Miggy's move molded dynamic duo
Slugger's transition to third opened door for Prince, transformed Tigers
DETROIT -- Nobody exudes a laid-back personality in the Tigers' clubhouse better than Prince Fielder. Talk to him from one day to the next, and the tone of his voice remains the same, win or lose.
Fielder getting emotional is about as rare as a him hitting an infield single. That's what made the reaction from Fielder so remarkable in Kansas City on the regular season's final day.
He wasn't emotional about going to the playoffs. He was emotional about Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown.
"Everything he did," Fielder said, "was for the team, and I'm glad now that he gets the recognition for himself, because he deserves all of it."
By everything, Fielder wasn't talking so much about the Triple Crown. He meant Cabrera's move from first to third base, and all that came with it, from the early mornings taking ground balls in Spring Training to the season-long critiques of his defense.
Say what you will about the designated-hitter role, or the $214 million contract Fielder signed, or the Tigers' ties to the Fielder family, without Cabrera's move, there is no Fielder in Detroit.
Without Cabrera's move, there might not be an American League trophy at Comerica Park right now, either. Oh, they would've found another hitter on the market to fill the void left by Victor Martinez's knee injury. They would've taken that payroll space and made a serious run at Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, and they likely would've signed another veteran hitter such as Raul Ibanez or Hideki Matsui, or maybe traded for Carlos Lee.
Whoever it would've been, he would not have been the kind of hitter they got in Fielder, and he would not have been the kind of hitter to make pitchers think twice about intentionally walking Cabrera. Fielder, who did not want to DH, might well have become a Dodger or a National. The National League race might not have been the same.
The Tigers, meanwhile, might be home right now. His teammates don't forget that.
"Miggy's awesome," Jose Valverde said. "He's a great hitter and a great teammate. Nothing more I can say about this guy."
Cabrera didn't just change the shape of the Tigers with his move. He changed the shape of the big leagues. He didn't just create the opening for Fielder, either. He created the welcoming party.
When Fielder joined the team, Cabrera was the first teammate to greet him. When Fielder's sons were getting used to a new team and a new city, Cabrera became one of Haven Fielder's best friends.
Maybe Fielder, along with Justin Verlander, is the public face of the team -- both appeared in nationally-televised car commercials this spring. But Fielder never forgot how he got here.
"This is [Cabrera's] team," Fielder said last month. "I'm here to help him. This is his team. I just want to come and help be a part of it."
Truth be told, third base wasn't that huge of a sacrifice for Cabrera. When Tigers officials were debating last October how they would fit Martinez into the lineup without a DH if they made it to the World Series, Cabrera was enthusiastic at the idea of moving back to third for a few games. He loved the hot corner when he was a Marlin, and he moved to first for the benefit of the team a month into the 2008 season.
It wasn't the move itself that was a big sacrifice. It was all that went with it, the extra work, the scrutiny and the commitment.
He took it all on. The slight scar still under his right eye is a reminder of the bad-hop bouncer in Spring Training that fractured an orbital bone around his eye and opened the questions. The limp still noticeable every so often in his walk is a sign of what he went through down the stretch, playing through a bad ankle when the Tigers needed him at third base so that they could keep hot-hitting Delmon Young at designated hitter.
It was Cabrera's play at third that quieted some of the criticism about the move, going from a potential disaster to a guy who makes the plays he gets to and still surprises people with what he reaches.
Other AL third basemen had better stats, from fielding percentages to Range Factor and Zone Rating, and nearly all of them had a better rating for defensive wins above replacement. Still, nobody in the league played more innings at third than Cabrera and nobody made more putouts.
"It was a nice conversation and should've been for people," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "but I wasn't worried about it, because I knew we were going to maybe lack a little bit of range, but I knew he's got as good of hands as any infielder I've got, and he's got a better arm than most any infielder I've got. So I really wasn't worried about it.
"I haven't really heard that mentioned but five times [this season]. It's amazing."
That said, when people argued that Angels rookie center fielder Mike Trout's defense should give him a pronounced edge over Cabrera in AL MVP consideration, Leyland brought up the move. So did Verlander.
"I just think the guys on both of our corners have done a heckuva job defensively, in my opinion," Leyland said. "Then, with the offense that they put together, that's pretty impressive. I don't think you'd find many teams that wouldn't like to have Miguel Cabrera playing third and Prince Fielder playing first. You might find somebody, but I don't know who. I don't know where you'd find them."
Ask Cabrera what the difference was that propelled him from last year's numbers to Triple Crown territory, the combination of pure hitting and dangerous power, and Cabrera points to Fielder.
In some ways, it was a sacrifice. But they've both benefited. They're two of the best hitters in the league, batting next to each other in the same lineup, and they're friends to boot. As history shows, that doesn't always happen.
"You could see they got along well," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "They're both real good guys. But it's a situation where it takes time to grow. You could see that bond's been forming all along, and now you see how they get along and what they do together. You can see how it is, when you talk about the closeness of a club, how it comes together."
You could see it in the way Fielder celebrated Cabrera's Triple Crown as much or more than Cabrera.
"It's unbelievable," Fielder said. "That's what makes him such a great person. I don't think he really gets what just happened. He's the best of all time."