Orlando, Fla. — Slugger Vladimir Guerrero began having back problems in 2003 when he was 28 years old, disk issues that he would deal with through the last eight years of his career.
That was between 2004 and 2011, between the ages of 29 and 36. He produced 215 home runs and 794 RBIs and made five all-star teams in that stretch, batting .313 with a .523 slugging percentage and .891 OPS.
Doctors thought Pudge Rodriguez’s career was all but over when the Tigers signed him in 2004. He’d already caught more than 1,600 games and tests showed severe damage in his lower back.
But then Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was undeterred and Rodriguez went on to make four straight all-star teams. From 2004 to the end of his career in 2011, from ages 32 to 39, Rodriguez played another 920 games, hit .283 with a .421 slugging and .735 OPS.
These are just two of a multitude of examples of players who have not only extended their careers, but been productive players, despite chronic back pain caused by bulging or herniated disks.
It’s those kinds of stories that give the Tigers hope that Miguel Cabrera can similarly bounce back despite the two herniated disks in his lower back that derailed his 2017 season.
“There is no reason Miguel can’t follow that pattern,” general manager Al Avila said during the general managers’ meetings. “We expect him to come back ready to go.”
Cabrera, just as Guerrero and Rodriguez did, completely revamped his off-season workout regimen. No more heavy weight lifting and a lot more core strength and flexibility exercises.
“He is doing very good,” Avila said. “I’ve talked to him twice now. He actually started his routines right after the season was over. He’s working on his core muscles. It’s a whole different workout program than what he had before.”
The goal is to build up the muscles that support the back and Cabrera has fully embraced the new routine.
“Right now, in talking to him, he is probably going to be stronger than ever,” Avila said. “You know how during the season he lost all that weight? He also lost strength. So he was weak in certain areas.
“That’s what he’s doing now. He got the weight off, but now he’s strengthening those muscles around the core that give him that support.”
Doctors told Cabrera that the weight loss, without the corresponding core strength, was worthless and that bore out last season. They also told him, with improved core strength, he could maintain his normal weight — which is 25 to 35 pounds more than he carried most of last season.
Initially, the plan was for Cabrera to undergo six weeks of rehabilitation and core strengthening and flexibility exercises before he could begin doing any baseball activity. He’s already in the eighth week of rehab.
But Cabrera at the end of the season said he wasn’t going to cut corners. That’s why he opposed getting an epidural injection.
“I don’t want to get an injection because I don’t want to put a band-aid on my injury,” he said Sept. 27 in Kansas City. “I can’t just put a Band-Aid on it and say I don’t have the injury now. There is no reason to do that.
“Let’s work out, do the therapy and the physical training and see where we are. If I need the injection next year if it’s bothering me again, then I will take it. But now, no. There is no reason to do it.”
Cabrera will be 35 next season and he’s owed at least $184 million through his age-40 season. He posted career-lows last season in average (.249), slugging (.399), home runs (16) and RBIs (60).
Two more examples:
■ David Ortiz played seven seasons after he turned 34. He hit 224 home runs with 700 RBIs, batting .292 with a .562 slugging and .945 OPS.
■ Albert Pujols has played four seasons after he turned 34. He’s hit 122 home runs with 420 RBIs, batting .257 with a .448 slugging and .758 OPS.
If Cabrera can produce somewhere in between those two standards, preferably much closer to Ortiz’s, the Tigers’ rebuilding plan will have at least one very sturdy pillar.