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Venezuela, Ilitch, Tigers' future all on Cabrera's mind
By NOAH TRISTER
LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) When Miguel Cabrera takes the field for Venezuela in next month's World Baseball Classic, he'll be trying to bring some much-needed joy to his native country.
"Our country's in bad shape right now. There's a lot of problems in Venezuela. It's like, two sides, you know?" Cabrera said. "I think sport can help any country."
Cabrera is back at spring training, preparing for his 10th season with the Detroit Tigers, and what began as a routine session with reporters Saturday after the team's first full-squad workout quickly turned into a more pensive discussion. Cabrera can be guarded when talking to the media, but he has a lot on his mind heading into the 2017 season.
Venezuela is going through difficult times economically and politically, and he says he worries about family back there.
"It's hard when you left your country and it's hard to go back and stay over there," he said. "When I'm back to Venezuela, I went for one week. I used to live there. Now, I live here in United States. It's hard to leave your country."
Cabrera has spent a majority of his career with the Tigers, and like the rest of the organization, he was saddened by the death of owner Mike Ilitch earlier this month. Ilitch's big spending helped turn the Tigers into consistent contenders in the American League.
"That was heartbreaking, that news," Cabrera said. "We come into this spring training a little sad because of the news, but at the same time, we come in like we need to keep going and need this for him, because he always dream about a World Series champion."
Before the 2014 season, Cabrera signed a $292 million, 10-year deal with Detroit - a staggering commitment by the Tigers but one that meant Ilitch didn't have to worry about the slugger becoming a free agent anytime soon.
"Every time I see him, I would say thank you for giving me this opportunity to be in Detroit," the 33-year-old Cabrera said.
That contract was easy to second-guess in 2015, when injury problems limited Cabrera to 119 games, but he played in 158 last year and hit .316 with 38 home runs and 108 RBIs. In nine seasons with the Tigers, Cabrera has played at least 148 games eight times - and at least 158 six times.
"You can say anything you want about Miguel Cabrera. You can say he's the greatest right-handed hitter of the last 50 years, maybe ever. You could say he doesn't run fast anymore," manager Brad Ausmus said. "But the one thing that I put above everything is the fact that this guy plays every day, and that right there is a leader."
Ausmus, who is entering his fourth season as Detroit's manager, says there are elements of Cabrera's personality that he wasn't aware of beforehand.
"I knew he played every day. That part didn't come as a shock," Ausmus said. "I didn't realize the fun he has playing. I guess I didn't watch him close enough, or I was playing against him, and I didn't pay attention to it. ... I've said for a while, he's got like a child's love of playing the game.
"And his baseball IQ is way higher than I thought - way higher. He's got one of the better baseball IQs of anyone I've ever played with or managed."
Cabrera is certainly aware of the situation the Tigers find themselves in now. After winning the AL Central every season from 2011-14, Detroit has missed the playoffs the past two years. There's been plenty of talk about the team cutting payroll , and although there were no major moves this offseason, the Tigers could look significantly different after 2017.
Outfielder J.D. Martinez, right-hander Mike Pelfrey and closer Francisco Rodriguez can become free agents after this season, and Detroit has team options on second baseman Ian Kinsler and right-hander Anibal Sanchez.
"A lot of people's going to be a free agent next season," Cabrera said. "I think they decide, let's make one more shot."
Although Cabrera could be in Detroit for a good while longer, there's plenty of urgency for the Tigers to win now, while this core of players is still intact.
"We got a chance to play one more year together. We know where we are here," Cabrera said. "We know we didn't went to the playoffs the last two years, but I think if we stay together, if we stay healthy, I think we've got a chance to compete."
NOTES: Former Tigers utilityman Don Kelly was at spring training. The Tigers announced Saturday that he's joined the organization as a pro scout/assistant to player development.
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister
Updated February 18, 2017