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Title drives Cabrera, not repeat of Triple Crown

Title drives Cabrera, not repeat of Triple Crown

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Title drives Cabrera, not repeat of Triple Crown
DETROIT -- The scope of the American League Most Valuable Player Award had barely set in for Miguel Cabrera when he already started looking ahead. He was talking about the honor last month on a conference call with reporters when the question of the future came up.

"I always like to have something in my mind to make me work hard, make me work better," Cabrera said. "I'm still dreaming. I think every time I look [ahead] as a player, it's like, 'I want to do this.'"

A couple of weeks later, as he was signing autographs at a suburban mall, Cabrera all but put the burial rites on his magical season.

"That's in the past," Cabrera told the Detroit Free Press. "We have to move forward and try to be ready for next season."

It's a great philosophy to have. But when you've won the Triple Crown and the AL MVP Award after a season for the ages, what's the next dream?

OK, it's obvious in the big picture. Cabrera has made no secret of his desire to win another World Series title to go with the one he won as a 20-year-old rookie with the Marlins a decade ago. But it's a long way to get there, with a bunch of individual performances along the way.

So now, in the quiet of the offseason, before the buzz builds for Spring Training -- figure on it building next month when Cabrera joins his teammates in town for TigerFest and the Winter Caravan -- the conundrum of what Cabrera can do for an encore deserves to be asked.

It came up with Tigers officials at the Winter Meetings.

"I said last year it's very possible that [ace Justin] Verlander could pitch just as good or better [in 2012 as in '11] and not win as many games, or could pitch not quite as good and win more games," manager Jim Leyland pointed out at the Winter Meetings earlier this month. "You never know how that's going to play out."

That said, Leyland has a pretty good idea.

"I guess I'd be safe in saying it's probably unlikely he'll win the Triple Crown next year," Leyland said of Cabrera. "It hadn't been done since 1967, so I doubt it. If there's any guy that could possibly do it, it would be him, but I say the same thing about Cabrera every year. He's going to have a great season."

As rare as the Triple Crown has become, to repeat it is unprecedented, though past Triple Crown winners have gone on to have very strong follow-up seasons. Carl Yastrzemski followed his Triple Crown with a batting title in 1968, but his .301 average represented a 25-point drop. Likewise, his home run and RBI totals fell dramatically in the Year of the Pitcher.

Yaz's Triple Crown thwarted Frank Robinson's attempt at a repeat, as did injuries. Mickey Mantle actually hit for a higher average the year after his Triple Crown in 1956, but he walked so much more often that he didn't get to 100 RBIs or 35 home runs. Ted Williams might have had a chance at repeating in 1948 if not for games lost; his .369 average was 26 points higher than what he posted the previous year.

Except for Mantle, who won his Triple Crown at age 24, all of the aforementioned winners were around the same age as Cabrera, who will turn 30 in the coming year. Only Williams, though, had more titles in the Triple Crown categories before actually winning a Triple Crown. Cabrera had already led the league in average, home runs and RBIs before winning the Triple Crown; he just hadn't done it all in the same season.

"I think when you're talking about not handling the expectations," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said, "it's more those guys that have one of those years that everything falls into place and you kind of look back and you say, 'Wow, look at the year he had. I'm a little surprised.' In reality, maybe their won-loss record or their batting average isn't quite as good as what their overall abilities are. But when you start talking about Cabrera and Verlander, you're talking about two of the more talented guys in baseball. So they'll handle it. They're hard workers [with] great attitudes. I think they handle that as they've matured enough where they're not a young kid trying to do too much, so that whole combination leads them to be guys that can handle that scenario pretty well."

Batting average shouldn't be a problem. It's not just the back-to-back batting crowns; it's that Cabrera's .330 average this past season wasn't that far off his career average. He hit 14 points better in 2011. He's strong enough with a quick enough bat to get hits by fighting off pitches, a quality that shouldn't fade any time soon.

Not since the great Tony Gwynn 15 years ago has a player won three consecutive batting crowns. The last AL player to do it goes back a quarter-century to Wade Boggs. The last right-handed hitter to win three straight in either league was Rogers Hornsby, who won six straight from 1920-25.

So, yes, Cabrera could come nowhere near the Triple Crown and still pull off a feat more rare than he did this past season. The key could be to avoid the hitless stretches he had in 2012, one of them an 0-for-22 slump in April, another an 0-for-15 skid in June.

Cabrera's track record of health suggests games missed shouldn't be a problem. His size could become an issue down the road, but Dombrowski said the third baseman is already working out in south Florida with teammates Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta, doing the same program that helped him make the move to the hot corner this past season.

As long as Cabrera's in the lineup, his supporting cast should give him a fair chance at RBIs. If Prince Fielder wasn't enough of a deterrent for pitchers to work around him, a healthy Victor Martinez behind Fielder might reinforce it.

That leaves home runs, the one category where Cabrera's 2012 total was a little out of whack. His 44 homers were six above his previous career high, mainly because he nearly doubled his previous best for home runs in the final month of a season. If he keeps his strength up -- again, a workout issue -- he has a chance. But Cabrera also has the World Baseball Classic coming up this spring.

But perhaps the biggest motivation for him will be another chance to win.

"This guy wants to win a world championship and be a centerpiece of that," Dombrowski said, "and he'll do whatever he can to win. So I think if anybody will handle that well, it will be Miguel Cabrera. He's been around a while. He's not a young, young kid. He's in the prime of his career. He's been a good player for a long time. He doesn't have to just carry our club on the back of his shoulders. We've got some other good players around him. So when you look at the whole combination of things, I think he'll handle it very well."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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