With spring training under a month away and Opening Day just over six weeks beyond that, it's time to start taking a closer look at the players that we will be hearing about. We have plenty of time until we need to re-introduce guys like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, but there are some others that might not be around as long. The Tigers invited 17 players not currently on the 40-man roster to spring training, and just about all of them are longshots to make the Opening Day roster.
This doesn't mean that they can't have a major impact in 2015, though. Drew VerHagen, Robbie Ray, Blaine Hardy, James McCann, Danny Worth, and Ezequiel Carrera were all non-roster invitees last year, but all played for the Tigers at some point during the season. Tyler Collins was also a non-roster invitee last year and he made the team after Andy Dirks was sidelined with an injury. There is an extra hurdle involved when a 40-man roster spot isn't guaranteed, but an impressive showing in spring training can earn a player a bigger role (and paycheck) during the season.
Over the next few weeks, we will be previewing the Tigers' non-roster invitees, breaking down their strengths and weaknesses, and diagnosing their chances of making the MLB roster. Today, our previews start with one of the more interesting players that will be in camp: right-handed pitcher Alberto Cabrera.
Where did he come from?
A native of the Dominican Republic, Cabrera signed with the Chicago Cubs as an amateur free agent in 2005. He had an impressive showing in the Dominican Summer League as a 17 year old in 2006, but struggled as a starter in his first couple years in the United States. His numbers did not improve when the organization used him as a reliever in A-ball in 2009, so they moved him back to the rotation and pushed him up through the system anyway. The result was Cabrera reaching the Triple A level as a 22 year old in 2011, but allowing a 6.60 ERA and 1.93 WHIP in the process.
The Cubs moved him back to the bullpen in 2012, and Cabrera finally broke through. He nearly doubled his strikeout rate while cutting his walk rate in half, and allowed a 3.11 ERA in 55 innings between Double and Triple A. This led to a late season call-up to the majors where Cabrera allowed a 5.40 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 21 2/3 innings. His 3.83 FIP suggests that he got unlucky, but a low home run rate and 1.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio indicated that his 4.59 xFIP was closer to the truth.
Cabrera's success in 2012 led the Cubs to move him back to the rotation for a while in 2013, but then shuttled him back to the pen down the stretch. He logged six more MLB innings, allowing three runs on seven hits. Cabrera was designated for assignment by the Cubs at the end of spring training in 2014, then sent to Triple-A Iowa. He pitched exclusively in relief, allowing a 3.29 ERA and 5.13 FIP in 65 2/3 innings. He was released by the Cubs in November and signed by the Tigers in early December.
Cabrera is a 26 year old right-hander who possesses a big fastball and biting slider. He has averaged 94 miles per hour with the fastball in 32 career appearances at the MLB level, but reports indicate that he can reach back for more when necessary. His slider sits in the low-to-mid 80s, and was rated as the best slider in the Cubs' farm system by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season. Cabrera was also working on a changeup when he was pitching in the rotation, but he may be at the point where dropping the changeup allows him to work as a fastball-slider power pitcher.
There isn't much in the way of actual scouting on Cabrera, and what little I've found pretty much tells us everything that PitchFX and his other numbers already have. One prospect hound, John Arguello of Chicago Now, was optimistic about Cabrera prior to his 2012 breakout season, when the team used him as a reliever.
The upside is that he's just 22 and has reached AAA. The Cubs have continued to groom Cabrera as a starter. The reason is that the 6'4 right hander features a fastball that can touch 97 mph with movement that he can carry late into games. Other than that great fastball, the rest of Cabrera needs a lot of work. He has a slider that varies from outstanding to mediocre and a developing changeup. His mechanics are inconsistent and he lacks any kind of deception in his delivery. It's a lot to put together, but if he does he can be a legitimate starter. Otherwise, his fastball/slider combination alone would make him a solid relief prospect.
The quintessential scout’s guy, Cabrera has scaled the heights of Triple-A at age 22 despite awful numbers (fewer striekouts than you’d like, a ton of walks and hits allowed, ERA figures north of 5.00) at each of his last three stops. His fastball has pushed him through, as has the lack of pitching depth in the system, but in order to be even a useful reliever, he will need to develop some skill beyond throwing the ball 100 miles an hour.
Meanwhile, this guy was a bit more simplistic when Cabrera was called up in 2012.
What should we expect from him?
Cabrera had a lot of success blowing away hitters as a reliever in 2012, and the Tigers will be looking for him to harness his excellent raw stuff again in 2015. He struck out 74 batters in 55 innings that season while walking just 14. It was the only time he finished a full season with a walk rate under three batters per nine innings since arriving in the U.S., and he has not been able to get back to that level of dominance since. Part of this may be due to the Cubs jerking him back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, but one would think that his numbers would have bounced back while pitching out of the bullpen in 2014. However, he walked 30 batters in 65 2/3 innings and allowed a slightly higher home run rate than usual, resulting in an ugly 5.13 FIP.
His fastball velocity is also a bit of a concern. A 94 mile per hour heater isn't too shabby, but with reports that Cabrera was in the high 90s and touching 100, one has to wonder what exactly is going on. Maybe he commands the fastball better this way? Maybe his fastball straightens out if he throws it too hard? There are a few possibilities beyond the general panic that usually accompanies a drop in a pitcher's velocity.
Cabrera is a longshot to make the team directly out of spring training, but is in a great position if he wants to make it back to the major leagues. The Tigers need bullpen help and are leaving no stone unturned when searching for it, and Cabrera has the kind of power arm that they love. If he can get back to what made him successful a few years ago, he could provide some solid innings at the MLB level in 2015.