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Richard Justice

Cabrera has eyes on team prize, not personal goals

All-time great hitter wants to bring World Series championship back to Detroit

Cabrera has eyes on team prize, not personal goals

LAKELAND, Fla. -- So how does a guy follow up two of the great offensive seasons in baseball history?

"You've got to keep working," Miguel Cabrera said. "You can't lose your focus."

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That's why Cabrera has reported to camp a week ahead of schedule, here with the Tigers' pitchers and catchers. He looks tremendous, as usual, after offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. He's moving freely and has a simple goal.

"Try to be healthy," Cabrera said. "Try to play as many games as I can. If you're hurting, a lot of things can happen. [Staying healthy is] what we need."

Ah, that. Cabrera was flirting with a second straight American League Triple Crown last season when he suffered a pulled groin that eventually led to the surgery. He declined to discuss the injury last season, and neither would the Tigers. After they'd been eliminated by the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series, then Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "Well, I feel bad that the world didn't get to see the real Miguel Cabrera.

Cabrera still hit .273 in the ALCS and homered once. But compared to the monstrous numbers of the past two seasons, he was a shadow of the guy he'd been. Still, as Leyland said at one point last season, "Take a good look at this guy. You're seeing something you may never see again."

Cabrera's production has been breathtaking. He has won three straight AL batting championships and bumped his career averaged to .321 in 11 seasons.

Cabrera has hit 44 home runs in back-to-back years and knocked in 139 and 137 runs. He has 10 straight years of 100-plus RBIs and nine 30-plus home run seasons. No discussion of baseball's great offensive players -- now or forever -- can take place without mentioning Cabrera, who is only 30.

"It makes you proud," Cabrera said, waving away the talk comparing him to the all-time greats. "But you still have a lot of work to do. Those guys are already done playing. Compared with some of those guys, I haven't done anything yet. I've got to keep playing and have the same mindset.

"I mean, our goal is to win games. I don't think we look at that [historical] stuff. It looks very good, you know. People talk about it. But I think to us, it's more important to try to win games and win the division and give ourselves a chance to go to the World Series."

Along the way, Cabrera has helped transform the Tigers. They've been to the ALCS three years in a row and won the pennant in 2012.

And Cabrera has helped make baseball cooler than ever in Detroit. The Tigers have drawn three million fans in back-to-back seasons and four times in seven years. In the long and proud history of this franchise, fans have never turned out in numbers like this.

"It's great," Cabrera said. "Go out there every day and see 35,000-40,000 people there every night. They make you feel good. You want to play good for the people of Detroit."

There's disappointment that three straight playoff appearances haven't ended with a championship parade, but Cabrera hopes fans don't lose sight of the overall accomplishments.

"We've been very good," he said. "Not too many teams go as far as we have the last three years. We've got to feel good about what we've got here. We've got another chance to compete, and we'll see what happens."

Tigers president/CEO/general manager Dave Dombrowski remade his club over the winter, trading first baseman Prince Fielder and right-hander Doug Fister. He acquired second baseman Ian Kinsler in the Fielder deal with Texas and signed free-agent closer Joe Nathan.

With Nick Castellanos, Detroit's No. 1 prospect taking over at third, Cabrera will move back to first base.

So …

The Tigers are again the consensus favorites to win the AL Central. They've still got one of baseball's best rotations, led by Justin Verlander, 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.

And with Jose Iglesias, acquired last summer, at short and Kinsler at second, their infield defense should be better.

Nathan and second-year reliever Bruce Rondon could make the bullpen -- if the Tigers had a weakness the past two seasons, this was it -- a strength.

Finally, Brad Ausmus, who has never managed at any level, takes over for Leyland, one of the best who ever lived.

"You go into Spring Training hoping you've given your team a chance to win a championship," Dombrowski said. "We think we have a chance."

Leyland's huge presence will be the most obvious difference.

"I loved everything about him," Cabrera said. "He's going to be in the Hall of Fame. I'm proud to have played for him. He was my manager for six years, and I'm proud to know him."

As for how Fielder's absence will impact how Cabrera is pitched to, he shrugs.

"I don't worry about that," Cabrera said.

Moving back to first base?

"Again, you never know," Cabrera said. "They traded Prince and asked if I'd move, and I said, 'Yes.' I don't have any problem with that. I think you have to ask those questions to the general manager and the front office. We're here to do our job. Our job is to play baseball. Our job is not to talk about the moves. We just come here and prepare to play."

Few players have ever had two better back-to-back seasons or constructed an 11-year resume to match Cabrera's. He says it's about something larger.

"It's about us winning games," Cabrera said. "Right now, we're just getting started. All that matters is winning."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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