02/13/09 6:15 PM EST
Cabrera more at ease this spring
Expectations not weighing on early arriving Tigers slugger
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Soon after Cabrera arrived, he walked into Jim Leyland's office and gave his manager a big hug. He settled in front of his locker, smiling widely, and said hello to most of the players in the clubhouse. He joked around with Curtis Granderson, chatted with fellow Venezuelan Juan Rincon, and generally seemed like someone at home.
Then came hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who stood in front of his slugger with the look of someone ready to go to work. McClendon didn't need to say a word before Cabrera told him he was ready to go.
After a 2008 season in which Cabrera struggled initially with expectations before he ended up exceeding many of them, this is where he belongs. And if there's any pressure of meeting the lofty standards he set last year, or what he could do to top them, they don't seem to be weighing on his mind.
"I feel more comfortable," Cabrera said. "It's not like last year, when you're coming in and seeing new friends. Already, you have your friends here, so now you worry about working, being part of the team and trying to do what we can do to make this season the best."
A year ago around this time, Cabrera arrived in camp with a huge amount of attention, but a small level of comfort. He knew his Florida Marlins teammate Dontrelle Willis and fellow Venezuelan stars Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, but few others. He was keenly aware, however, of what the Tigers gave up to Florida to get him, and the expectations they carried now that they had him. The American League, too, was new territory for him.
He took those expectations personally when the Tigers struggled. After a miserable first couple weeks -- 7-for-40, one home run, two RBIs -- he had a .276 average, eight home runs and 31 RBIs through the opening two months.
Cabrera went into the All-Star break with a .284 average, 16 homers and 57 RBIs in 92 games. He closed out with a .302 average, 21 homers, 70 RBIs and a .951 OPS over his final 68 games. After four straight years of consistent RBI totals, three seasons with at least 33 homers and three straight .300 seasons in Florida, Cabrera set personal bests in home runs (37) and RBIs (127) despite a .292 average and .537 slugging percentage.
No longer eased into the Detroit's order, he enters 2009 as the expected cleanup hitter between Ordonez and Guillen. And even if Cabrera isn't the most recognizable face on the franchise, he draws no question as its most dangerous bat.
With some of his feats last year, he already ranks among the best players Leyland has managed.
"I mean, this guy's a force," Leyland said. "I've really never seen anything like him, to be honest with you. I've never seen anybody, in all my years of baseball, hit balls out of the ballpark to the opposite field like he does. I've never seen that. He's a real treat."
Indeed, a look at Cabrera's home run chart at Comerica Park last year shows almost as many balls hit out to right field as to left, with a couple gone out deep to center. Two of his five home runs at Cleveland's Progressive Field went to right or right-center.
"This kid's one of the best young offensive players I've ever seen, without question," Leyland continued. "He can do things that are amazing. I think he sometimes plays around with you, you know.
"He's got a great face. I think he's one of the most distinctive players we have. He's got a great feel for the game. He's legitimately something real special, there's no question about it."
History suggests Cabrera should be able to do it again, based in part on his raw ability, age, and already-established consistency over the years. The support in the lineup that helped result in fewer walks -- just six intentional passes after 50 over the previous two seasons -- and more strikes to hit is still there, and arguably could be better if Guillen and Gary Sheffield remain healthy.
Then there's the comfort factor -- not just with the Tigers, but the league. Cabrera now has a working knowledge of many AL pitchers after coming over from the National League. And as it turned out, there was relatively little turnover among the rotations of the AL Central.
"I have my own experience," he said. "Now I know how they're going to pitch me. I have a better idea how they're going to work me, how they pitch in different situations."
The better the Tigers play, the more clutch situations Cabrera could find himself hitting. Still, just six of Cabrera's home runs last year came with a lead or deficit of more than four runs. Twenty-seven, on the other hand, were in games two runs or closer.
The one intriguing factor could be his offseason work. Instead of playing winter ball in Venezuela, as he had every previous season for the perennial league champion Tigres de Aragua, Cabrera spent the last few months working out with his neighbor Guillen near their hometown of Maracay.
The winter at-bats were done as soon as Cabrera signed his long-term contract last spring. He called it a very different offseason because of it but emphasized the positive side. Cabrera will get pressure at-bats before the season starts thanks to the World Baseball Classic.
"I feel like there's more energy right now," Cabrera said. "I'm ready to go."
His adjustment to the cold weather, an admitted factor last year in his transition from Florida, is a concern that Leyland plans to raise with the whole team. This season's April schedule, however, has the Tigers playing just six home games in the first three weeks. Their 13 road games will be mostly out of cold climates -- four games indoors at Toronto to open the season, two three-game series at chilly Seattle and Angel Stadium, then three at Kansas City.
Individually, the factors seem to be in his favor. If the Tigers can get off to a strong start as a team, the success could go hand in hand.
"All I can do is try to do my best and try to win games," Cabrera said. "That's what we have to do. Everybody has to do what everybody can do: stick together, play like a team, try to win games."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.