One of the reasons the San Diego Padres have struggled in recent years is because the team hasn’t been very strong up the middle. When longtime General Manager Kevin Towers was phased out in San Diego on October 3, 2009, he left the minor-league pantry bare in terms of middle-infield prospects. Two aging veterans, Miguel Tejada and David Eckstein, and a 22-year-old rookie were asked to plug the holes in 2010. It was a short-term fix that worked, and the Padres nearly made the postseason.
That winter, however, new GM Jed Hoyer pushed the panic button and traded for journeyman shortstop Jason Bartlett. Then, just three days later, Hoyer signed free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson. The pair were awarded bloated, two-year deals, and their lack of production was an embarrassment to the organization. Still in the mix, though, was that aforementioned kid, a fleet-footed shortstop from Nicaragua named Everth Cabrera.
Everth Cabrera was drafted by the Padres from the Colorado Rockies in the 2008 Rule 5 draft, ironically, by Towers, and he turned out to be a keeper. Now, after a roller-coaster four years, Everth Cabrera has finally turned the corner and rewarded the Padres front office for their extraordinary patience.
After a traditionally slow start, the Padres are starting to catch fire, and Cabrera frequently lights the match. The 5′-10″, 195-pound switch-hitter, now 26, is leading the National League in stolen bases again after winning that crown in 2012. His theft accomplishments last season were punctuated by a steal of home, a la Benny Rodriguez in the movie, “Sandlot”, to start the winning rally against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. The difference this year is Cabrera has had much better at-bats, working the count and compiling the best numbers of his career. Sharing the lead-off duties with outfielder Chris Denorfia, Everth Cabrera also has more walks than any other Padre, enabling him to create havoc on the base paths.
“Cabby has established himself around the league as a threat,” testifies Dave Roberts, San Diego’s first base coach, who was a daring base runner himself. “The league understands that.”
Cabrera also has made big strides defensively. It’s not that he didn’t get the job done in 2012, when he finally won the shortstop job after Bartlett was injured and later released. Now, he’s just more dependable. San Diego’s Gold Glove third baseman, Chase Headley explains: “When it comes to making the spectacular play, Cabby is as good as any shortstop in baseball. He just needed to work on the routine stuff.”
Part of the problem last season was the Padres had a revolving door at second base. Hudson, Logan Forsythe, Alexi Amarista, Andy Parrino and others saw time there, making it difficult for Cabrera to smooth out his skills with a regular partner. Rookie Jedd Gyorko, who won the second-base gig out of spring camp, has solved that crisis. And the way the pair have performed has been poetry in motion. Cabrera’s quick feet and cannon arm make him particularly adept at moving to his left, snaring balls in the hole, and then executing an uncanny spin and throw maneuver to complete the play. Ozzie Smith has the patent, but Cabrera does a damn good imitation.
“The first time I saw Cabby make the spin throw, my reaction was ‘duck’,” says Gyorko, a serious athlete in a rare display of laughter. “It looks like he’s not looking, but he’s locked in. I like watching it.”
As a Rule 5 gamble, Everth Cabrera performed beyond expectations. In 103 games, he had a slash line of .255/.342/.361 with eight triples and 25 steals, even though he had a long stint on the DL with a broken hamate bone. But Everth suffered another hand injury and reoccurring hamstring issues over the 2010 and 2011 campaigns that hampered his further development. And that disappointment, together with the Bartlett-Hudson disaster, caused many local fans to become frustrated and vocal.
A lot of Central American players tend to take later to develop due to the varied skill levels in their respective countries. With a solid 2012 season under his belt and in the midst of a breakout season, Everth Cabrera is just happy he finally has achieved stability. Some experts, though, feel his numbers are worthy of All-Star consideration. And they could have a point. According to ESPN MLB Player (WAR) ratings, Cabrera is listed as the top reserve player at shortstop in the National League. And on a Padres team consisting of few players with eye-popping statistics, save ROY candidate Gyorko, he has an outside shot to play in the midseason classic.
Cabrera’s success has also meant more money. After four seasons of making major-league minimum scale, Everth was arbitration-eligible for the first time this year, and avoided the process by settling for a $1.3 million, one-year deal. The way things are going, that figure will be substantially higher in 2014.
“I’m just trying to relax and have fun out there,” reasoned Cabrera on his recent accomplishments. “I still play hard and work hard. But I feel like I don’t have to prove myself anymore, and that makes a big difference.”
Padres manager Buddy Black, agrees that his player has finally matured.
“Cabby has a calm focus now,” notes Black. “There’s a rhythm to his game, every game. I’m very proud of him.”
It will be interesting to see if the breaking news story implicating Everth Cabrera in the Biogenesis scandal will be a distraction as the story unfolds. Stay tuned.