Ever so quietly, underneath the massive headlines and fierce Most Valuable Player debates, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout have become friendly over these past couple of seasons.
Not go-out-to-dinner friends. Not let’s-hang-out friends.
Just the type of bond that when they see each other around the baseball diamond—as they will again beginning Friday night for three games when the Angels visit Detroit—they say hello, trade small talk and, yes, even tease each other.
“We have fun,” Trout told Bleacher Report this week. “When I’m in the box, I mess around with him saying I’m going to bunt and stuff.”
Trout chirps. Miggy smiles.
And each man’s wallet groans: Cabrera signed a monster 10-year, $292 million extension with the Tigers in late March. In the same time frame, Trout, nine years younger, got a six-year, $144.5 million extension from the Angels.
As this fascinating yet unlikely rivalry continues to break speed barriers as it roars down the freeway, the imagination soars.
Is Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout becoming Major League Baseball’s version of the LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant rivalry?
“Oh, I don’t know...” Cabrera, far more soft-spoken than you might expect given a 6'4", 240-pound man whose bat speaks so loudly, replied when we spoke last weekend.
“I don’t really look into it that much,” Trout said. “But it’s always fun facing guys like that. You’re competing and you’re having fun out there and things go the way they go.”
They are separated by nine years, roughly 2,300 miles and—this is the key, of course—a mere 184 total points combined over the past two American League Most Valuable Player votes.
Cabrera is the two-time defending AL MVP. Trout is the young buck who controversially has finished second in consecutive seasons, but who surely will put multiple MVP trophies on his shelf by the time he’s finished.
Cabrera is thunder, Trout is lightning.
Slow down, says one common denominator between the two greats.
“I don’t agree with that,” Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said. “I don’t agree because Trout is a totally different player than Miguel.
“Trout has five tools. He can beat you in any kind of way. And Miguel is a first baseman. He’s not going to steal bases. He’s not going to go first-to-third half the time. And defensively, he’s just at first.
“But he can hit.”
What the Angels will encounter when they roll into Detroit for the weekend is a Tiger who still hasn’t fully come out of his winter catnap. Cabrera is hitting just .250/.294/.396 with one homer and six RBI through the season’s first 12 games.
No small part of that is because the Tigers’ early-season games in Detroit have been played mostly in cold weather, while their five road games have been in Dodger Stadium and San Diego’s Petco Park. None of the above is conducive to hitters.
Plus, Cabrera is coming off sports hernia surgery in October, and there is the question whether that is contributing to his slow start.
What the Tigers will encounter when Trout arrives is a wunderkind who still hasn’t slowed down since his sensational breakout at age 20 in 2012.
Trout is hitting .323/.380/.646 with five homers and 11 RBI through his first 15 games. He leads the AL with 42 total bases, is tied with Toronto’s Jose Bautista for the AL lead with five homers and ranks fourth in slugging percentage.
The LeBron-Durant comparison—or any heavyweight comparison, really—is a stretch in this game simply because you cannot draw up which players will dominate on any given night.
The Tigers cannot design a play for Cabrera any more than the Angels can direct the ball Trout’s way with the game on the line in the ninth inning (though Oakland did a nice job with that in kicking away Wednesday’s 12-inning game to the Angels with a couple of defensive misplays in the eighth that brought Trout to the plate in the ninth).
Yet these two have captured the imaginations of fans across the baseball landscape and when they meet, it is impossible not to be drawn into watching their game within the game.
Yes, it’s become even too much for the two of them to ignore.
“You have to be excited when you play against Mike Trout,” Cabrera, who turned 31 on Friday, said. “When he’s on the field, he’s going to do something special.
“Whether you’re from Anaheim or you’re from another country, you have to enjoy watching him.”
Similar view from the Angels dugout going the other way.
“It’s fun just in general to be on the same field with Miguel,” Trout, 22, said. “It’s fun to watch him and playing against him.
“From center field, I get to see a lot of different things. His approach and what he’s doing up there. For our pitchers, it’s definitely a challenge to face a guy like him. The whole lineup is pretty good. It’s fun playing with each other. We have fun.”
When he was in Anaheim with Trout in 2011 and 2012, not only did Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove winner, gracefully vacate center field and move to right for the kid, he gladly took him under his wing.
In Detroit beginning last summer, Hunter has gotten an up-close-and-personal view of Cabrera daily.
He raves about Trout both as a player and as a teammate to Cabrera, and he does the same about Cabrera to Trout.
As they’ve gotten to know each other a little bit, Trout sees what his ex-teammate is talking about.
“Yeah, definitely,” Trout said. “He’s a great guy. I hear nothing but great things about him from a lot of people. Torii says nothing but good things about him.
“It’s just good to have (the rivalry) in the game. It brings the excitement level up for the fans, for everything.”
Especially when they get together for a weekend like this with the open landscape of another season just ahead and spring fever in full bloom.
“I would have to say good hitters and a five-tool player, a guy you really want on your ballclub, vs. a guy who just mashes and is one of the best hitters ever to play this game,” Hunter says.
“So, hitter. Player. Totally different.”
In some ways, sure, Trout-Cabrera carries much of the same heavyweight impact and marquee stature as LeBron-Durant. Yet, comparing one rivalry to the other in so many other ways is like comparing something as subtle as a sacrifice fly to something as gaudy as a slam dunk.
Yet it is part of what keeps us riveted.
Well, that and the prospect of Trout following through with his teasing of Cabrera and dumping a bunt Miggy’s way.
“Now he’s playing first, so I’ll have to push some bunts over there,” Trout said, chuckling. “It’s just, in the moment, he’s a guy you can talk to. And it’s pretty cool.”
Absolutely, positively cool. Way cool.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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