Cabrera looks to turn the page on '23 with strong mindset

February 28th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- Marlins right-hander is ready to move forward. He has no interest in looking back on his forgettable 2023 season.

With Miami in the postseason hunt, the club could ill afford to send Cabrera to the mound, only for him to be pulled early because of command trouble. So the Marlins optioned him to Triple-A Jacksonville on Aug. 1. At the time, he held the second-highest BB/9 rate (6.08) in the Majors (min. 60 innings).

“We're here, back again, with a positive attitude,” Cabrera said via interpreter Luis Dorante Jr. “Working hard, and that's always trying to do as I do to stay healthy all the time. I try not to think much of all the ups and downs. It's a new year, so start from scratch and stay positive.”

Cabrera, who turns 26 on April 13, struck out two across two scoreless innings against the Astros in Miami's 6-1 loss on Wednesday afternoon at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. More importantly, he pounded the zone, throwing 20 of his 31 pitches for strikes.

The Cabrera in his spring debut looked more like the Cabrera who returned to the Majors on Sept. 6 out of the bullpen, when he struck out eight and walked just two over four scoreless innings in an 11-4 victory over the Dodgers. His next time out, the command issues resurfaced, as he walked six in 4 2/3 innings. Over his final three outings -- all starts -- Cabrera posted a 2.75 ERA with 12 strikeouts and six walks in 14 innings.

The organization’s message to Cabrera before he went home to the Dominican Republic for the offseason was simple: focus on control. There could be three available rotation spots behind Jesús Luzardo and Eury Pérez with Braxton Garrett (general left shoulder soreness) behind schedule and Opening Day looking less likely, so now is the time for Cabrera to seize the opportunity.

“I think building off of that,” manager Skip Schumaker said. “The communication in the offseason, letting him know that his stuff again is as good as anybody's and all four pitches that he has are as good as anybody's. I think he kind of thought about that in the offseason and had time to take a deep breath and relax and understand where he's at and how his stuff really plays.

“He can literally out-talent a lot of hitters just on stuff. Nobody has a 93 mph changeup. That's not out there. His bullpens have looked good, he came in really good shape, ready to go. A good [Cabrera] really lengthens out that rotation, but there's a battle in that rotation, and he's one of them.”

There’s a lot to like about Cabrera when analyzing his metrics on Baseball Savant, but the lack of command has held him back. His offspeed run value ranked in the 95th percentile in MLB, while his xBA (93rd percentile), xERA (3.77 better than his 4.24 ERA) and ground-ball rate (91st percentile) were up there.

Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. has noticed a different Cabrera so far this spring. He and the mental strength staff make a point to support him and observe how he reacts in situations. What they’ve seen is growth.

“I think a lot of that stems from probably the mental side of getting over hurdles and humps that guys do in time,” Stottlemyre said. “He hasn't yet. We keep beating it into him how nasty he is and how good he can be. When he puts together the things that he does, it's top-of-the-rotation stuff. And we keep telling him that. And I backed off it a little bit because, sometimes, that brings more pressure, right? He's trying to get through that part.

“I think he believes it, but he has yet to go, ‘OK, I believe it, and I'm going to go throw strikes now.’ At what point do things click for them and they overcome that? This game is not easy, and the mental side is there. It's real. … He looks like to this point that he's grown up a little bit and that he's shown some signs from [a] bullpen standpoint that maybe he's overcome a few things.

"I will tell you this about him: his work is really good. He throws strikes in bullpens. His misses are good. He does all the right things. He checks the boxes off from a pitching coach standpoint where the delivery and everything's repeatable, and that you go, ‘OK, he's on the right track there.’ But we've got to overcome some of the things that happens between the white lines. And so we're still working through that with him.”