BOSTON - Four years and about four months after Daniel Cabrera made his major league debut, the Orioles say publicly that they still don't know what they have in the 27-year-old pitcher.
"To this point, he's performed well by and large in the first half, and not well in the second half," Orioles president Andy MacPhail said. "The first 10 starts, he had eight quality starts. Since that time, he has five quality starts in 18 outings. We're trying to figure out which is the real Daniel Cabrera."
The Orioles are running out of time. Cabrera, who was skipped once in the rotation to rest an ailing elbow before serving a six-game suspension for hitting the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, will start the second game of tomorrow's doubleheader against the Oakland Athletics at Camden Yards, his first start since Aug. 24.
Depending on how manager Dave Trembley lines up his rotation and how the pitcher holds up healthwise, Cabrera might get as many as four more starts after tomorrow before the season ends. And it's not a stretch to say that he could be pitching for his future with an organization that once had visions of the right-hander developing into a staff ace but has been discouraged by his maddening inconsistency.
"I think Daniel needs to take the next step," Trembley said. "The first five or six weeks of the season, we sure thought that was the direction he was headed. I thought he was going to break through and reach that potential that everybody's had for him, and I don't really have an answer for why it hasn't happened. I wish I did.
"For some people, things happen a lot later in life than they do for others. I think that's probably the one thing that we're all holding on to with him. But we'd all like to think it's going to get here fairly quick, and September would be a good month for him to go out on a high note."
A strong finish could make the Orioles' pending decision easier. In February, Cabrera and the Orioles avoided arbitration, agreeing to a one-year, $2.875 million deal. That constituted a raise of more than $1 million for a pitcher who lost 18 games.
The way the arbitration process works, Cabrera's salary will likely swell to between $4.5 million and $5 million for the 2009 season. As desperate as the Orioles figure to be for starting pitching this offseason, it would be a moderate surprise if MacPhail committed that kind of money to a pitcher with a career record of 48-57 and a 5.05 ERA. A trade or Cabrera's being nontendered appear to be far more likely.
"I think you'll factor in a lot of different things and you'll try to get more information," MacPhail said about the potential decision. "Those types of decisions are made in the context of what's going on in the rest of the game.
"We'll obviously hope that the remainder of his starts are closer to what he gave us in the first third of the year. Clearly, he had a great streak early in the year, but since that time, he's been unable to attain it. It's important for us to determine whether that streak is in him or not."
Cabrera said he thinks it is, attributing his recent struggles - he has an 8.02 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break - to injuries. He said his back started hurting during his outing against the Minnesota Twins in early June. He then started feeling pain in his pitching elbow while facing the Seattle Mariners in early August.
Cabrera said the injuries are the reason for his alarming drop in velocity as his fastball, which had been consistently in the mid-90s, was often being clocked in the high 80s in recent starts.
"I think it's no secret to anybody that has seen me that I've been pitching hurt," Cabrera said. "I was just trying to help the team. But I feel good again, and we'll see what happens. I have to go out there and try to come back strong. Every year you learn something, and I feel like this season I have learned a lot. My record right now is like 8-8 and my ERA [5.24] is way high, and I got almost the same walks as I did last year. But I feel I'm a better pitcher. I just got to keep going."
Cabrera's health is particularly concerning, considering his best trait as a pitcher is his ability to log innings and go deep in games. Through all his control problems and his occasional lapses of composure over the years, Cabrera did pitch more than 200 innings last season and takes immense pride in taking the ball every five days.
His durability has great value to the Orioles, who have struggled to keep their pitchers healthy. But if the Orioles are going to pay a pitcher nearly $5 million for a season, they would be looking for quality, not just quantity, from Cabrera, whose ERA has risen the previous three seasons. This year, he is just five walks away from leading the American League. He already leads the AL in hit batsmen and wild pitches.
"There comes a point where you got to win," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "We're not here only to develop. You need to win. Guys that eat innings are very, very important because it saves your bullpen. But at what expense? Not to lose a game. I don't mean that's what he's doing. But absolutely, you need to get quality innings. When you got a guy at the top of your rotation, you're looking for wins first."
Kranitz is the fourth pitching coach to work with Cabrera, after Mark Wiley, Ray Miller and Leo Mazzone. Mazzone said repeatedly that you never give up on a talent like Cabrera.
Kranitz acknowledges that it would be a tough thing to do, simply because Cabrera's talent, work ethic and desire to succeed have not been questioned. But everything else about Cabrera still is a mystery to the Orioles, and they're running out of time to solve it.
"I think that will definitely be a topic of discussion going into the offseason," Trembley said of Cabrera's status.