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Miguel Cabrera: Está En La Sangre
by Will Kimmey
ZEBULON, N.C.--Está en la sangre.
That's what Miguel Cabrera says about playing shortstop: It's in the blood.
Playing shortstop is a dream for many young athletes growing up in Venezuela. They idolize Dave Concepcion, a native son who spent 19 seasons with the Reds. Unlike so many of his friends, Cabrera enjoyed certain advantages that helped his quest to fulfil that dream. His mother, Gregoria, played 10 seasons as the shortstop on the Venezuelan national softball team. His father, Miguel, spent countless hours hitting Cabrera grounders and throwing him batting practice. At just 16, Cabrera already had the athletic physique that would grow into his current 6-foot-2, 180-pound stature. And the Marlins handed him a Venezuelan record $1.9 million signing bonus at the age of 16 in July 1999.
Cabrera was certainly meeting expectations with his bat. The 20-year-old was hitting .365-10-59 for Double-A Carolina and ranked among the top five in the minors in six offensive categories. Cabrera carried a .400 average in early May, topped his career high of nine home runs in mid-June and was set to start in the All-Star Futures Game in July, but a promotion to the majors last Thursday derailed those plans. Not that Cabrera minded missing the Futures Game to head to the majors. It's what he always dreamed of. Except for not getting to play shortstop there like Concepcion did.
"I'm not a shortstop anymore," Cabrera says, the dejection apparent in his voice. "I wish I could keep playing shortstop. It's a privilege for me to play shortstop like my mother did."
The Marlins moved Cabrera from short to third base before the 2002 season as he had out-grown the position. He still possesses the soft hands, quick first step and rifle arm at the hot corner, where he feels more comfortable by the day. The lateral quickness Cabrera gained in the middle infield allows him to range far to his left or right and still gun down runners like a Gold Glover, though he also boots routine plays and sails throws a little too often. Those corrections will come with experience, and Cabrera even says third base is already starting to feel natural to him.
"He's major league ready," Marlins farm director Marc DelPiano says. "He could start for a lot of clubs right now. We just have an all-star at third in Mike Lowell."
Talk of trading Lowell, whose contract runs through 2004, began in spring training and has hovered over the organization all season, accelerating as news of Cabrera's dominating Double-A debut filtered down the coast. But Lowell, one of the few veterans on the club and a leader in the clubhouse, was enjoying a career year, and the Marlins didn't want to simply give him away. So Cabrera began shagging flies in the outfield during batting practice. After three starts in left for the Mudcats, the Marlins summoned Cabrera to Miami, where he became just the third player since 1900 to stroke a walk-off home run in his first major league game.
"It's not a permanent move to left field," Marlins assistant general manager Jim Fleming said. "We're just making sure Miguel can play two to three different spots. We want to use Miguel Cabrera with Mike Lowell and (first baseman) Derek Lee, so we're covering all our bases so he doesn't come to the big leagues and get his first outfield experience there.
"Miguel Cabrera will be a third baseman in the future."
As Cabrera gains positional versatility to go with his booming bat, it might only further a lofty comparison tossed his way by some scouts. Cabrera's offensive prowess at such a young age recall Albert Pujols, who earned rookie of the year honors two seasons ago at age 21 when shuttling between third, first and the outfield.
"Pujols?" another scout says," I would buy that. Cabrera has a 7 arm (on the 2-to-8 scale) and a very fast bat. I see him more like a .315 hitter with 25-35 homers and 110 RBIs. A star for sure. He still makes immature mistakes with the bat, but will also have some poise at-bats as well. He's a very good prospect, but Pujols is in another class."
Cabrera doesn't yet display Pujolsian power, but he did rip 43 doubles for Class A Jupiter last season. Player-development personnel will tell you power is often the last tool to come, as doubles gain steam and jump over outfield walls.
"Last year in the Florida State League with those big parks, he didn't try to hit a lot of balls out of the park," Fleming says. "He has an advanced batting approach that you don't see in many 20-year-olds. Sometimes guys that talented tend to rely on talent alone and not refine it. He works everyday. That's what allows him to move so fast (through the minor leagues), he's not reliant on talent alone."
Cabrera has continued to make adjustments during his second trip through the league. He doesn't have any holes in his swing, and handles breaking pitches well.
"He's well advanced for 20 years old," Marlins Dan Jennings says. "He understands his swing and covers the plate well for someone his age. Watch the hands. Hands will tell you about pitch recognition. And he usually doesn't get fooled on pitches."
Cabrera also has learned to recognize and take pitches out of the strike zone. Like many Latin players, Cabrera takes an aggressive approach to the plate, and he had never compiled 40 walks in a season. But he has patiently accepted his walks this season, occasionally venturing after balls out of the zone late in the game or in RBI situations. He accumulated 31 walks in 266 at-bats for Carolina. Seven were intentional and at least a dozen more of the unintentional, but intentional variety. Seems some Southern League pitchers have heeded the advice of Cabrera's teammate, Dontrelle Willis, and given him the Barry Bonds treatment.
"I haven't faced him, and I don't want to," Willis said of Cabrera. "Majority of the time, I throw away from guys like that. And he hits the ball out to right, so I might have to walk him or hit him or something. He's one of those marquee guys."
Carolina shortstop Josh Wilson agrees. He has played alongside Cabrera his entire career and predicts great things in his teammate's future.
"That's kid's the best player I've ever seen in my career in baseball," Wilson says. "Defensively, offensively, his makeup, it's all unbelievable."
It's in his blood.