Just 21, Florida's Miguel Cabrera is getting better with every at bat
In the hushed visitors clubhouse at Turner Field two hours before last Friday's game in Atlanta, some of the Marlins slouched on leather couches flipping through magazines while others sat hunched on folding chairs with headphones on. Alone in a corner of the room was rightfielder Miguel Cabrera, sitting upright like an attentive student, his eyes fixed on a 12-inch-square video monitor that showed a tape of Braves pitchers. "Miguel's constantly absorbing information—watching tapes, asking questions, paying close attention in the dugout," says centerfielder Juan Pierre. "It may not seem like it, but the kid still has a lot to learn."
Indeed, the education of Cabrera, who on Sunday named 21 and played in his 99th major league regular-season game, has just begun. Last June he was wearing the uniform of the Double A Carolina Mudcats; four months later he was playing out-field for Florida, homering four times in the Marlins' postseason run to the World Series tide. This season Cabrera has shown no hint of a sophomore slump. Through Sunday he was batting .333 with six homers and a robust .756 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, Florida, 8-4 at week's end, was in sole possession of first place in the National League East.
Cabrera, a righthanded hitter who bats in the No. 3 spot, is naturally gifted. He effortlessly played third base, leftfield and rightfield for the Marlins last season, and his bat speed is so quick that upon contact there is a loud crack so distinct that teammates and coaches know immediately it is Cabrera in the batting cage. In the six months since Florida became world champion, Cabrera has matured into much more than just the raw talent he was last season, when he hit .268 with 12 homers in 87 regular-season games. "From the first day of spring training, you could see that he was a different man," says shortstop Alex Gonzalez. "Physically, stronger. Mentally, more confident."
Cabrera spent the off-season at home in Maracay, Venezuela, where he played winter league ball and spent three days a week working out at a gym. At 6'2" he kept his weight at 205 pounds but built up considerable muscle mass. "I'm still adjusting, and getting more at bats is the best way for me to get better," says Cabrera.
One aspect of Cabrera's hitting that Florida batting coach Bill Robinson has worked on is swinging with power to the opposite field. Last season, Robinson says, Cabrera had a tendency to shorten his swing on pitches on the outside portion of the plate, causing him to reach and slap the ball. Robinson wants to see aggressive cuts on those outside strikes. "Sometimes when he's in the batting cage, I'll tell him to let loose and crank it as hard as he can [on outside pitches]," says Robinson. "And he'll just start hitting balls out."
"We haven't found a weakness with him yet," says Expos manager Frank Robinson, who watched Cabrera hit three home runs during the Marlins' three-game sweep of Montreal last week. "There are ways of getting him out, but if you do it too often, he'll [adjust and] burn you."
Though stoic on the field, Cabrera is a fierce competitor (before every game he writes sangre, Spanish for "blood," on the tape he wraps around his wrists), has a big sense of humor (he says he's watched Old School about 15 times) and is still a kid at heart. "I'm taking my time here," he says. "I feel much more confident, and every day I feel like I'm getting better."
Oakland's Jermaine Dye
Swinging a Hot Bat, at Last
Before the 2002 season right-fielder Jermaine Dye signed a three-year, $32 million contract with the Athletics, which was then the largest in franchise history. But in the first two years he hit a combined .227 with 28 home runs in 196 games. Due to make $11.7 million this season, which is nearly 20% of Oakland's $59.4 million payroll, the 30-year-old rightfielder is finally playing like he deserved that rich contract.