Cabrera wasting no time dazzling in bigs
Rookie shortstop drawing praise of teammates, opponents
SAN DIEGO -- It was in August, after a walk-off victory by the Padres over the Mets, when a handful of Latino players huddled in one corner of the Padres' clubhouse and began to giggle uncontrollably.
The source of the amusement, 22-year-old shortstop Everth Cabrera, was standing near his locker, his undershirt soaked with sweat from a postgame workout, looking almost desperate as reporters closed in on him, encircling him.
Cabrera, whose English has actually improved at nearly the pace his game has since he first reported to Spring Training in February, flashed nervous smiles at the cameramen and reporters, who quickly descended on him.
It was about that time when Padres manager Bud Black wandered by, saw Cabrera and recognized his plight, the spotlight, deservedly on this night, pointed at him. Black raised his hands from his sides and uttered two words.
"Que pasa?" Black said, grinning ear to ear.
What's up? Isn't that obvious by now to anyone who has watched Cabrera range far to his left for a ball in the hole or seen the way he glides around the bases or how quickly he has become more proficient with the bat?
What's up? In a season where the Padres have essentially turned the keys over to their young players -- players like Kyle Blanks, Will Venable and pitcher Mat Latos -- it's been clear that the energized play of another rookie, Cabrera, has made people stand up and take notice.
"Every general manager is asking me how we got that shortstop," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "Middle infielders who can run and play defense like Everth are, well, those guys are hard to find. Yes, he has exceeded our expectations."
Cabrera, a Rule 5 Draft addition from the Colorado Rockies, is hitting .263 with 23 steals in his first taste of the Major Leagues. He's probably stolen more runs than he's driven in (28), adding to his worth, especially at a premium position.
|"Middle infielders who can run and play defense like Everth are, well, those guys are hard to find. Yes, he has exceeded our expectations."|
|-- Padres general manager Kevin Towers|
That scene that took place in the Padres' clubhouse, where everyone wanted to talk with Cabrera, followed what might have been the highlight and maybe the most breathtaking moment of the season.
Cabrera stepped to the plate in a tie game, with the bases loaded in the ninth inning on Aug. 7 against the Mets, with the unenviable task of facing All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez. Cabrera worked the count, fouled off a few pitches and then laid off some close pitches, remembering an April at-bat when Rodriguez made him "look bad" on a changeup.
He wasn't going to let that happen this time, though.
So when Rodriguez fired a fastball down in the strike zone -- on a full-count pitch, no less -- Cabrera went down and drove the ball over the wall in right field for a walk-off grand slam, giving the Padres a 6-2 victory in a game they trailed, 2-1, entering the inning.
"I have been on base before with him [Cabrera] in that situation. ... The confidence he has and everyone has in him shows up," Venable said. "Here he is, facing K-Rod [Rodriguez] in a huge situation, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to do what he needed to get it done."
No, Venable isn't talking about some veteran of 10-plus Major League seasons or even a player like, say, teammate Adrian Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star who has had plenty of big hits and even bigger home runs during his four seasons in San Diego.
Venable was talking about Cabrera, the boyish-faced rookie who hadn't even had a sniff of the Major Leagues before this season. He was talking about a player who won't turn 23 until November and one who, by all rights, should have spent the entire season playing in the Minor Leagues this season.
"You hate to put labels on guys, but he has the chance to be someone very special," said veteran second baseman David Eckstein of Cabrera. "I think the biggest thing about him every day is that he comes to the yard and works hard. There is a true innocence of going out there and trying to get better."
One of the reasons the 34-year-old Eckstein balked at a chance to be traded on July 31 to the Minnesota Twins was because he wanted to be a part of the rebuilding process here in San Diego and, maybe a little selfishly, wanted to keep playing next to Cabrera.
You might be wondering where Cabrera came from. It's a fair question. The Nicaraguan wasn't coddled and developed in the Padres' Minor League system, nor was he either a centerpiece or a throw-in from some trade Towers made with hopes of improving a team that lost 99 games a year ago.
|"You hate to put labels on guys, but he has the chance to be someone very special."|
|-- David Eckstein|
This is not uncommon in baseball and is actually an envious position for a franchise -- having too much talent, having to make tough decisions on players. This happened to Towers in 2006 when he didn't protect pitcher Joakim Soria, who the Royals selected during the Rule 5 Draft. Soria went on to become an All-Star closer in Kansas City.
Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd almost sounded heartbroken after the Draft in Las Vegas after losing Cabrera, his gamble of hoping no one selected Cabrera having gone awry.
"[Losing] Cabrera hurts. He's a good, young player," O'Dowd said. "You can't protect everybody."
Credit the Padres for recognizing the talent Cabrera potentially had, but in fairness, the credit goes to the Rockies, who signed Cabrera, a native of Nicaragua. It was Rockies scout Rolando Fernandez, Colorado's director of Latin America operations, who found him and saw his raw talent.
"We saw the tools," said Marc Gustafson, the Rockies' farm director. "With any young Latin player, you have to be patient. He's a kid from Nicaragua and he's not as traditional as what our scouts have found [in Latin America]. But Everth was a very hard worker.
"We're very proud of him and what he's been able to accomplish. There's always a smile on his face. He's what baseball needs."
The Padres, devoid of any middle-infield talent at the top tiers of their farm system, saw the glove Cabrera had, the instincts and his raw speed. He stole, in fact, 73 bases in 2008 while playing for Asheville in the South Atlantic League, the tops among all professional baseball players.
Picking Cabrera in the Rule 5 Draft was the easy part for Towers. The tough part was the wait to see if he would be good enough to stay on the 25-man Major League roster for the entire season or get bumped and have to be offered back to Colorado.
But it became evident early in Spring Training that Cabrera would be more than merely the 25th man on a 25-man roster or someone Black would use sparingly -- say, as a pinch-runner or a defensive replacement, stealing at-bats in lopsided games.
"I saw him each day getting better. I saw a young guy first come into camp ... an A-ball player with the speed, range and a very good arm. It was just a question of his experience and trying to get him to play more," said third-base coach Glenn Hoffman, who works with the Padres' infielders.
"Every day, he got a little more and more comfortable. He wanted to learn. He's a hard worker. That's going to take him a long ways."
Cabrera wasn't the Opening Day starter at shortstop. Luis Rodriguez was, though Cabrera got a handful of starts in the first 10 days of the season -- he was hitting .308 in 13 at-bats with no errors -- before breaking the hamate bone in his left hand fouling off a pitch against the Phillies on April 19.
After a rehabilitation stint with Triple-A Portland, Cabrera returned to the Padres on June 19 and hasn't left the starting lineup since.
Cabrera's batting average, as is the case with most young players, has fluctuated, though his defense has been steady and he had 23 stolen bases in his first 86 games, giving the Padres a jackrabbit on the bases who can change a game with his legs.
"I like what I see. He plays with a lot of energy," Towers said. "He has got some speed, which is something we haven't had for a long time. He can take a base, an extra base, looks like he has some good instincts.
"We knew that the bat would take some time to come. He takes good swings and doesn't swing at bad pitches. But he's more of a physical player than I thought. He's got some strength. He kind of reminds me of a young Quilvio Veras."
Veras averaged 29 steals over three seasons with the Padres from 1997-99 and hit .270 in that span. There are some who think that Cabrera might eventually hit with a little more pop, and that he looks more like a young Rafael Furcal at this point of his career.
"The best basestealers are the ones who have no fear. They want to steal, and so does that young boy," Black said. "That's what we love about the kid, isn't it? He has got the green light, even though there are times when he's not going to run. He's got to learn that, 'I can't go here.' But in the course of his game, he's on his own."
About the only place where Cabrera isn't on his own is in San Diego, where his mother, Xiomara Membreno, is staying with him, cooking for him and looking after her son. She doesn't go to a lot of games -- "she don't like too much baseball," Cabrera said -- though she has befriended others from Nicaragua to keep her busy when Cabrera is away and especially on road trips.
He's enjoying his first Major League season, but will be the first to tell you the learning curve has been a steep one. He realizes where he was a year ago at this time and knows that he is in a good place now, a better place with an even brighter future.
"It's good, I like it, this team, the Padres organization, the coaches are good," Cabrera said, looking around the Padres' clubhouse, flashing an infectious smile. "Everything is good."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.