Reds' Cabrera has shot at comeback
Utility man making strong case with impressive spring showing
SARASOTA, Fla. -- When the Reds signed Jolbert Cabrera to a Minor League contract in January and invited him to Spring Training, it was one of those transactions that didn't get much notice.
Cabrera hasn't appeared in a Major League game since 2004. He is 35 years old, and had been hampered by health issues the last two years.
Seen by some observers as just another veteran trying to fight off the twilight of his playing career, few gave Cabrera a chance to stick with the Reds even though new manager Dusty Baker has a track record of giving equal opportunity to veterans.
Yet with the season only a couple of weeks away, Cabrera's chances of making a comeback have risen dramatically as a result of circumstances.
Cabrera has been solid at the plate and in the field. Other candidates for a utility role haven't fared as well and Cabrera's versatility and experience have also enhanced his case.
The big thing that stands out so far has been Cabrera's bat.
"Even his outs are [hit] hard," Baker said. "He's hit four or five balls hard on the nose and has nothing to show for it. It's not only hits, when you're stinging the ball that counts to me big time because that means there's a lot of hits right around the corner if you keep stinging the ball, you know what I'm saying?"
Through Friday's games, Cabrera is hitting .344 this spring, and either leads or ranks among the top three on the team in average, runs (7), hits (11), RBIs (11), doubles (4) and total bases (15).
Cabrera, the older brother of White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera, can play just about anywhere.
Though primarily a second baseman, he has played 30 or more games at every position -- except catcher and pitcher -- over the course of his career. In Cabrera's last season in the Major Leagues with the Mariners, he recorded double-digit games at third base, first base, left field, second base and shortstop.
"The second year there, I started getting sick," Cabrera said. "Then I got hurt. Last year [with St. Louis] I got appendicitis in April."
The appendectomy ended any chance of a 2007 comeback for Cabrera. He spent the offseason getting back in shape and hoping for another shot.
When the Reds came calling this offseaon, Cabrera came running -- and hasn't slowed down since he got here.
"He loves baseball," Baker said. "One thing for sure, when you go to Japan, you're going to learn how to hit the breaking ball, or they're going to send you home. Those guys over there, they've got some movement."
Baker is not at all surprised at what Cabrera's shown after the stint overseas.
"Cecil Fielder came back [from Japan], Davey Johnson came back," Baker said.
Cabrera said he is "100 percent back" when asked about his health.
"I am doing what I have to do, I'm not trying to do too much," Cabrera said. "The same that I've been in my career in the big leagues, a utility player [who can] play all over the place."
Cabrera as a viable option could create a ripple effect if he makes the roster.
Ryan Freel, for example, is a possibility to start in center field, but the Reds love Freel's ability to plug holes at other positions. If Cabrera wins a utility spot, Baker might be more willing to look at Freel as a starter. Or Freel, who has trade value and is signed through 2009, could perhaps be packaged in a deal for more pitching.
Those are considerations for the weeks ahead. For now, however, that little noticed winter transaction might turn out to pay noticeable dividends for both Cabrera and the Reds come summer.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.