LAKELAND, FLA. >> After all the batting titles and Most Valuable Player awards, Miguel Cabrera's value to the Detroit Tigers this year may come down to another benchmark.
"Play 160 games," he said. "That's my goal."
There were a number of reasons the Tigers fell to last place in the AL Central last season, but perhaps the most obvious factor was Cabrera's health. The 32-year-old slugger hit .338 to win his fourth AL batting title in five seasons, but he played only 119 games. It has been a while since Cabrera had a fully healthy year, and that is a concerning trend for a Detroit team trying to recapture the form that enabled it to win the division every season from 2011-2014.
Cabrera was hitting .350 when he left a game against Toronto on July 3 with a left calf injury. After winning that game, the Tigers were 40-39 and only 1 1/2 games behind postseason position. By the time Cabrera returned in mid-August, Detroit was four games under .500 and had traded David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria with an eye toward the future.
There was no rebuilding, though. The Tigers spent big in the offseason, bringing in free agents Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann in an attempt to make another run at their first World Series title since 1984. Now the question is whether players like Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander can stay healthy enough for Detroit to contend.
Cabrera took batting practice Tuesday, when Detroit had its first official workout with position players. He was his usual playful self when he talked to reporters beforehand, joking that the Tigers are still "undefeated" this year.
"He's generally in pretty good spirits," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He enjoys what he does, he has fun playing the game, he has fun with his teammates."
Cabrera also talked about an offseason trip in which he met Barcelona soccer star Lionel Messi.
"I was like a kid," Cabrera said. "He's a great guy. He's a shy guy."
Of more importance to the Tigers, of course, was the fact that Cabrera didn't need any significant medical procedures this offseason. From 2004-12, he played in at least 157 major league games in all but one year, but since winning the Triple Crown in 2012, he's had to deal with a number of nagging issues.
He played only 148 games in 2013, and although he won his second straight MVP award that year, he was significantly limited down the stretch by a tear in his groin. After offseason surgery, he played 159 games in 2014, but he was bothered by ankle problems and had another operation that October to deal with that issue.
Last year, he hit only 18 home runs, his fewest since he played his first half-season in the majors with Florida in 2003. After winning four straight division titles, Detroit gave up the top spot to Kansas City, which won both the AL Central and the World Series.
Before the 2014 season, Cabrera signed a $292 million, 10-year deal with the Tigers, and his injury issues have raised serious concerns about how well he will produce as he gets older. If Detroit had not given him that deal, he could have become a free agent after last season. Perhaps the Tigers could have then signed him to a cheaper contract, given his injury problems — but they also might have lost him entirely if another team was willing to offer him a huge amount of money after another batting title.
That hypothetical is interesting to think about, but the Tigers made their new commitment to Cabrera a couple years ago. They should be in a position to benefit in 2016 — if this still-prodigious hitter can play a full season or close to it.
"Our goal is to stay healthy and trying to go and then compete," Cabrera said. "We have a tough division. We've got to beat Kansas City and the other teams now. They're good teams."