall in the second inning and — knowing there were runners on the corners — immediately darted toward the third-base line.

Cabrera ran straight at Andrew Knapp, caught between third base and home plate.

"You can't play this game easy," Hinch said when asked if he was worried about Cabrera's health during the play. "Obviously, I don't want anything bad to happen to him, but you can't have that mindset. ... I don't walk on eggshells around Miggy."

Cabrera tagged Knapp for the first out and, without hesitation, flipped the ball to Willi Castro as Odubel Herrera dove into third. Herrera figured he could advance from first to third while the Knapp rundown stole everyone's attention, except Cabrera and Castro.

Herrera was safe, but not by much. It was almost a double play.

Still, Cabrera's smart play saved a run.

"Miggy fielding the ball and recognizing we could cut off a run, that's key," Hinch said. "We controlled the batter-runner not getting to second base, so the double play was still in order right after that. We put pressure on them to have to make decisions. Miggy ran home and then ran back to third, which allowed him to tag and even keep the rundown short. It's good baseball."

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Although Hinch currently plans to use Cabrera at first base once or twice per week during the regular season, he won't rule out sprinkling in a few extra games. But he won't fully commit to giving the future Hall of Famer more defensive reps, either.

"We'll see how much he can play over there, but I've got a plan in place," Hinch said. "I don't want to commit to anything until we get into the season and see how it's going and how other guys are doing. There's more to it than just a pre-planned schedule for him to get out there, but I'm paying attention to it."

What this means

The comments from Hinch actually explain less about Cabrera and more about someone else. The Tigers signed Nunez, a ex-slugger for the Baltimore Orioles, to a minor-league deal this winter.

They hoped he could become the go-to first baseman.

So far, the 26-year-old has struggled.

[ To make Tigers' roster, slugger Renato Nunez must show durable defense ]

Detroit's Renato Nunez plays first base during the seventh inning against the New York Yankees at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium on Friday.

"(Nunez) has to show that he's comfortable at first base and that we're comfortable with him at first base," Hinch said two weeks ago. "Obviously, the bat speaks for itself. He's done some damage in the league already, and we know he can hit the ball out of the park. But if you look at the roster, his best chance is to contribute at first base."

If Nunez makes the team, he likely blocks a path for 22-year-old Isaac Paredes to emerge and limits the component of defensive versatility. Plus, the designated hitter spot in the lineup will rarely open because Cabrera won't play first base as often.

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Combining those issues with his defensive woes, Nunez could be on the outside looking in with only six days remaining in camp. After all, Hinch said Wednesday morning the Tigers are going to use "a lot more guys" at first base.

There's a reason Hinch is letting Schoop, a true second baseman, try a brand-new position: It seems unlikely Nunez will get a job on the Opening Day roster.

"The configuration of the team is going to dictate how I use each position," Hinch said. "By the way that I've used everybody at first base this spring, I think it kind of made Al (Avila, general manager) believe that I want the revolving door at first base, and it might happen that way. But it's all going to be dictated on personnel."

Meanwhile, Cabrera has a minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved in his last four seasons at first base, from 2016-19. He last played a regular-season game at first base in June 2019.

And he's the best first baseman?

Sounds like it.

"He loves it. He's into it," Hinch said. "When I took (Jose) Urena out, (Cabrera) made sure that I recognized the good plays he has made. He's fun to be around, and he loves playing on both sides. We'll be smart about it, but when he's out there, he needs to play hard." 

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.