JUPITER, Fla. -- Daniel Cabrera has entered the Orioles' clubhouse on most mornings this spring and walked quietly to his locker, his face mostly expressionless, his eyes staring straight ahead.
It's not as if a 6-foot-9, 270-pound pitcher needs to announce his presence when he walks into the room. But the old Daniel Cabrera would greet teammates and reporters with playful refrains of "Good morning" and "Hi, guys." The new Daniel Cabrera does none of that. The Orioles are just hopeful his all-business attitude extends to the mound.
"He's more focused and serious," catcher Ramon Hernandez said. "I think he's tired of people saying, `You got great talent.' He wants to show people that he's going to win a lot of games. I think he is going to win a lot of games. I think this is going to be his year."
If that sounds familiar, it should. Preseason proclamations that this will be the year Cabrera transforms from an ultra-talented but untamed and underachieving thrower to a polished and precise pitcher and Cy Young contender have become an annual rite of spring at Orioles camp. But the Orioles again are vowing this year will be different.
They say Cabrera, 26, was humbled by an 18-loss 2007 season in which he became just the eighth pitcher in modern history to lead his league in walks, earned runs and losses in the same season. They say Cabrera's partnership with new pitching coach Rick Kranitz will result in his maintaining a consistent release point and using his changeup more.
They say Cabrera has matured and is now capable of handling and even overcoming bouts of frustration and failure that overwhelmed him last year. In one September game, Cabrera balked in a run from third base and then threw behind the head of Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, nearly inciting a bench-clearing brawl. Pedroia called Cabrera "an idiot" and manager Dave Trembley later lectured his player for being unprofessional.
"I know a lot of people won't believe it until they see it," Trembley said recently. "But he's been excellent with me. He's taking steps in the right direction. I think he's going to have a real solid season for us - not only pitch a lot of innings like he did last year, but I think he's going to win a lot of games."
His work in spring training has not quieted any of the skeptics. In fact, it has been vintage Cabrera, who has authored one sterling performance and two maddening ones but will still take a solid 3.52 ERA into his next outing.
In his first exhibition start against the Washington Nationals, Cabrera pitched three shutout innings, allowing two hits, walking none and getting seven of his nine outs via groundballs. In his next start against the Minnesota Twins, he managed to get just five outs, surrendering five runs (two earned) on four hits and two walks. He threw 40 pitches in the first inning alone.
Then in yesterday's 2-2 tie with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cabrera walked five in three innings, needed 72 pitches to record nine outs and went to three-ball counts with eight of the 15 hitters he faced.
"It is what it is," Cabrera said. "It's something that happened. If I knew [why], I'd try to fix it right away. It's part of the game. One day you'll be good, one day you'll be bad. You just try to keep working and hopefully one day you can put it all together."
That's about as revealing with reporters as Cabrera has been all spring. After yesterday's start, the pitcher gave a one-word answer to five straight questions but did show he hasn't lost his sense of humor. Asked if Kranitz has simplified things for him, Cabrera said: "Yeah, that's why I don't walk people."
Cabrera has vowed to focus more on his pitching this year. Perhaps that will help him ignore the ongoing debate in the game and among Orioles fans about whether the hulking right-hander will ever put it all together.
In four seasons with the Orioles, Cabrera is 40-49 with a 4.99 ERA. His ERA has risen each of the past three seasons and has never been better than the league average. He hasn't won more than 10 games since his rookie season in 2004.
Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus wrote recently that at this point of his career, "Daniel Cabrera might be the biggest waste of talent in baseball."
Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher and current broadcaster Jim Palmer, who has counseled and worked with Cabrera, said people have to keep things in perspective, pointing out the pitcher didn't even start playing baseball until an advanced age.
"Remember, this is a guy who didn't know how to play catch when he came here," Palmer said. "He's come a long way since then, but he's running out of time."
Fellow broadcaster and former Orioles player and coach Rick Dempsey also defended Cabrera.
"I think some of the veterans on this ballclub in the past have not had a good influence on him, to let him know what's really expected of him at the major league level," Dempsey said. "I think he learned a lot of lessons last year."
Though his predecessor Leo Mazzone lost his job partly because he couldn't get Cabrera turned around, Kranitz said he has enjoyed advising the pitcher, whose work ethic has never been questioned.
Cabrera has heeded his advice and is regularly throwing a changeup with positive results. He's using the two-seam fastball - which is like a power sinker - rather than relying solely on his straighter four-seamer, and he's worked extensively this spring on his defense and holding runners.
"You love to see the arm, the size, the work ethic, the determination," Kranitz said. "To me, that's a dream to have a kid like that. What more do you want? The guy is eager to learn, he's determined and he wants the ball. Shoot, you want everybody to be like that."
Sun columnist Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.