O's Cabrera conditioned to have big second year

Pitcher adds 20 pounds of muscle trying to fend off sophomore jinx

Baseball

April 06, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Asked about his improved conditioning after a spring training start in Vero Beach, Fla., Orioles pitcher Daniel Cabrera broke through the language barrier without saying a word.

Cabrera lifted up his shirt to reveal a flat stomach that looked as hard as one of the bats he sawed off with his blazing fastball. He put on 20 pounds over the winter, but they must have gone straight to muscle.

"The food is a lot better than it was last year," he said, grinning.

Cabrera is hungry this season, and not just for the post-game spread. He's determined to prove that a successful jump from Double-A to the majors in 2004 wasn't a fluke, that he'll make another safe landing as the No. 2 starter.

"As well as he did last year," manager Lee Mazzilli said, "it seems like he wants more."

The first chance comes tonight against the Oakland Athletics, who scratched their scheduled starter, Rich Harden, because of a blister on his right middle finger. Kirk Saarloos traveled to Baltimore yesterday as Harden's replacement.

Cabrera went 12-8 as a rookie, and if he's going to be hit with a sophomore jinx, it'll have to start after the exhibition games. He posted a 1.64 ERA this spring, and rival executives and scouts raved about his stuff -- and his potential to become a No. 1 starter, a rare species these days.

A scout who tracked 14 teams this spring said the two best pitchers he observed were Cabrera and Florida's A.J. Burnett.

"What I saw from Cabrera blew me away," he said. "He was throwing 94 to 96 [mph] with good sink, and he does it so easily. He's totally effortless. He throws on a downward plain. He has great tilt."

The scout noted how Cabrera's changeup and curveball, below average last year, are beginning to show more promise. When he got behind in the count last year, he didn't have a second pitch to rely upon. He had to keep pumping fastballs, and hitters eventually catch up.

"He's starting to work ahead in the count more, too," the scout said. "And he has so much confidence. He had a presence on the mound. He's really matured.

"His stuff is electric. He has a good feel for pitching. I see improvements, and that shows aptitude, the ability to make adjustments, which you need to do.

"Anybody would die to have him. He's very special. The Orioles would never trade him. If they did, they would be crazy."

Cabrera's teammates don't consider his No. 2 status in the rotation as being a reach. They're unfazed by his responsibilities, just like the pitcher himself.

"From Day One in spring training, you could tell that he came prepared, physically and mentally," catcher Javy Lopez said. "He's the type of guy that the whole team has confidence in. We all know he's going to do very well."

The extra weight has made Cabrera much stronger on the mound, where his fastball topped out at 97 mph against Grapefruit League competition. His mechanics were sound, his mind focused.

"He's one of the kids that I felt was different from last year to spring training," Mazzilli said. "In that short period of time over the winter, the kid put on weight; he filled out.

"Coming into spring training, he seemed different. He seemed hungry. And as well as he did last year, it seems like he wants more."

Cabrera, 23, isn't timid about challenging hitters. At 6 feet 7 and 251 pounds, it takes a lot to frighten him.

"Everything he throws, he throws over the plate," pitching coach Ray Miller said. "He conditions himself great. He's a very smart kid and very confident, and he doesn't get scared. All those things are big pluses."

Said Cabrera: "I have confidence all the time. I'm just happy to be here today and I'll try to do the best I can."

The Orioles figure that should be enough.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Oakland Athletics

Site, time: Camden Yards, 7:05

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Athletics' Kirk Saarloos (6-5, 4.44 in 2004) vs. Orioles' Daniel Cabrera (12-8, 5.00)

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